Brené Brown: Hi, everyone I am Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: Ooh man, I love this two-part series, Barrett how good was this?
Barrett Guillen: Whoo?!
BB: Today, I’m talking to Anand Giridharadas, author of The Persuaders, subtitle At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds and Democracy. Anand has my heart and my mind, and he’s got my democracy too.
BB: I don’t know how you can have that, but boy, this… Have you ever seen me tear up a book like this book?
BG: I have not.
BB: I bet, I don’t want to be hyperbolic here, but I bet 25% of it is highlighted, underlined, or has an exclamation point so much so that it became meaningless. I had to actually start hierarchically ranking the importance of the different colors. It’s just so good. This is a two-part special around Anand’s book, and every now and then I come across something that makes me think in a completely new way, and this was one of those times. Persuasion, the ability to reach across difference and believe that others are movable and that I have the capacity to be moved, as the heart of democracy. I’m so glad you’re here for this conversation. Welcome to Unlocking Us and get ready to be persuaded.
BB: Before we get started, let me introduce you to Anand Giridharadas. He is the author of the international best seller, Winners Take All, The True American, and India Calling. He’s a former foreign correspondent and columnist for the New York Times. We’re going to hear a lot about his story, which I think is… What did you think? So good, right?
BG: Yeah, I couldn’t believe how… Wait until you hear about his job in India.
BB: Yeah, his first job there, yeah. It’s a whole new insight on consulting.
BB: Anyway, so former correspondent and columnist for the New York Times for more than a decade. He’s also written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Time. He’s the publisher of the newsletter, The.Ink. He is an on-air political analyst for MSNBC. He’s received the Radcliffe Fellowship, the Porchlight Business Book of the Year Award, Harvard University’s Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanism and Culture, and the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. He lives in Brooklyn. They have two kids, who is they? He’s married to a total… Yeah, drum roll, fan favorite of Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead, Priya Parker. Let’s jump in.
BB: Welcome to Unlocking Us.
Anand Giridharadas: Thank you so much for having me.
BB: Oh, my gosh, we were laughing before we started actually taping, at the condition of my book and my 14 pages of notes, my color-coded sticky notes, color-coded highlights. I was trying, as I went through the book, to capture everything I thought was important, but I was highlighting more than I wasn’t highlighting, then I realized I needed a way to rank order the level of importance, but I changed approaches six times.
AG: That’s amazing. It’s very moving to me, and it’s also… It makes me think that a book is one of the few products that someone sells where you want people to destroy it after they buy it. You want them to shred it apart through all the notes and all the labeling and all the underlining. You want it to get gritty. And so, I love that you have a gritty copy.
BB: Oh, I have a really gritty copy that I have read at home, read outside, taken on four flights to re-read, and I actually found myself reading a passage of it twice to two different people that were sitting next to me on flights.
AG: You are that person.
BB: I am that person. So, the book we’re talking about is, of course, The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy. Whoah, wow! The Guardian called it a thinky book.
BB: Did you read that?
AG: I did. I wasn’t sure what to make of that one.
BB: It is a thinky book.
AG: I can’t tell if it’s a British compliment or a British insult, but it felt perfect.
BB: It depends on their mood, I think.
BB: I’ve got so much interest in every question, but I want to start with this one. Tell us your story. Walk us back to the very beginning.
AG: Of my life?
AG: Let’s do it. Let’s unlock. [chuckle] I am the son of Indian immigrants, who had me in the major metropolitan world capital of Cleveland, Ohio. My parents grew up in post-independence, India, in a time that was incredibly stifling to each of them for different reasons. My mother, I think, experienced that kind of stifling primarily as a woman in an incredibly patriarchal culture, where the answer to the question, “Can I do X?” Was usually a preemptive no, whether that was study or whether that was go to the movie theater, or whether that was go to a party. And my father kind of experienced that stifling in different ways as a person who was setting out in the world getting an education, wanting to work, do things with that kind of raring energy of a young person in a society that was closed to the world, had a kind of struggling experiment with socialism after independence, and really denied young people opportunities to realize their dreams. And so my father wanted to come study in America, pre-internet. So, he had a friend who was applying to business school, he just applied to the same business school that his friend was applying to. There was so much less… You go to small towns in India today, people know people research things, right?
AG: Back in those days, you applied to go with a friend and he came to graduate school in America, went to business school, and my mother and he got together after that, and she came to America really primarily because of him. That’s my origin and it’s an important origin because I think, and in the conversation, we’ll get into with The Persuaders, I have become someone who has a lot of thoughts about America today and what we’re not doing right, and what we need to do better. But my story also starts with two people who left their country because they were pursuing something here, and I will never forget all that they and we have found here and the incredible opportunity in this country to become American, which is not actually something that exists in many countries in the world. There’s a lot I admire in Europe about their safety nets. There’s a lot I admire in a lot of places about a lot of things, but the idea that you can uproot yourself and become part of this experiment and that that becoming is a kind of pretty widely accepted thing that we do at scale, hundreds of thousands of times a year, all these new people becoming Americans. And that this happens under Republicans and Democrats, and broadly speaking, is accepted by a very large number of people. It’s a remarkable thing and is in many ways the seed of my story as an American.
