Persuasion and summer

Falasarna, Crete (April 3, 2021 - Mehran Khalili)

We’re 11 editions in, and we’ve reached the end of the first season of this newsletter. It's about to take a break for August, and come back bright and sharp in September.

How to convince

But first, something that's been bouncing around my head this week.

Understandably, there’s now an effort to drive up vaccination rates against COVID. I listened to this Sam Harris podcast with health expert Eric Topol. It’s pitched as an attempt to convince the vaccine hesitant to get their shots.

I admire Sam Harris’ work, and the interview is eloquent and fact-filled. But it fails in its mission. I’d argue that all it does is make vaccinated people (like me) feel good about their decision… while pushing people who are hesitating further away.

If you want to know why, these pieces are worth your time. They explore where our public health messaging is going wrong (Sam's interview included), and propose fixes.

There are lessons for activist citizens in this, since persuading people of our cause is part of our toolkit. I need to think more about it, but here’s where I am right now in terms of a suggesting a way forward:

If you want to convince people who think differently to you, don’t infantilise or disparage them. (Doing so makes them harden their position and cohere.) Avoid labelling them, especially with terms they wouldn’t use for themselves (like ‘populists’, ‘racists’ but also ‘covidiots’ and ‘anti-maskers’). Don’t try to use fear or shame as a motivator; it will only drive them away. Don’t throw facts at them and hope they’ll change their minds — it doesn’t work.

Instead, acknowledge people’s concerns. Meet them where they are. Focus on how they can benefit if persuaded. Treat them with respect — it isn’t that hard. Acknowledge mistakes made. Admit what we don’t know. Explain how we know what we know. And make people aware that if they opt not to be persuaded, you may not agree with it – but you will accept it.

Related: here’s a selection of COVID vaccination campaign ads. I like the New Zealand one. It's not the best campaign ad ever made, but it calls out our common enemy — COVID, not The Other — uses humour, and shows how we can all benefit from getting vaccinated against this disease. (Contrast it with this one from Australia.)

New Zealand's COVID vaccine ad: upbeat

Where we’re at with SUBVRT

OK so with that out of the way, here’s a quick look back at what I’ve published on SUBVRT so far:

There’s also a series of podcast interviews (including transcripts for each, if you prefer the article format):

I’ve only managed to put out a few interviews per year (I know...). But there are more coming, including one I'm in the process of editing. To make sure you don’t miss them, subscribe on iTunes, Google, Spotify or RSS. (I’ll also flag them in this newsletter when they’re out.)

Platanias, Crete (July 10, 2021 - Mehran Khalili)

Some thoughts on the journey

SUBVRT — the newsletter, the site, the podcast — has been a hugely gratifying project for me so far.

In particular, committing to a weekly newsletter has forced me into a writing schedule, and laid bare the (many) flaws in my process. It has obliged me to organise my thoughts — and a decade of notes, scribbles and diagrams (and I’m still only midway through). It has pushed me to articulate and develop my positions on activism.

And it has led to detailed, generous exchanges with many of you, which have expanded my mind and shifted my views.

I plan to develop SUBVRT much further. I’ll be spending August tweaking my process, and doing technical and support work on it (as well as taking a summer break).

One thing: the point of SUBVRT is to be useful to you, my activist friend. If there are things you’d like me to cover, or if you have feedback, please let me know!

And now, I’ll let you get on with your summer. See you back here on August 31.

Stay safe,


Kefalari, Peloponnese (July 24, 2021 - Mehran Khalili)
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