People prefer complexity to being talked down to
Recently while teaching a class, Ed Carr was astonished to find that his students did not know about the famine that had occurred last year in the Horn of Africa. In an effort to understand this, he took time during the next class to engage his students in a conversation on the subject and blogged about it:
In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.” Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them. First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time. They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely. Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent. The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.” These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others. To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below). Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.
Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame. In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis. Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off. Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get moreengaged. Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work. So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase. If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc. In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms. After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand. Why?