AG: I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, very racially integrated suburb, but unusually racially integrated suburb, subject of many documentaries and books. And when I was 7, my parents, this is a true funny story, I think they had an adrenaline rush of being immigrants. It was really hard at first and scary, and you’re like, “Oh, can we make this work, or are we just going to fall through the cracks?” And then they kind of leveled out. They got it. They had the house and the two kids and the two cars. They got it. They got their American suburban dream, and I think they were kind of bored having gotten there. And so, they said, “Let’s do it again. Let’s be immigrants again a second time. Let’s pick another country.”
BB: They had that post-goal surge.
AG: Yes, exactly, exactly.
BB: Oh, wow!
AG: And so, my dad had an opportunity to move to France for his work. And he said, “Great, let’s do it.” So, we moved to France. My poor mother who had gone from Bombay, India, one of the most exciting, overwhelming but exciting, cities on Earth to Cleveland, Ohio, which is not that, was thrilled by the opportunity to go to Paris. We all moved to Paris. We had three years there that were beautiful, that were full of art and culture and sites and all the things that one knows Paris and France have, we traveled, or we could drive to other countries within four or five hours, that’s mind-blowing for a 7-year-old. However, from the moment we arrived in that country, it was incredibly clear that it would never belong to us, and so my understanding of America in all its flaws and complexity and awful history and struggles to live up to what it has promised is also colored by the reality that my parents tried the same thing a second time somewhere else in a supposedly advanced, progressive society. My parents, by the way, were 10 years ahead in their careers at that point, they were 10 years more sophisticated at that point, they had more means, and on day one, it was very, very clear, you will never become of this, you can be here, you can appreciate our wine and cheese and whatever, but this will never belong to you. And so when I think about…
AG: Not to get to the end of the story, but when I think about my work now, I try to hold in balance, in a way that I think some people who I agree with on issues struggle to do. The truth that this country has got a lot of work to do, and that this country is engaged in a pursuit that most countries in history have never even been interested in pursuing. To be a country made of all the world where anybody in theory can become of it, and I think that is an awesome, extraordinary, incredibly weird goal by the standards of human history, and my family really lived it through this kind of weird science experiment, of these double…
BB: Yeah, like a double-blind test. [laughter]
AG: Again, it was as close as you could get to a randomized controlled trial with a few children and a lot of suitcases, and to kind of fast forward from there, we came back to America. They settled in the Washington, DC area, where I kind of really became very interested in politics through osmosis. My family would sit and watch Meet the Press when I was in middle and high schools, around the Sunday breakfast table we’d kind of linger.
BB: The Tim Russert years?
AG: Yes, these were the Tim Russert years, and he was such a master and he would just watch… I write about politics now. I probably knew more senators’ names when I was 17 than I do now.
AG: You know?
AG: I mean, if you just quizzed me on Oregon, maybe I could remember, but I definitely knew it when I was 17. And one of the… I think maybe things that was unusual about my career, I think there’s been a lot of advice in recent decades to young people to try lots of things before you settle in a career, by the way, it’s also like the dating advice that we give people. And I think there’s a lot of value in educating yourself about your options and not getting stuck in things. I think all of that is true. My career story was very different, in that I actually became really clear, really, really quickly, exactly what I wanted to do. In high school I started writing for the school paper, and once I started writing high school newspaper articles, I essentially had been working on variants of that problem since I was 15. When I do it today is I can feel it in my… It’s the same work that I found when I did that. I feel like an athlete who has one hit that I do, and I’ve just been practicing, attempting to hit a home run over the left… The third baseline or whatever my move is in sports or a particular kind of throw in football or something like… Or a particular kind of backhand. Because I got to it so early, I just knew when I started writing.
AG: I was studying English and History in my sophomore year of high school, and it really clicked for me of like, “This is just a study of people.” And it always felt like it was kings and queens and memorizing weird poems, and somehow, I had these really good English and History teachers in sophomore year of high school, at the same time. And they were both PhDs, which is unusual in high school, but somehow that was the first and only time that I had that level of they were college professors who had come to teach in high school. Same year, same semester, and I was like, “Oh, English and History… “I don’t go to a Math and Science person in part because my parents sort of pushed that as Indian immigrants. My dad’s an engineer. And I just had this breakthrough like, “Oh, English and History is the study of people. It’s a study of why people are like what they’re like, why I’m like what I’m like, why I feel what I feel.” And that same semester, first semester of sophomore year of high school I started writing for the school paper, Horizon, it was called.
AG: I think that semester of sophomore year of high school, I just knew that was the activity I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I have since added some other activities like sitting talking to you on a podcast, which I’m so delighted to do, and giving talks every now and then, going on TV a handful of times a year. Those are all ancillary activities. I could drop all of them in a heartbeat without any injury to my soul. The thing that I found that semester of high school, sitting at a desk with some thoughts, with some… No, not only thoughts, I’m not a fiction… Like with some thoughts, with some material from the world, some unorganized things people have said, some documents, some grist from the world with some of my own reflections and just making sentences and then making those sentences, stringing a few of them into a paragraph, that basic thing. It was just so electric to me and powerful when I discovered it. And I got very lucky the last part of senior year in high school I got to… Gosh, I’m not even done with high school, Brené.
BB: I’m riveted. I’m just riveted. Come on.
