Who am I? It’s a question worth considering. My identity has changed over time. Not too long ago I was a black belt, rock climber, oarswoman, engineer, woman. Today I can claim musician, carpenter, camp director, woman. I still say I’m an engineer because the way an engineer thinks is permanently molded by their training no matter what they happen to do for a living. But the thing is I don’t like to be labeled. I want to be whoever I am in the moment and not restrained by preconceived ideas from myself or society. But that’s a dream world. A dream world I have the flexibility to inhabit much of the time but not if I want a job or to have influence over people. People want to know who you are. I can’t even go to play Bridge and avoid these questions. Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you do? I actually dread them. Every table at Bridge we go through the answers.
How we identify plays a deep role in what we believe. PETA? Vegan? Athiest? Business owner? These values influence our ability to receive and consider new information. Here are some issues: Vaccines. Evolution. Climate change. Animal rights. What are you? A Hippie? Christian? White? Black? Poor? Rich? Hungry?
Polls have shown that there are six categories of people on climate change. There are the dissmisive (10%), the doubtful (11%), the disengaged (7%), the cautious (27%), the concerned (28%), the alarmed (17%). A person’s identity will hold sway on their affinity to a certain opinion. People that prefer hierarchy and like a strong leader and rugged individualism are more likely to be doubtful and dismissive. This is true no matter their education level and science literacy. People that are more comfortable with egalitarianism and rules that favor the health of society over the individual are more likely to be alarmed or concerned. The more educated this egalitarian group is the more likely they are to be alarmed. Education has little effect. So throwing data around will not change minds. Women and minorities and younger people, regardless of education, are more concerned about climate change than men. White men are especially likely to be unconvinced that climate change is a thing.
They say that the messenger must fit in with the group they are trying to influence. They have to have shared values, they must be perceived as an expert, and the message must match the messenger. This is humans acting like chickens. Birds of a feather. I wish we could get beyond this but as Burt says, we’re all scared when we see a snake. We are hardwired to suspect the outsider. We can recognize this bias and try to work through it. We can recognize this bias and try to work with it. Consciousness is key.
Here are two examples of me dealing with this from my past.
Once upon a time I was a U.S. EPA environmental engineer. New rules had just come down under the Clean Air Act. I was responsible for enforcing the Stratospheric Ozone Protection act in the entirety of Montana. By myself. 1992 or 1993. I was young. I was a woman. I was an easterner. I was from the government. Lucky for me there were several trade groups that were interested in helping their members comply with the new rules. I was able to meet with the leaders of the trade groups to share how the government was going to phase out the use of CFCs and how small businesses could be licensed to manage the CFCs safely. These trade group leaders invited me to speak to their groups. I traveled the state and met with landfill operators, junk car facilities, auto mechanics, and air conditioning and refrigeration repair people. I never had a problem. I was there to help them comply. I was sympathetic to their situation. I knew the new rules were costly but they were also a business opportunity. Those that updated would stay competitive. I was helping them comply. They accepted me.
Then one day I was asked to give the speech to an organization called the Western Environmental Trade Association. I thought these guys were environmentally minded business owners. I was wrong. These were business owners with no role in the CFC industry. They were simply an anti-government, pro-business group with no desire to do right by the environment. It was a blood bath. They wanted to make a fool of me and they did.
I must admit that twenty years ago I didn’t know what to make of this. The business leaders were crude and rude. The blue collar workers were warm and understanding. Now I realize my blue collar roots, desire to help, and general sympathy played well before the labor groups. A government representative was a lamb to the slaughter for the business group. Especially an ill prepared government representative. This experience has always stayed with me as part of my identity. It helped me have to confidence to at least approach any group and try to connect.
The next notable experience was in my private life. I was in South Carolina about ten years ago visiting my parents and their friends. Burt was with me. At one point the group (moderate to conservative political leanings) started discussing organic food. I opted to not share my opinion and nobody asked. My role as silent daughter is well practiced. Soon they veered into climate change. A very with it friend that I know to be well educated and a nuclear engineer said it was bogus. I was on a couch ease dropping. The entire group agreed. They got all animated and then somebody saw the lamb on the couch. My dad asked, “Aren’t you going to defend climate change?” They had already labeled me a believer without inquiry. I took one look at the table full of raucous men that had known me since I was a toddler. I said, “You won’t listen to me so I won’t waste my breath.” And it was sad but nobody disagreed. They were sad because it would have been fun to argue and try to make a fool of me. I was sad because it was true.
For ten years I’ve thought I should have said something. Today I am saying something. They might not listen but I will say it.