The Persuaders by Anand Giridharadas review – why it pays to speak out in a polarized world | Political books

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Iit is a mark of the problem which The persuaders seeks to describe that I had to force myself to sit down and read it. Anand Giridharadas, well known in the United States as a television journalist and political pundit, has written a thought-provoking book on a topic that many of us think we’ve heard too much about already – namely, feedback loops, filter bubbles and interference from Russia. robot farms that have led to extreme polarization in the United States and beyond. Giridharadas describes this state of affairs as “the growing American culture of mutual dismissal”, leading to a mass of “remote erasure” and the inability of anyone to change their minds about anything. All in all, it feels like a book born out of the talk of Twitter, and who needs that?

As it turns out, The persuaders is, well, persuasive, with a mission to find solutions to it all by identifying the strategists, activists and thought leaders who have broken through political indifference or entrenched partisanship to build bridges or win new fans . Understanding that no one will give an inch to the other side, Giridharadas looks for encouraging counterexamples, from the coalition behind the 2017 Women’s March, to the outburst of mainstream support for Black Lives Matter, to the rise of figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – her modern country style is helpfully studied alongside the less flexible and successful style of Bernie Sanders. The book tackles the dangers of political purity and how to persuade people from the center right and the flaccid middle on the left without diluting the cause. Despite the occasional vibe of book cuts by busy media operators, I found it to be a useful, thoughtful, and interesting read.

Which doesn’t mean it didn’t bother me. That’s the point, I guess. The clever thing about Giridharadas’ approach is that by dissecting the prejudices of others, he flushes out your own instinctive reactions, a dynamic from which the author himself is not spared. In the chapter on the Women’s March, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers, describes how alienated she was from the movement’s roots in “white feminism”. There are female readers who, presented with other names from the Women’s March leadership team, will have an equally powerful pushback, thanks to their perceived connections to anti-Semitic figures.

The concern around white feminism is the subject of many pages of thoughtful discussion. This last concern, triggered by the support of some march organizers for Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, is condemned to a half-sentence. One requires understanding; the other is widely rejected.

The effect of this, deliberately or not, is to emphasize the need for everyone to consider the other point of view. Several interviewees with decades of activism behind them express frustration with the current state of left-wing politics and its habit of either occupying dripping middle ground or digging into the narcissism of small difference . In an age where no micro-aggression goes unpunished, the book shows through various veteran activists that not only is the spiral of purity counterproductive to expanding the movement, but that it is, for those who pursue it, almost addictively recreational. As the author writes: “Social media has rewarded the hunting of apostates more than the conversion of non-believers.

Loretta Ross, a pioneering activist and theorist in the black radical feminist tradition, puts it this way: “I think the 90% spends too much time trying to turn people into 100%, which is totally unnecessary.” She means those seemingly on the same side who say, “If you don’t work on my problem from my angle, then you erase my problem.” If you are advocating for economic justice, you are problematic for minimizing race. If you’re advocating for racial justice, you’re not posting enough about the evils of capitalism. If you focus on long-term climate change, you neglect the immediate needs of poor communities. These fights only hurt the progressive cause. It’s fine to call people, but understand what you’re aiming for, she says. “You can’t change other people. You can’t even change the person you’re married to. You can help people. You can expose people to different information and help them learn – if you do it with love.

What this means in some contexts, argues Giridharadas, is setting aside what feels good for what actually works. One chapter studies a fascinating program trying to prevent rapists from reoffending by educating them about feminism, which requires enormous emotional effort on the part of educators to overcome what Ross calls “the justified instinct to focus on those who are hurt by the problem, not those perpetrating it”. Who wants to spend resources engaging with a rapist at the expense of funding his victims? But if it’s the most effective way to reduce rapes, it’s at least worth considering.

The most jumpable stretch of the book is a lengthy Wikipediaesque biography of Ocasio-Cortez, all of the information well-rehearsed at this point. And there are occasional, inadvertently amusing passages. An account of a group of white people raising awareness trying to learn more about their own racial privilege contains a testy back-and-forth about whether the description “getting back a racist” implies that they are, in fact , racists, that is to say pure Monty Python .

By far the most fascinating and potentially useful case study is that of Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications strategist for progressive causes, whose tactics, grounded in data, exposed many flaws in political campaigns. from the left. Shenker-Osorio points out that when people are scared, they turn right; when they feel compassion and common cause with their fellow men, they lean to the left. The left has often made the mistake of chasing the framing of a discussion from the right, by launching “We too are tough on law and order!” rather than calling out the right to sow discord between the groups. “What is it about winning that you don’t like?” she said dryly to an activist obsessed with small differences in language. She also advises the left to cheer themselves up. “A lot of progressive and democrat messaging basically boils down to ‘Boy, I got a problem for you!’ “You have to sell people the beautiful tomorrow.”

Exacerbated by new technologies, these problems are nonetheless very old. As Saul Bellow said The Adventures of Augie March: “This is the struggle of humanity, to recruit other people for your version of what is real.” This pleasant and useful reading can, paradoxically, suspend our solipsism long enough to better pursue this recruitment.

The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Time by Anand Giridharadas is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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