AG: Yeah, we’re only going to be here about 12 more hours. So senior year of high school we did this thing called senior project, where you had to kind of do an internship for the last month of school instead of being at school. And I was very fortunate to go to this school called Sidwell Friends in Washington. It’s an incredible school. And there were these phone directories back then. Now, it’s kind of harder. My kid’s school, you got to go look online. We had these printed phone directories they’d send home with home numbers. And I found this editor at the New York Times who was a parent in another grade at the school. And I called her home phone number. Her name is Jill Abramson and she ended up becoming the editor of the New York Times.
BB: I was going to say… [laughter]
AG: She was like a junior editor in Washington at the time. I called Jill, I think probably in the fall or winter of 1998 and said, “I got this internship opportunity coming up in May or June. Do you want the opportunity to be my boss, kind of thing?” And Jill is like famously a little bit matter of fact, and she was like, “I am managing the coverage of the impeachment of the president of the United States right now. I’m sorry. I just don’t have time to talk about this.” Okay. So I took that as a sign that I should call her back in like about a week. So, I did.
AG: And so, I did, and I got a kind of similar reaction. And that was that. I was then destined to become a lawyer or something. And when Clinton was acquitted in the impeachment trial, maybe in February or March of that year, I don’t remember, of 1999, I get a call, unsolicited, from Jill saying, “I’m sorry, I was a little bit gruff on the phone. I was managing impeachment coverage for the New York Times. It was a lot. Would you still be interested in that internship?” And I very much was. I went in there the first day in that May or June internship, she says, “So what do you want to write about?” And I’m looking at her like, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea. I’m a high school student.” I just wanted to be around. I wanted to see these people up close.
BB: I just want to be around words.
AG: Yeah, I felt it was like a trip to the zoo for me. I just wanted to watch these people get coffee and type things and she’s like, “No, we write things here. We report things here. You should do that.” So I did. I wrote two stories kind of in her general beat area of money and politics, lobbying, that kind of stuff. And I told you when I was in high school and feeling that power of writing, this is now a few years later, and that same power of making the sentences, making the paragraphs, seeing the thing, I’m obsessive. I tapped the desk to hear the rhythm of it over and over and over doing all of that. And then at 17 years old with the added twist of, “Talk to some editors around 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 PM at night about some final things.” No email back then, or maybe not that much. The next day in a little blue bag in front of your house and in front of a million other people’s houses, this little thing you wrote on your computer the night before and talked to a couple editors about is just in a bag, this object. And I remember, to this day, to this day, I’m 41 years old, to this day on any day, I don’t write for the New York Times. I did for 11 years after college, but I don’t write for the Times in any kind of formal way anymore. I do a few times a year a piece or a book review. I will still get up early at 41 years old and go get the bag if I’m in a place where I have the bag.
AG: Go get that bag, open it, look at it, touch it, go back to sleep. So that was kind of the very fortuitous beginning and then Jill helped me kind of get internships here and there at the Times. I kind of tried to hang around and then when I graduated from… I went to the University of Michigan for college. And when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life at the end of that, you’re finally where the gravy train ends, and you got to go make your own living that crucial juncture. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I knew exactly the kind of writing I wanted to do. I felt like I wanted to be a foreign correspondent or something. I really tried to do that with the New York Times and everybody was like, “No, that’s the really big fancy job after you do other stuff.” Like, “No.” So I kept noodling or I applied for anything and it was just very hard. And journalism is still like that. It was even more opaque then. Now, because of some of the diversities stuff, there has been some initiative to make it less opaque and not have to know someone who knows someone to get in.
AG: I had this in with Jill and it was still just so hard to figure out like, “There’s no escalator. There’s no entry level jobs.” It’s like the whole thing is just like figuring it out somehow. It’s a very weird profession in that sense, and terribly exclusionary. What I came to, and Jill really helped me with a crucial piece of advice, she said, “Don’t spend the next 10 years of your life after college hanging around the building trying to sneak your way into this institution or some other institution. Go out into the world, into a place of discomfort, into a place that is challenging to you and writing and art will come from that collision.”
AG: And I thought about, “Okay, what are some places that make me uncomfortable?” and then it quite quickly came to me that India, where my parents had come from, a place… the first fact about which I ever learned was that my parents had chosen to leave it, a place I had visited many times in childhood but had always disliked. Love my grandparents, love the people in my family. It’s a very hard country. It’s a very bleak country. I’d never seen children in that condition who looked like me, living on the street in that way until I made this trip to India. Very tough relationship to India. Also just being a kid who wanted to assimilate and not wanting to be different. My last name is Giridharadas, so you can imagine what middle school was like for me. So, India was not high on my list.
AG: But when I got Jill’s advice to make myself a writer by going somewhere that would force a kind of grappling with discomfort, it was immediately obvious to me that was the place to go. When I had been reading one of my literary heroes V. S. Naipaul. He was a fiction writer and kind of helped develop this form of book called “the travel book,” which really has become a form model for most of my books, which is just traveling to places and doing a series of interviews and profiles of people that amount to a kind of portrait of a place without being the definitive statement on anything. And I had read some of his work on India and other places and I just decided I wanted to get to India. And I tried to get journalism jobs in India, could not, very hard.
