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1:48pm on Friday, 13th March, 2020:

What About..?


Suppose a poster was put up on a wall saying "Covid-19: Old people and people with underlying medical conditions need to wash their hands".

This is good advice. However, it's best if everyone washes their hands, not just the people listed. Why, then, would the poster be saying what it says?

Well, it's saying it because the danger to the people mentioned is greater than it is to everyone else, so they need to be made aware of this fact. Anyone who, upon reading the poster, asked "Well what about everyone else?" would be told that yes, they should be washing their hands too, but the elderly and ill really, really need to take hand-washing seriously because they're at much greater risk. Unless the person asking the question was particularly thick or finicky, that should suffice for an answer.

In abstract terms, the poster would be saying: "We want to raise awareness regarding group X because our message is more important than for group not-X". Let's call this Case 1.

Last week, there was a poster up at the university celebrating women in science. I don't believe anyone complained to the university saying "Well what about men in science?". This is because there's already so much about men in science that many people don't know much about women in science.

The poster is saying a different thing to the other poster: "We want to raise awareness regarding group X because everyone knows it's true already for group not-X". Let's call this Case 2.

If the university poster had instead made a point about problems with, say, women's mental health, well then we could have expected some "What about men's mental health?" pushback. This is not because men's mental health is more important than women's mental health (that is, not Case 1); rather, it's because the perception is that men's mental health doesn't currently get as much attention as women's mental health, so needs to be highlighted (that is, Case 2).

The problem with making statements about group X is that it's easy to mistake Case 2 for Case 1. This happened with the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, where a Case 2 example (we already know that white lives matter, but we need to be made aware that black lives matter too) was mistaken - sometimes deliberately so - for a Case 1 example (that is, black lives matter but white lives, well, not so much).

Hmm. What about the statement, "Computer games cause aggression"? It probably started out as a Case 2, meaning that the ordinary person might not think they cause as much aggression as other media, but they do. However, by the time people started asking "What about other media?", the constant repetition of the original message had turned it into a Case 1 (that is, computer games cause more aggression than other media). This is what happens if you push a Case 2 too hard: in the eyes of the audience, it overwhelms the assumed base case, causing the assumption that everyone knows not-X is true to fail. It therefore begins to look as if you're saying X is more important than not-X.

If, as the originator of a Case 2 message, you don't know you're overdoing it, then you can wind up with a situation in which what you think is great publicity starts to become counter-productive. What can you do about this?

Well, it's hard if you only have the one poster or the one hashtag to use. As part of a wider campaign, though, you might be able to affect it by breaking down X into related components and then occasionally slipping in a not-X message.

This sounds promising, but I'm not so sure that such an intersectionality approach would work. For example, if as a Case 2 you feel that there's insufficient awareness that not everyone is heterosexual, you could produce messages saying "Some people are lesbian", "Some people are gay", "Some people are bi", "Some people are trans" and "Some people are straight". This would raise awareness of the way that society plays down its LGBT members, but without prompting a "What about straight people?" response because straight people (the not-X) haven't been exclused.

The problem is, the same approach also works for Case 1. In the Covid-19 example, you could have posters saying "Over 60? Wash your hands!", "High blood pressure? Wash your hands!" "Diabetic? Wash your hands!" "Weakened immune system? Wash your hands!" "Young and healthy? Wash your hands!". Unfortunately, this makes it look like Case 2 - unless you feel that the sheer number of non-young-and-healthy messages shows it to be Case 1. If you do feel that way, though, then the LGBT one also looks like a Case 1, even though it's most definitely a Case 2.

I'm so glad I decided early on not to participate in Twitter...

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Copyright © 2020 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).