One About The Atmosphere

Want to change minds? Stop trying. Change the atmosphere instead.

One About The Atmosphere
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on February 27, 2022.

I’m going to give you a framework about persuasion and communication that I’ve found useful. I’m borrowing this framework from the writer and speaker Rob Bell,¹ who was the pastor at my church, back in the days when I was going to church, and if you like the way I construct my thoughts, you’ll probably like the way he does it.

There’s action. Action is about adjusting tactics to achieve measurable results. It’s about naming the kinds of things you can do about the way things are. Example: When you give people 5 simple steps to take to help trans teens currently being targeted by Texas Republican fascists for abuse and harm and death, and people take those steps, resulting in x amount of improvement along axis y over time period z, that’s an example of action.

Then there’s attitude. Attitude is about adjusting mindsets. It’s about changing beliefs around what kind of things can be done about the way things are. Example: when the legislative targeting of gay people by Florida Republican fascists becomes so shocking and overt that previously complacent people start to align in defense of marginalized people everywhere, innovating new ways of providing protection and aid, that is an adjustment in attitude.

Then there’s atmosphere. Atmosphere is about adjusting underlying ideas. It’s about changing foundational aspects that determine what “the way things are” can be. Example: when targeting trans and gay people for abuse and harm and death becomes so widely understood to be unacceptable fascist hatred that anyone belonging to a movement attempting it can expect to suffer the permanent professional and reputational damage that comes with being widely understood to be a hateful bigot—to such a degree that targeting trans people is no longer seen even by bigots as something that is possible—that’s an adjustment in atmosphere.

This is one about the atmosphere.

But now, a story.

Let me tell you about Minivan and Superpoke.

(Names have been changed to mock the guilty.)

I think I first joined The Superpoke around 2007 or so. I don’t remember if they’d dropped the “The” by then or not to simply become Superpoke, but this much I am sure of: I didn’t understand what it was or what it did.

I guess it’s not exactly fair to expect that any of us would understand what Superpoke was—which is an engine of world destruction—or what it does—which so far has been to destroy a fair amount of the world.

It’s sort of interesting to ponder how it is that Superpoke was able to become what it became, and do what it did.

I think it’s something to do with atmosphere.

Anyway, Superpoke was quite a site. You could share lists of the 50 songs that changed your life. You could talk about Homestar Runner. You could poke somebody. You could Super Poke somebody. You could “friend” somebody, which meant becoming suddenly aware of dozens or maybe hundreds of people you’d lost touch with, and seeing recent pictures of them that somehow managed to tell you more than your own mirror about how old you had become, and also you could see pictures of them taken years ago, back when all of you were young and more beautiful than you’d realized at the time, and so on. And I think there was a game about a Farm where you clicked on cows or something? I’m pretty sure there was a game about a Farm.

Also: it connected people in a way and on a scale that people had never connected before—which is not bad in and of itself. That’s a tool. As with any tool, the question is what that tool did, or what it was used to do.

And now Russia has invaded Ukraine.

Wow. That’s a weird turn I just took.

Am I blaming Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the social media giant Superpoke? I am not.

It’s a malicious site led by people willing to do malicious things if it’s profitable, and we all know that now, but in my own personal opinion, Superpoke did not invade Ukraine. But I’d say this much: it’s one player of many in creating an atmosphere that made this invasion possible.

We know, for example, that Superpoke has deliberately fine-tuned its algorithm to deliver the thing that gives it the most profitable engagement. This happens to be manufactured news carrying misinformation and lies and extremist far-right rhetoric operating on every possible metric of bigotry—which, it seems, is the brand of misinformation that spreads easiest through its vast and influential ecosystem.

Anyway. That’s Superpoke.

Now for Minivan.

In college I knew a guy. Let’s call him “Stove Minivan.” (Apologies to anybody reading this essay who shares that name.)

We called him by his last name, mostly. We weren’t singling him out. For example, I was “Mox,” and still am, to lots of people. It was something college dudes tended to do back then. Maybe they still do that.