AG: And so, I decided, in a strange decision, to get a job as a management consultant, because they would send anybody who had studied anything, including the History of Political Thought, anywhere. [laughter] So I was a 21-year-old expert, so-called, in the European History of Political Thought, who was then sent to India to advise pharmaceutical companies… My first thing was, “Can you advise this pharmaceutical company on leadership development?” and I was like, “Sure. Do you have any pamphlets on leadership development I could read or any… ” I don’t know…
AG: Sure, sure.
BB: You couldn’t talk to him about Napoleon or something, something you had studied.
BB: Let’s do the Napoleon plan. And I remember, I was literally… I moved to India, I was like, “Okay, this is kind of… ” I’m doing it, I’m doing it, and then I have this job and within two weeks, they’re like, “Okay, second biggest pharma company in India, all you got to do is just redesign their leadership development system.” And I’m like, “Great. Who am I working with? Who am I assisting on this important effort?” They’re like, “No, no. You’re running that initiative.”
AG: I was like, “I’m running it?” I’m 21, right. My thesis was about Machiavelli and St. Augustine, so incredibly prepared for a pharmaceutical company leadership in India, so much insights in St. Augustine. The early Christian thinkers really had a lot to say about that.
BB: Oh yeah, a ton on leadership.
AG: Ton on leadership. So, I’m there, they’re like, “Here’s what you got to do, you just got to say like, what are the four traits of leaders of this company,” and I’m glad we’re not doing this on our leadership podcast, by the way, “What are the four traits of leadership at this company, and then you should just come up with like… ” And I was like, “Can I just pick any traits of leadership?” “They’re like, “Yeah, you can just make any four traits of leadership, but there has to be four.” [laughter] And then they were like… I just want everyone listening to this who’s ever gotten a leadership evaluation at your company to know how this stuff is actually made. [laughter]
AG: It was me when I was 21, having just studied St. Augustine. “And then on each of the four traits of leadership, we want you to create a rating of 1-4, and you just say, ‘What is a one on that? What is a two on that? What is a three on that? What is a four on that?'” So, I made this grid. I made up four traits of leadership, one was initiative; I remember that what is a scoring on each one. And then I remember sitting in this room in Ahmedabad, India with the CEO of the company, the head of HR at this company, who reputedly kept a small pistol in his sock, this bald-headed man, [laughter] just incredible, incredible character in this town, his name was Ganesh, which is a God that is not associated with keeping a pistol in your sock, but…
BB: I was going to say, that’s not on brand.
AG: His human avatar was quite different. As you know, HR is a tricky business. [laughter] You got to pack that heat. And I remember sitting at this table with the directors who flew in for this meeting, and we went through… There were 40 or 50 leaders at this company, and I remember the room, based on my grid that I completely made up in a day because I had to, they evaluated the 40 or 50 top executives in this company on how good leaders they are and who should be fired or who should be promoted based on my made-up grid. And then it happened. It was like, to my horror, I’m like, “Well, no, no, no, I don’t know, I don’t know, maybe you should not get rid of that guy. Maybe that guy is not in fact the next CEO.” And so, it was an amazing education for some of the things that I would go on to write about, just about, I think in business, a lot of the, frankly, made-up stuff that goes into a lot of business advice and how removed it is from the context and from the actual study of people, and I was very much doing that sort of reluctantly, but doing it.
AG: And the broader point was that working in business was not for me. And I immediately started looking for a journalism job in India once I was there. I managed to get one at the New York Times within about a year of getting to India. It was easier once you were there. Became a journalist, foreign correspondent for the Times in India, which was sort of my dream. Wrote the hell out of that story as hard as I could for several years. And it was a story about, I think that leads us in many ways to today, the India story… If I had been a China correspondent at that time, the story would have been like big news stories. It would have been like China devaluating the yuan would have been the kind of stuff I had to write about, or like China doing a certain military exercise with regard to Taiwan would have been something… So, I would have been chasing big stories that mattered to the world.
BB: Human rights violations, yes. Things you could see.
AG: Things you could see and things you don’t have a choice…
AG: Not to cover. They’re just the news.
BB: Right yeah.
AG: And China matters to the world in that way and did matter in that time. India kind of didn’t and doesn’t, and it’s just a little bit below that. There’s very few things that happen in India in a given day that are going to affect you where you live here in the United States. So as a foreign correspondent, it is a story about people and about humanity. And the story that I found there that I think very much carries through my work in some ways was the seed bed of the work and method that I’ve developed since. It was a story about psychological change amid big social, economic political forces changing. I was writing about those social, economic and political forces, but what I really glommed onto is my subject and my method was the kind of lived psychological and emotional change that people go through when processing and being buffeted by the more visible changes that are in the newspapers every day. So, the formal thing that was going on in India at that time was globalization had been let in in the ’90s and 2000s, and there was explosive growth, 6%, 7%, 8% GDP growth, which is a…
AG: If you’ve never lived in a society like that, it’s just an incredible thing that changes the society, remakes it every few years, makes it unrecognizable to itself. Those are the formal things going on, big government efforts to empower downtrodden castes by giving them set-asides in universities and other things. All kinds of big things going on. But what became my subject was what people were going through amid these forces. When you are a woman in one of the most patriarchal societies in the world and your dad doesn’t want you to go work, and then your dad finds out that ICICI Bank is paying 15,000 rupees at the nearest branch half an hour away, and suddenly your dad’s like, “You should go get a job,” what is that inner experience for that daughter? What’s that inner experience for that dad?
