On Demonstrations and Virtue Signaling

QUESTION ONE: Are demonstrations and protest marches worth it? Or are they just feel-good activism, reinforcing people’s beliefs and making them feel like they’re taking action but not creating any real change?

Question Two: Is there value in expressing opinions against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression? Or is it merely “virtue signaling”—a way of marking progressive in-group status and making people feel superior without any real effect?

When humanists and skeptics try to change people’s minds, we often overestimate the effectiveness of evidence and rational arguments. We care passionately about these— they’ve changed our minds on many occasions, so we assume they’re the best persuasion techniques for everyone, every time. And I’ll include myself in that critique.

But there are many other methods of persuasion that can be every bit as effective. Sometimes more so. And one of the most effective methods of persuasion is simply making a public showing of what we think.

People are more likely to believe what the people around them believe. Or, to be more accurate: people are more likely to believe what they think the people around them believe. This isn’t a controversial statement. Nor should it be; there’s lots of research backing it up. One of my favorite examples is the experiment where everyone in a room says something that’s clearly not true—looking at a set of lines, for instance, and saying which two are the same length. The subject of the experiment typically goes along with the crowd, openly stating that different-sized lines are the same, and even believing it.

Trusting the opinions of people around us is a deep-rooted cognitive bias, with powerful evolutionary forces behind it. (After all, if our ancestors carefully examined the evidence and weighed the pros and cons every time their neighbors shouted, “Tiger!” they wouldn’t have lived long enough to have descendants.) And this isn’t just true of factual statements. It’s true of moral positions. We’re more likely to agree with widely believed statements of true or false and with popular perceptions of right and wrong.

And while this has obvious downsides, the tendency to think what other people think isn’t completely absurd. As I’ve written before, other people are a reality check. Our opinions are sometimes wrong, and our perceptions aren’t always correct. Our brains are loaded with cognitive biases, and the people around us can usually see our biases better than we can. Of course, thinking for ourselves is a fine and important value to hold, but it has to be weighed with other values—including humility. This is one of the hardest balancing acts of human life: being confident without being stubborn, being open-minded without being a weathervane, knowing when to stick to our guns and when to change our minds.

It makes even more sense to listen to the chorus when it comes from people with expertise. When climate scientists tell us we’re wrong about climate change, when biologists tell us we’re wrong about evolution, it makes sense to stop and think about whether or not we’re right. That’s true for scientific expertise—and life expertise. Women are the experts in sexism, black and brown people the experts in racism, poor people the experts in poverty and class, trans people the experts in transantagonism, in a way that people outside those groups will never be. We should treat these folks as if they know what they’re talking about. Of course experts aren’t always right, and we shouldn’t follow all of them unthinkingly. But when a whole lot of experts disagree with us, at the very least it should make us stop talking for ten minutes and carefully consider the possibility that we might be wrong.

What does all this have to do with political demonstrations and public statements of opinion? Simple. The mere act of stating our opinions can be immensely effective in changing people’s minds.

That’s literally what “demonstration” means. When thousands or millions of us march in the streets, we’re demonstrating to the people around us that we think X and not Y. When we tell someone at a party that their sexist jokes aren’t cool, or speak up on social media when someone says something racist, we’re showing them that we find their actions unacceptable. And yes, it changes people’s minds. It may not do it overnight—it probably won’t. No method of persuasion reliably changes minds overnight. But it has a real effect. And it’s especially powerful when it comes from lots of different people, and keeps happening over weeks and months and years. It’s like water on rock.

This can be especially true when our opinions aren’t the most common or popular. You know those experiments I was talking about, where people go along with what everyone else says even when it’s obviously not true? Similar experiments show that when just one other person says, “No, that’s not true, this other thing is true instead,” people are less likely to go along with the wrong-headed crowd. Even one person speaking up can inspire people to re-examine their opinions. And it can give people the courage to express their own disagreements out loud.

Many atheists and humanists know this first-hand. When you ask nonbelievers what changed their mind, part of the answer will often be, “I heard about other people who didn’t believe.” That’s rarely the whole story, but it’s often one of the cracks in the foundation that gets them thinking about an idea that was previously unthinkable. And when you ask nonbelievers what makes them more comfortable being open about their nonbelief, a big part of the answer will often be, “I see other people speak their mind.” Coming out as atheists and humanists has a snowball effect. It makes people rethink religion; it makes people feel safer speaking up once they do let go of their beliefs—and that, in turn, makes other believers question their faith.

It’s a funny thing. The human tendency to think what others think can obviously be abused. It can lead to groupthink, unquestioning obedience, mob rule. But it can also be used in the opposite way: to make people question, and to give people courage to speak unpopular truths. And it can be extra powerful when it’s teamed up with evidence and rational argument.

Speaking up changes minds. And it emboldens others to speak up. It is not futile.