Minivan was a nice enough guy, very much like many other college students I guess. He was easygoing is my recollection. A happy guy with a frequently deployed smile. I don’t recall much anger from him, nor many strongly held opinions. I wouldn’t call him a philosophical type. No deep talks is my recollection, though maybe that was my fault. We were friends but not incredibly close. This is the sort of dude I’d hang with at a party, if there were a party we were both at, or who I’d do a favor for and feel comfortable asking a favor from, but not one with whom I’d maintain a relationship if we both graduated and then moved to different places—which I know for a fact, because that’s what happened. We drifted.

So then what happened is twelve years or so later I got on The Superpoke, and Stove Minivan was there, too, and before long, we were friends again, he and I, and so were me and my other college friends, and them with him, and … look, you know the drill. It was Superpoke.

Minivan was no longer a pre-med student at a small northern liberal arts college. He was a doctor—a general care practitioner, if memory serves—in a smallish Oklahoma town, very much like many other towns in Oklahoma or elsewhere in the country, I imagine.

Anyway, before long I noticed something about Minivan. Even though his feed was full of pictures of him and his lovely family, and he was smiling in them just the same as he always had in college, he was angry.

He was enraged.

What was he angry about? The Demonrats.

Minivan hated the Demonrats, which is what he called them if memory serves.² Conservatively speaking, he posted 15-20 times a day on Superpoke; mostly about Demonrats and the problems they caused. Sometimes also about himself and his smiling family and their lovely house or their many vacations and excursions, too—but mostly about the Demonrats.

Minivan was absolutely enraged about everything the Demonrats did. He also was out of his mind angry about Killary, and Obummer, who were the leaders of the Demonrats—or at least they were the front for the real leader of the Demonrats, who even back then I believe was George Soros.

What did the Demonrats do? Oh my heck, what didn’t they do? Mostly they hated America and American security and American economic strength, it seems. They engaged in corruption and bowed to foreign powers a lot. They shredded the dignity of the presidency, that’s for sure. Obummer played a lot of golf, and that was bad. He also raised the price of gas on purpose, to hurt America, which he hated (I never learned who made the prices drop). And Obummer oppressed Christians (Obummer was a Muslim), who he hated, by restricting what they could say and do, and by not killing enough brown people in countries where other religions predominated (this was confusing to many of us, because to our minds Obummer was still killing plenty—far more than we wanted). Obummer soon destroyed medical care forever, by promoting legislation that made healthcare affordable for millions and millions of people—legislation which Minivan never failed to note had been crammed down our throats, by which as far as I can tell he meant “it got voted into law by representatives elected in a massive landslide.”

And—this most especially—Obummer and the Demonrats divided Americans based on race, and divisions based on race were something Minivan could not abide—especially reverse racism, which was just as bad as regular flavor, if not worse. Minivan revered The REPUBLICAN Martin Luther King Jr. (as he called him), who famously declared that we need to stop talking about skin color, ever, which solved racism forever, years ago, long before anybody our age was born. And then King never said anything else, and then he ascended peacefully to heaven, the better to look down and nod approvingly at all conservative policies.

Minivan’s worldview wasn’t particularly coherent, if you want to know the truth. I couldn’t help to notice that the Demonrats weren’t actually doing many of the things that Minivan thought they were doing, and the things they were doing didn’t tend to have the effects Minivan seemed to think they were having—by which I mean they simply observably weren’t, on any level. I also couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the policies Minivan supported would directly cause the problems that made Minivan so angry. I couldn’t help but notice that well-sourced information enraged him.

There was a lot of linking to sites I’d never heard of, like Breitbart and Newsmax, and of course plenty of Fox News. There were a lot of memes. There were a lot of conspiracy theories (a big birther, was Minivan). Some of his posts contained subtle bigotry. Most of the rest contained not-subtle bigotry. Several of them contained slogans and statements that were, very simply, neo Nazi and white supremacist memes and shibboleths.

There were a lot of misattributed quotes.

There was a lot of information and outright lying.

There was a lot of bigotry.