AG: When the whole ordering principle of a society moves from a kind of caste status hierarchical fixed model to you are as great as the amount of money you can secure in this market economy, what does that do to people? How does it change? When people get a cell phone, I remember my first article, one of my articles about the cell phone arriving in India, which has become such a big phenomenon in that country, I was thinking about it, and I was like, “You know, the cell phone’s not a phone here. In this society, in this context, it’s a bedroom. It’s the first private space young people have ever had.”
AG: Young people do not have their own bedrooms in India, generally, unless they’re very affluent. So the cell phone in India matters because it’s a bedroom. The cell phone in India is like, I don’t know, cars in the ’50s in America. It was like private space where you could go be yourself.
BB: Mm-hmm. Freedom. Yeah, yeah.
AG: And so that really became, I think what has since become just like my method. I don’t write about central banks as a journalist. I don’t write about voting machines being tampered with. I don’t write about the Mueller investigation. I mean, I read that stuff and I know about that stuff. I write about people. And I think this is where your work and my work connect. I write about people through an emotional and psychological lens, living through the big political and other forces of our time. That started in that India work and it continued through when I came back to this country, wrote a book about hate crimes, hate crimes spree in Dallas, Texas, wrote a book about billionaires taking over the world and using the illusion of taking care of us to lubricate that kind of conquest. And then the new book, The Persuaders, which in many ways going back to that India heritage I was telling you, is about, I think, Americans living through an era of extraordinary change, change that I think we actually don’t often tell ourselves we are living through.
AG: I don’t think we’re living through anything less turbulent or dramatic than actually what I covered in India in an age of extraordinary growth in social upheaval. I think we’re living very much through a time of upheaval in this country in gender norms, in race, in the nature of what it means to be a good man, what it means to be a white person, what it means to not make things anymore if you live in North Carolina and find a new way to have esteem, what it means to be a man in West Virginia and find out that coal is not in fact a great way to power the world or your family and that shift changes in the shape of our economy, changes in what kind of education you need to attain to have a stable life. And we have put people through a lot over the last generation, much of it for good. I’m very happy most of these changes have happened. But we’ve put people through a lot. We are putting people through a lot. We’re expecting a lot of people. And I think one way to understand The Persuaders is a book that is trying to grapple with, how do we…
AG: In a time where we are putting people through a lot and a lot of people are having an allergic reaction to what we’re putting them through, how do we do better at fighting for the future so many of us seek by bringing more people into it, walking with more people and having an empathetic understanding of why there is so much allergy to the future that so many of us desire?
BB: I want to ask a question, because I think this is the right intervention point for the question because I’m brought into it by what you described observing in India and how it parallels in some ways with the upheaval that we’re experiencing. I agree with you a hundred percent. It has been, I hate to use the word trauma because I don’t even know what meaning it has anymore, but it has been fairly traumatic for a lot of sections of the US. What do you call the stage, or how do you describe this space where we are emotionally reacting to and feeling the amount of turmoil and change but have yet to register it cognitively. Do you understand what I’m asking?
AG: I do.
BB: I don’t think people cognitively understand the scope of change that we’re emotionally experiencing.
AG: I agree with that. Think about it this way, if you look at who populates public life, broadly defined, and public life, we could be talking about government, we could be talking about who goes into journalism, we could be talking about who are pundits on TV, but there’s some finite group of people, and they’re not that many, thousands of people who really disproportionately shape our understanding of what it is we’re going through, what the issues are, what’s at stake, some book publishers, some radio people, it’s a finite, relatively small number of people.
BB: Curators in some ways…
BB: Of the narrative.
AG: If you look at who most of those people are, what their interests are, they’re generally interested in things like laws and policies and facts and position papers and white papers and data and spreadsheets and things that they can touch and things that can be measured. And that’s good. I mean for a lot of history, human societies are run on like the intuition of one guy, that’s not necessarily a better way to go.
BB: Not great, yeah.
AG: But I think it has created a situation where the dominant thing that I have come to feel is going on when societies are living through change, which is millions and millions of people needing to emotionally and psychologically process the old them, the current grappling them, and some new as yet, not vivid, not visible them, that they are promised could exist and could be better than the old them, and could be happier than they are now, but they don’t believe it. They haven’t seen it. That to me is actually what is going on when we talk about politics, when we talk about economic change. That’s what’s actually happening. We talk about lived experience, another overused phrase. But that’s the lived experience of politics of economics…
BB: For sure, that is the lived experience of change no matter where it is, yeah.
AG: But while that would be really an obvious statement if we were talking about one person going in for therapy talking to another person, or if we were talking about a classroom traumatized by some event, somehow when we get to the scale of a society, we just kind of remove the psychological and emotional lens and we just talk about it in the realm of hard stuff, hard things, measurable, countable things. And so when I look at this moment, to get to the heart of what you are asking, I see… Of course, we can talk about building infrastructure, or do we do reparations, or all these policy questions, right? I’ll just tell you how my brain works and what I see, which is… There’s a lot of journalists who are more successful than me because they don’t see things this way, so this may not be the right way to see it. But what I see is a lot of people who kind of know their old certainties, know their old way of fitting into a certain ecosystem, they may have liked it, they may not have liked it, they may have problems with it, and who we’re trying to kind of usher into some 2.0 understanding of themselves.
AG: And so if you look at something like climate, there’s a million policy discussions. There’s “Should we do Green New Deal? Should we do solar credits? This and that.” But what I sense almost no one is talking about, except actually the people who are climate deniers who make very good ads, preying on what I’m about to say, what no one’s talking about is we’re actually asking all of us to have a completely transformed relationship to the Earth, to have completely different types of homes, to think about things we haven’t thought about, maybe eat differently, right? And when it’s framed entirely as this policy choice, I think we’re not leveling with people nor are we walking with people through what we are actually demanding, right?
AG: And I think we’re sometimes scared to do that because we think it’ll make it more demanding-sounding, or it’ll make it less popular than it already is. What I think happens is those coal guys in West Virginia, who by the way, don’t need to be necessarily educated about why coal is bad because so many of them have black lung. They know, but they’re still voting for it, right? I think we have to say clearly, we have not offered them a future as vivid to them and as clearly preferential to them that would pull them away from a wound they have in their own lungs. They’re clinging to a way of life and a wound. Thinking of myself as someone who’s trying to be a persuader. I don’t think of that as being on them. I kind of think of that as being on me.
BB: I agree, yeah.
AG: Clearly, we have not made the case.
BB: There’s been a failure.
AG: And then you look at race, we thankfully are living through a massive and honest reckoning with race in this country of a kind that, frankly, as Alicia Garza, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter says to me in the book, we have not had this kind of candid reckoning in her lifetime, maybe ever. The kinds of people who are talking about this, learning about this in school, who never grew up talking about this, never knew a thing about it, who are talking about it, it’s amazing. And once again, to get to the kind of society I think you and I want to live in that most people listening to this want to live in, is not just going to require some laws to be passed, although I’m a huge believer in laws being passed, and I’m a huge believer in that stuff making a difference and often leading the way, however, if we’re honest with ourselves, we are really asking tens of millions of people to have a different life conception of themselves, to sever themselves from certain sources of esteem…
AG: That were really meaningful to them. Totally problematic and toxic BTW, but that’s separated from the fact that those were people’s pillars, that’s how… who they knew themselves to be, and what we want, what I want for a world in which my Brown kids can have a good and flourishing and whole life, we need a lot of people to come to different understandings of themselves. And that’s white people, that’s also people of color needing to come to a different understanding of themselves that does not internalize oppression, there’s any number of… But a lot of people are going to need to go through a lot and be convinced and brought into a self-understanding that is as vivid to them and as convincing to them as the certainties they have now, however toxic those certainties are.
BB: If we talk about gender, again, we can pass some sexual harassment laws here and there, we can create exceptions to NDAs for sexual assault, we can nibble around the edges of things, we can go very hard in defense of reproductive justice or pick your issue, but again, I feel like we’re missing the even bigger thing going on, which is until about five minutes ago in human history, for generations and generations, generations going back, there were a bunch of ways of being a man that were considered totally fine, and that even good decent people who were men participated in. And as of five minutes ago in human history terms, last few decades, a whole bunch of those ways of being a man have rightfully been kind of not legally but outlawed. Not okay, right? Even if you had a great dad and a great grandfather who never treated women badly, never hurt anybody, right? The best case scenario of your dad and grandfather, guarantee you a lot of the ways in which they were men, some of the worst men today would not do some of those things.
BB: A hundred percent.
AG: There’s just been this blessed change in that direction. However…
BB: Swift. Swift and merciless.
AG: Swift. And we don’t tell the story of how much we’ve changed when we are telling the story of how much more we have to do.
AG: And it actually really undercuts our own victories. We have successfully, psychologically migrated tens of millions of white people into a new understanding of whiteness, into an understanding of whiteness, forget new. That’s happened in your or my lifetime. We have successfully psychologically migrated tens of millions of men in the society into a new, not a perfect, but there is some new kind of man that has emerged in our time, equal father, engaged, equal father. That’s a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the world happening in our time.
BB: In my lifetime.
AG: Right? And I remember reading this thing about, there’s almost no paintings of men holding their children until the 21st century, the 20th century, in the history of art. We’ve moved a bunch of men into that new, but we have not moved a bunch of others. And one way to understand a lot of the political unrest right now, I think, is that next batch of folks who do not want, right now, as the terms currently are, to be migrated across those humps. Who reject them. Some of whom are die-hard militant activists against that change to begin with, and there’s not maybe much that can be done there, but a lot more in the middle are people who I think we are failing to persuade that what we are offering in a new future, a future of racial equality, a future of gender equality, a future where this society can provide for all of us, no matter who we are, where we come from.
AG: I think in some fundamental way, we have failed to make the offering as alluring as it deserves to be. As it can be. I think we have failed to talk people through their anxieties, and I want to be very clear, this is a podcast, but I spoke about my heritage. I am Brown. I’m a person of color. I am not walking around excusing racists and racism. I have suffered from racists and racism, sometimes even from people close to me, and it’s the worst. It is the original sin of this country. But I think we are living in a moment where there is a die-hard fanatical group of people who want to obliterate all progress in the direction of greater human equality.