There was a lot of commentary accompanying these posts from Minivan, who was saying shocking stuff for a small-town family doctor … the sorts of things that it seemed to me would make people not want to use this person as a doctor, or be friends with such a person, or sit next to that person on a bus. It reminded me of a summer I’d spent roofing, in which the rest of the roofers listened to that well known trailblazing rodeo clown of the conservative airwaves Rush Limbaugh, as he called feminists Nazis and mocked the appearances of 12 year old girls and other hilarious bits that normal dudes roofing a house love to hear. I kept quiet, because I was 19 and cowardly with my opinion and also distracted by my terror of heights, but I remember thinking why would anyone want to listen to this?

Minivan sounded like Rush.

I hadn’t heard of Alex Jones, yet, but Minivan sounded a lot like Alex Jones. In fact, he sounded about exactly like Alex Jones. Almost word for word and beat for beat. He’d even start his posts like a right-wing radio host: Sorry folks, but you can’t even make stuff like this up—ironically, frequently accompanying things that had indeed been made up.

Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk and all the rest of that group of viral-video fascists weren’t on the scene yet, but he sounded a lot like they would sound, once they arrived.

And again there were about 20 posts a day on average of this, conservatively speaking. It was a real firehose of anger.

This was all pretty distressing to those of us who had known Minivan back in the day, before he had become so obsessed with Demonrats.

In point of fact, some of us were Demonrats, or at least we identified with many Demonrat policies, or voted for Demonrats.

So, a lot of us, myself included, did exactly what Superpoke wants. We engaged with him.

This engagement was my action.

At the time my belief was, you defeated bad ideas with better ideas, by confronting the bad ideas directly with the better ideas. The best disinfectant was sunlight, is what I believed. In other words, you changed minds through debate. You presented your ideas, they presented theirs, you countered, they countered, and eventually everybody would see the truth. If you refuse to engage directly, then, naturally, you’d be allowing the bad idea to win. And, since Minivan’s points were an illogical mess to the point of incoherence, grounded in provably false claims, the debate would be easy to win. Minivan’s outlook would be changed, and he would leave the encounter a more thoughtful Stove than he was when he started. And, if he didn’t, then his idea would be defeated by my sound points, and Stove would diminish, and go into the West, and remain Minivan.

But the intention was that I’d change his mind, with facts presented logically, delivered calmly and patiently.

This belief was my attitude.

Here’s what happened.

Minivan escalated any correction, however calmly stated or bloodlessly presented, into scorched earth territory. He rejected all proofs that his beliefs were wrong by rejecting the source outright as irrevocably tainted by bias, or he’d spiral into non sequitur, spamming our feeds with more misinformation. He would claim he never said things he had just said, still there for anybody to read, one comment earlier in the thread. He’d claim that we said things we’d never said, as anyone foolish enough to read through our conversations could discover. He demonstrated a complete dedication to his ignorance and anger, and a total disinterest in anything like observable truth that contradicted his grievance.

His reaction to being informed that his rhetoric was identical to that of white supremacists was to call us white supremacists. His reaction when told that his anti-gay, anti-trans, or anti-Black statements were harmful might be to simply insult us, might be to say that with our diseased divisive liberal minds we were the real bigots, or it might be to change the subject entirely. All of it was larded with overweening grievance, a sense that people like him had never wronged anybody, and everybody else had done nothing but wrong people like him.

He started posting an average of thirty posts a day. The overt bigotry and rank authoritarianism only grew.

I’ll admit that over time my interactions stopped being polite and bloodless, and I’m not particularly sorry for it. I told him some things about himself he seemed not to know, but which I thought really ought to be said. I have a bit of a penchant for sarcasm, which I employed, and you can feel how you want to about sarcasm, but I think it helped convey the correct posture to take toward someone who says the sorts of things Minivan said, which is you have proved yourself to be a person who should not be taken seriously, and your positions do not deserve even a modicum of respect.

I decided that this was a more healthy message to convey about Stove Minivan to anybody watching, and I still do.

That was a change in attitude.

Maybe we’ll get back to that.

So I told him a few things.

I pointed out that his beliefs were not noticeably different from any other fascist or white supremacist group currently active or from any point in history, and that this made him a fascist and a white supremacist, which he manifestly was and I presume still manifestly is. Eventually he did the only thing he ever did on Superpoke that I’m thankful for: he blocked me.