AG: And again, not sure what can be done there. I don’t think there’s that many of them, and then another much larger group of people who are neither burning things down, nor are they sold on the woke future, they are somewhere in that great mass of the still waking. They feel some intellectual affinity towards ideas like a more inclusive society, a society where everybody gets a shot, those kinds of things. They recoil at some of the trainings they have to go to at work, and by the way, it’s not only white people, it’s not only men.
BB: No, yeah.
AG: This actually cuts across all kinds of groups who are not sold on this future that we want people to live in. And so I think I wrote The Persuaders in part as an intervention, a loving intervention, with the kinds of people who I think share my desire to live in a more plural, egalitarian society where everyone can thrive, who share that fundamental goal, but who I think some of my allies in that pursuit, I think we have failed to attend to bringing enough people along with us. I think we have fallen into a pattern where we sort of assume people cannot change if they’re not with us now. We assume people aren’t capable of growth. We’ve fallen into a pattern where we expect people to come correct on their own time, educate themselves about issues and then show up once they’ve arrived, once they’re perfect. My vision, I think with this book, The Persuaders, is for something different. I want us to build movements and spaces, and a… frankly a pro-democracy, pro-human rights, pro-justice cause that is big and boisterous and self-confident enough to take in anybody on any stage of the journey and educate them in the movement, instead of having them come correct, once they have figured it all out. I want us to persuade, I want us to believe that we can actually change minds, and I want us to recognize that this fundamental challenge of moving tens of millions of Americans through what is honestly one of the great revolutions of consciousness in human history, the most powerful country in the world, of 80% white Christian country some years ago, voting by democratic means to change itself by opening it up to the world and become what it is becoming, which is a majority minority country, a super power of color, it will be within your and my lifetimes. No country has really done this. It is a remarkable thing. If you go to Europe, there’s immigrants, there’s Brown people in European countries, but the numbers are not the same, the trajectory is not the same, they’re all kept at a pretty comfortable level, they have their little kind of guest populations, but French-ness is not changing the way American-ness is changed.
AG: They’re not talking about the colonial era in France, the way we’re talking about 1619 here, they’re not talking about whether they should have a monarchy and Britain in a mainstream, the way we are grappling with original sin, there is a conversation here that is actually so powerful and so generative, and I want us to bring more and more people into that conversation, and I think we can.
BB: I have to say that when I finished the book, I was like, “Damn him.” I was intellectually reading about persuasion, but I’ve been persuaded.
BB: Without realizing it. I was so pissed.
AG: See what I did there.
BB: Yeah, I do. Okay, I want to get into the specifics of the book in Part Two, but before we leave, I want to do two things before we go into the second episode. One, I want to read this quote to you from the book, if it’s okay with you.
AG: Of course.
BB: I want to get your thoughts on it and then let me do that first. So, this is a quote about the culture of the write-off, how we write each other off, you write, “The tendency to write off is rooted in the assumption that differences of identity are unbridgeable, that people are too invested in their privileges and interests to change. That the failure to achieve change in the past predicts failure in the future, that people and their opinions are monolithic and strong rather than complicated and fragile, and therefore the purpose of politics is to protect yourself from Others, ‘capital O, Others,’ and galvanize your own, instead of trying to reach across.” Yikes, that felt so painfully spot on.
AG: And I want to be clear, I do that. This is not a ‘holier than thou book,’ this is a ‘more sinner than thou book.’ I have participated gladly in that culture of the write-off that has grown and I think folks listening to this will know that culture of the write-off in their own ways, maybe it’s the family members that you have just given up on, maybe it’s the town meeting that you just stopped going to because it wasn’t worth it anymore, maybe it’s the door-to-door organizing or activism, you stopped doing or kind of phone banking, you stopped doing. It shows up in so many ways. But what I think what I was trying to get at in that paragraph was the basic idea of a free society as opposed to a monarchy or a totalitarian society, is that a bunch of decisions land in the inbox of the village every day. Do we let these people into the village or do we not let them into the village, do we drain the…
BB: Drain the lake, yeah.
AG: Drain the lake or not drain the lake. Can this person play that sport or not, these questions arrive in your inbox no matter what kind of society you are, and for most of history, the way we handled those decisions landing in the inbox was, “Let one guy just decide.” And free societies by contrast, only existing in the last few hundred years, have concluded beautifully, one of the most powerful ideas in history, that the best way to handle those decisions is that we all talk it out 24/7 in a permanent rollicking, roiling conversation and resolve these decisions about the village through just permanent talk and occasionally registering our opinion and our vote, and if we give up on this basic notion that it is possible to change each other’s minds, because people who look like you will always think this, people will never get me because they don’t understand this.
AG: If we get to this place where our fundamental view of the Other is a bunch of immovable monoliths, I think we’re asking to be ruled again, I think we’re asking to go back to the norm of human affairs, which is just, it’s easier to just be ruled, it’s easier for one guy to make the decisions, and we’re going back to political violence as the norm of how human beings settled those disputes. If I can’t persuade you about the lake or about who gets into the village or about that sport, I can try to just eliminate you so you’re not in the decision with me, so then it’s just my choice. That’s kind of how we did things for much of history. We have built this incredibly fragile thing where we choose the future together through talk, and right now we’re squandering it.