My words to him and his blocking me for them were actions. Both were healthy actions—for me anyway.

I’ve pondered the incident since, as it’s become more and more relevant to “the way things are.”

A few things had become clear over time.

Minivan was not somebody whose intentions could be trusted. He was not operating in good faith, and I believe he well knew it, because many of his favorite sources of information have written instruction books on how to engage with people in bad faith. Minivan was not debating; he was using debate to inject his counterfactual beliefs into the discourse, which were designed to further marginalize already marginalized people while cloaking himself in self-exonerating grievance for it.

Further, he was somebody who was exerting an active effort to not know things that could be easily known, and to demand to be convinced out of these beliefs, not because he was remotely interested in having his ideas challenged, but because he demanded a world in which he got to decide what was right or wrong. And—clearly, from other comments posted to our discussions—he was being enthusiastically supported by friends and family in his community, all of whom sounded pretty much exactly like him.

Further still: Minivan learned from me and other friends who engaged with him. The effect of telling him he was using one or another logical fallacy was not to sharpen his reasoning, but to teach him about the existence of logical fallacies, which let him accuse us and soon others of those same logical fallacies—in ways that betrayed a total lack of understanding about what those fallacies were, granted, but in ways that likely made him seem more knowledgeable to a casual or sympathetic observer. He learned to ape our phrases and arguments, in much the way he’d learned to ape the style of Alex Jones and all the various Breitbart and Newsmax contributors he used to inform himself. Words we’d use would start creeping into his vocabulary. His response to the sites we directed him that were dedicated to countering viral lies was to find sites that were dedicated to countering those sites.

We were not changing him by engaging with him thoughtfully.

We certainly weren’t changing him by engaging with him in kind.

Rather: we were making him better at what he was doing, and we were validating his world view—to himself and others—as one that merited engagement.

And week after week on the Super Poke site, Minivan had kept smiling and smiling and getting angrier and angrier and angrier at us and Obummer and all the other Demonrats and liberals and every member of every minority group who dared to fail to tell him that he was right about everything.

I don’t miss seeing that Minivan smile. I think of it as my first hint of the shape of things to come: well-fed, politically overrepresented, socially coddled people, living happy, privileged lives while seething inwardly that other people might be getting anything, anything at all.

Indeed, soon enough, another figure would come on the scene, whose behavior matched that of Minivan almost exactly, a perfect avatar for this spirit of aggrieved bigotry and supremacy that seemed to be moving through my former friend. And sure enough, as I saw, there were millions and millions of smiling seething people who loved him.

And that guy became president.

Nobody believed he would. And then he did.

Because Stove Minivan, it turns out, wasn’t some weird outlier. He was part of a growing new normal, a group of people who had been offered a chance to immigrate from observable reality and enter a dark world of constant hostility, misinformation, and self-loving grievance; a group of people who leapt at that invitation, and cling to it to this day, no matter what happens, immune to proof; a constituency who blame others for the foulness of the shallow puddle of reasoning in which they demand to sit, even though we can all see them fouling it themselves, every day.

And afterward, a huge number of people who were shocked by this development decided that the proper reaction was to normalize all of this, and accommodate it, in the name of unity—a belief, it seems, grounded in the idea that what you choose to get along with isn’t as important as getting along no matter what.

And all of this was something that happened in the atmosphere.

A huge crowd of smiling white people greets then-candidate Donald Trump. A sign in the crowd reads "Thank You Lord Jesus For President Trump."
The picture that more than any other made my blood run cold when I saw it.

I’ll finish with the question that all of Minivan’s former friends would eventually ask, whenever they gathered together long enough for the subject to arise.

What the hell happened to Minivan?

Here’s what I think the answer is: nothing.

Nothing happened to Minivan. Nothing at all.

He was always that guy, and he always thought the things he thought. What changed was that he was given a lot of language with which to express those ideas, and access to enough other people who thought that way too, that it created a critical mass of permission, which allowed him to change his attitudes and actions, and made a lot of other people willing to accommodate and normalize it, rather than oppose it.

In college, he had thought he couldn’t be the guy we met on Superpoke, so he wasn’t that guy. It just wasn’t possible. You’d be understood to be a far-right extremist, and people would then treat you like a far-right extremist.

But then the atmosphere changed.

It’s worth looking at how atmosphere changes.

Years ago, Republican operatives realized that the language of direct bigotry, upon which they relied, had lost. As Lee Atwater said in his infamous “Southern Strategy” interview:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N***, n***, n***.” By 1968 you can’t say “n***”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N***, n***.”

But another thing that many Republican operatives started doing was creating atmosphere—reframing their grotesque beliefs in ways that made people believe that those sorts of things are normal to say, until people who wanted to say such things noticed that there were spaces where it was safe to say the grotesque things they wanted to say.

And then before long, to act upon those grotesque things.

Rush Limbaugh may have been the first example I noticed, but by the time I joined Superpoke, Republicans had created a media superstructure offering a completely alternative reality for those who wanted it, and many did. They’d already taken it for a test-drive, lying us into war in Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of human beings, and it had worked like a dream. None of them were prosecuted. They were still treated like statesmen instead of what they were, which was one of the worst gang of war criminals of the century.

And that changed the way things are.

When Lee Atwater gave the interview, Republicans had learned you can’t win the White House by running on overt white supremacy.

In 2016, Donald Trump proved that, once again, you can. You can’t quite say “n*** n*** n***” again—but you can say pretty much anything up to that, and you can openly complain about not being “allowed” to say it.

And a lot of people breathed that new atmosphere and found it was they’d been waiting for all along.

So now here we are: captured by people who refuse to engage with observable reality, enabled by people who refuse to meaningfully oppose them.

And we’ve had a ban on Muslim travel. And we’ve had book bans, and we’ve seen topics banned in the classroom.

And we’re in a pandemic in which all the Stove Minivans in the country treat any attempt to mitigate it as such an unacceptable assault on their personal liberty it justifies violence, and a million people or so have died now.

And the Voting Rights Act has been trampled past endurance, and free and fair elections are being dismantled anywhere Republicans hold sway.

And there was a coup attempt led by the Republican president, and none of its leaders and instigators, many of whom sit in the Congress they attempted to destroy, have been arrested or charged.

And the Supreme Court has been captured by dogmatic religious fundamentalists, who have proved eager to tear apart the decisions whose precedents make the foundation of our modern pluralistic society.

And this week Texas and Florida Republicans both passed laws directly targeting trans and gay teens and their families for abuse and harm and marginalization and violence, and outlawed any teaching of racism that makes white families uncomfortable.

And our institutions and leaders seem either unwilling or incapable of opposing it meaningfully. Investigations are tepid and slow. Needed legislation stalls in the name of bipartisanship with the people making the problems.

And also this week, Vladimir Putin brutally invaded Ukraine. His motives are his own. But it seems possible a foreign authoritarian may have noticed that we seem unable or unwilling to meaningfully oppose our own domestic authoritarianism.

And, sure enough, the Minivans have largely come out on Putin’s side, precisely because he is an authoritarian, and because they seem him as promoting white nationalism, which is what they very clearly want.

And that’s what’s in the atmosphere right now.

Superpoke didn’t create these ideas. In fact, these were old ideas, mostly. Mostly, these were ideas that had been tamped down and considered socially unacceptable to say or act on. What Superpoke and many other media apparatuses did was find a way to dig it up and reframe them as virtue, and then vaporize it and spread it into the atmosphere for everybody to breathe, and those who wanted to breathe it, did, which helped accelerate this change to the scope of acceptable behavior and expression.

So what do we do?

We can engage in action. We can try to shift attitudes. In fact, we should.

But most of all: we need to change the atmosphere.

I’ll finish with a few conclusions about what changes atmosphere:

1) Atmosphere is only changed by new ideas. Be assured, humans never did anything new thing that didn’t begin life as new idea. First comes the idea that something that can’t be actually can be, then it’s spoken into collective imagination until something that was an impossibility has become a possibility, and then people actually do it until it becomes the way things are.