BB: I want to play back something I think I learned and tell me whether I’ve got it right or not, and tell me if I don’t have it right, what I’m missing, because this was absolutely… I’m trying to decide whether I am going to tell you, it’s a new idea to me or a new frame. I think it started as a new frame, but I think it was absolutely a new idea. I don’t like it to be a new idea to me, but this messed me up a little bit, it was powerful for me, and I’m going to put it together with a tweet of yours, from several months ago.
AG: Oh, God.
BB: I know. I love your tweets fire. Okay, I want to see if I get this right. This was new to me, that persuasion, the ability to persuade and be persuaded, the ability to listen, to understand, to have new ideas, to challenge what we believe, this idea of persuasion is at the very heart of democracy.
BB: And once we believe that I will never be persuaded nor will I ever be able to persuade anyone else, it really sets us up for the end of democracy, because you write that, “We, when we talk about democracy ending,” this is your tweet, “we tend to picture that moment as a big bang, a stolen election, a coup, but the end of democracy might be a whimper, that it’s when all of us get used to the reality that even things that 90% of us want will not happen.” And so, when we believe that others are immovable, that we are immovable, that the conversation, the rumble, the hard, uncomfortable learning and unlearning, when we believe that has come to an end, we have rolled out a carpet for authoritarian rule, that it doesn’t matter that one person will make the decision and the decisions will be upheld by any means necessary. Do I have it close?
BB: You have it exactly right and in your trademark way of distilling it down. I think we are so focused, in the United States right now, and most people listening to this will be in the United States, but many will not be, we’re so focused on the particulars of our story right now in our democratic crisis right now, and the particular players and chapters in our democratic collapse, that we risk over-explaining, and you know this as a researcher, you can kind of over explain a phenomenon from the wrong or limited data. I mean, it’s not that the Electoral College and these other peculiarly American things are not important, but why is the exact same thing happening in India? Why is the exact same thing happening in Brazil? Why did the exact same thing happen in the Philippines? Why is this happening in Scandinavia? Right?
BB: Look at the Italian election.
AG: Italians, I forgot about that one because it’s so awful.
BB: New and awful.
AG: And she is the smartest, maybe, and the most articulate of the lot. She has some of that quality of the mid-20th century…
AG: Fascists. Some of the more recent ones in here and elsewhere have been a little more on the kind of dimwit side of the equation. She’s not a dimwit.
BB: And emotionally really smart and persuasive.
AG: Speaks in that level of the emotional and psychological that I was saying I feel is neglected by people who mean well.
AG: So why is this happening in Italy? Why is it happening in Brazil? Why is it happening here? Why is it happening in the Philippines? Why is it happening in Scandinavia? I think when you take that broader view, you say, it is not just the quirk of some system here and there, or one country or one history, it is a breakdown in the basic underpinning of all of these countries as democracies, which is that we can talk our way into the future together, that talk is essentially the best tool of future choosing, future making.
BB: Yes, and conversation and connection.
AG: And I know, and India is probably the other country going through this that I know the best, I don’t know the other ones super well, though I’ve visited and talked to people there. It’s the same deeper pattern that… surface things are totally different, but that basic pattern of, “People like that are beyond my reach. I am beyond their reach. Talk is futile. Changing minds is futile.” That write-off I think explains more about the democratic crisis around the world than anything I can think of.
AG: And the reason I’m hopeful, I do not want to sound dour to people, because I think I intended this as an incredibly hopeful book, I think once you see it that way, you say, “Well, in that case, actually, all is not lost. We just have a ton of work to do.” We have a lot of people we have to talk to, talk with, walk with…
BB: Listen to.
AG: Listen to, to process an era that has been incredibly discombobulating, confusing, bewildering…
AG: Threatening, also incredibly uplifting for all kinds of people.
BB: Yeah, no, yeah.
AG: Me and you among them.
BB: Oh, yeah.
AG: But we have to do a better job of talking people through the era and restoring faith, which is what I’m trying to do with this book, that we can choose the future through talk. I don’t think we want to contemplate actually what it looks like when we can’t.
BB: No. And I have to say, to me, it was an incredibly hopeful book, and I use words very carefully because the intersection of language and emotion is what I do. And you know hope is not an affect or an emotion, it’s actually a cognitive, behavioral process that is three pieces, it’s goal, pathway and agency. So, hope is actually people who have high levels of hopefulness see a goal that’s attainable, they develop a pathway to it, and they have a sense of agency about their ability not only to follow that pathway, but to plan B, C and D it when things get screwed up. And I really feel like, in terms of hopefulness, The Persuaders gives us a goal that’s historically, politically grounded in real experience, it gives us a pathway, and not just one, but many, based on different stories and experiences, and it gives us a sense of agency. So, I want to end part one right here, and then I want to jump to part two next week and just dig into some of the learnings from the book.
BB: Okay, this conversation just… I can’t wait for y’all to hear part two. I’m so glad you’re with us. You can go to brenebrown.com and find links to where you can get a copy of The Persuaders. You will read this book with your partner, with a book… It is the most amazing book club read. It’s a great book. I am reading it for a second time, Steve’s reading it. It’s just… I hate to use the word persuasive, but it’s a whole new way of looking at things, which I love. You can find links to everything on brenebrown.com on the episode page. We are glad you’re here. Stay awkward, brave and kind, and we will see you for part two next time. Bye. Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, it’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and Jaimi Ryan and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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