Next time I’ll talk about what new ideas we need, but for now I want to point out: if the idea that you actually hold is that we have to persuade people of harmful intention with logical discourse before we can engage in remedies … that is not a new idea. It’s what’s in the atmosphere right now. It’s the dominant action rising from the dominant attitude founded in the dominant idea of the present atmosphere, so if that’s how you’re approaching this, you’re not changing the atmosphere—you’re breathing it.

2) The first impact you can make on atmosphere must be the impact upon yourself. I think this was the hardest thing for me. The dominant idea is that you have to respect people who think differently, by proving to them that they are wrong, and if you do it patiently enough, then you’ll convince them. You’ll change them.

This is seen as respecting them and their beliefs. I actually don’t think so. I think it puts you in a position that makes you responsible for their beliefs. I’ve talked at length about how doing this creates a permission structure that elevates them unnaturally, and gives them veto power over whether or not the people they want to see harmed get harmed … but I’ll flip that now. Think how, with that approach, you elevate yourself. You think it’s your responsibility to change other minds? You even think you can? You think that’s your responsibility?

I think the only mind you can ever really change is your own—and think how hard that work is. So, do that.

Align your own mind, toward new ideas that will change the atmosphere. When the atmosphere changes, the scope of what is even possible changes, and that will eventually persuade even minds that are completely closed to change, not by convincing them, but by changing what they see as possible.

Am I against trying to change a mind with personal persuasion? I am not. I am against a rubric that treats it as the main solution to our present crisis. It’s not scalable, and it creates perverse dynamics, but it’s also a failed strategy, and I say that for a good reason: it’s what we’ve been trying, and it’s led us here.

So yes, engage individually. Present facts and logic. Do that. But don’t confuse that action with atmosphere.

I think if you change a mind with personal persuasion, it demonstrates that mind was already open to change. I think they’d be at least as likely to respond to your change in attitude as you change your own mind as they will be to your attempts to change theirs. They’ll certainly respond to the change in atmosphere, in the same way that people who wanted dominating supremacist authoritarianism responded as our atmosphere changed in that direction.

And, crucially, when you discover that somebody isn’t open to persuasion, leave them. Leave it. Engaging with that elevates them into the sphere of people who deserve to be taken seriously, and their ideas into the sphere of things that merit debate. Even worse, it sharpens their dull knives for them. Worst of all, it wastes your precious time.

So don’t disrespect the Minivans of the world by trying to change their minds—respect them, by recognizing that they want what they say they want, and are what that means they are. Respect them by acknowledging that changing their minds is their responsibility, and leaving them to their thing.

Align yourself instead toward stopping them, and protecting those they’d destroy. Align yourself toward creating the open world of equality and peace and mutual benefit that they hate and fear.

Stop trying to change them. They don’t belong to you. They never did.

3) You don’t solve problems by cooperating with people who want the problems. If you really want to understand the Minivans? Understand that, from their perspective, that enlightened world of equality actually represents a horrible existential threat—a problem. Don’t take my word for it, just listen to them for a minute and they’ll tell you. They changed the atmosphere toward their vision of solving that problem, and they didn’t do it by working with us on it. They did it by insisting on it, expecting it to happen, organizing to push every advantage they could to make it come about. They focused on their anti-reality version of the world until they dragged all of us into it with them.

What makes that bad isn’t how they changed the atmosphere. It’s what they wanted to change it to.

The methods of changing atmosphere are tools, and as with any tools, it’s a question of what that tool was used to do.

They have been using those tools to create a white supremacist christofascist ethno-state.

That seems pretty bad to me.

I think we ought to use those tools to stop them.


So there it is: a framework for human communication and persuasion.

I hope it helps. It helps me understand my own approach to these times, and the purpose of my work.

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¹ If you’re curious, it’s from this audio series.

² Memory may not serve. A mutual friend of mine and Minivan’s doesn’t remember Demonrats, though he does remember Obummer and the rest. I recall ample use of “Demonrats.” Either way, there was a lot of talk like that.

A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places. He ran, he ran so far away.