‘So to Speak’ podcast transcript: The Art of Insubordination

September 1, 2022

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast, where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. As always, I am your host Nico Perrino. And today, I have a new guest on the show. His name is Todd Kashdan, and he is a Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, which is just right down the road from Washington D.C., where I am sitting right now. And Todd is the author of a new book, The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively, which will be the main topic of our conversation today. Todd, welcome onto the show!

Todd Kashdan: It’s so good to be here.

Nico: So, your background Todd! You’re a professor of Psychology. That can encompass a whole lot. What’s your area of specialty, what do you investigate, what do you research?

Todd: Yeah. So, I started the Well-Being Laboratory as a grad student 23 years ago, and we study all the topics people wanna be having at cocktail conversations. So, meaning in life, purpose in life, creativity, curiosity, psychological flexibility, social anxiety, mental health problems. And we just got a multi-million dollar grant to reduce the political divide in the country.

Nico: Oh. Congratulations!

Todd: Thank you!

Nico: And speaking of political divide, let me ask about the Well-Being Lab. What’s the most controversial or divisive thing that you study in that litany of things that you just covered?

Todd: Well, there’s no question. It’s human sexuality. So, one of my favorite studies was I had this question of having so many socially anxious students in my classroom, which we can get to the mental health epidemic in the country.

Nico: Yeah.

Todd: And I had a thought of, “How does a student, or anyone who’s highly socially anxious worried that they have a flawed character, it’ll be visible to other people, and that will be the cause of them being ostracized and rejected, and what would give them a sense of belonging?” So, the question was if you had a really intimate sexual encounter, it would mean that someone gave you access to the full element of who they are, –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – would the next day be easier, because now you know at least somebody gives you a sense of belonging? Or would it be harder, because when you leave the bedroom and enter the real world of social uncertainty, it’d be hard to navigate all those ambiguous social encounters that you have. So, it was a perfect study, because you have two competing hypothesis. We really weren’t sure what the answer was.

Nico: And did the hypothesis just come out of kind of curiosity, or was there some sort of precipitating event that made you think, “Well, what do people actually think about themselves after they have a very intimate sexual encounter?”

Todd: I mean, this is the beauty of being a psychologist, is your –

Nico: I know! You should. So, you get to do the fun stuff, where you can just –

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: – cook something up in your mind, and then figure out where it takes you.

Todd: You talk to people who are single, and you talk about their lives, and some people, they have individual differences and social anxiety. And then, you combine these experiences with what the literature says of people that are socially anxious tend to have positivity deficits. They tend to experience fewer positive events, and extract less rewards. So, the hypothesis from the literature would say that it would be difficult to enjoy a social encounter involving sexuality. But no one’s ever studied this before. So, what we found was that the next day after a sexual encounter, people’s social anxiety dropped by about 10 – 30 percent, which is pretty high. And it also dropped their social comparison.

So, they made less self-denigrating comparisons to other people, or they were more compassionate to themselves when they saw people that were brighter, smarter, more creative. Now, what was interesting is we thought that emotionally intimate connections would be the most powerful thing, like you’re laying in bed, you talk about your vulnerabilities, you cry with that person, you physically entangle with them. But we actually found that the more physically pleasurable social interactions is what led to the least social anxiety the next day. And that we have no idea why that’s the case, and nobody’s built on our research since.

Nico: And why is that controversial though? It seems to me it’s like – or is it because it diverges from the literature that came before it?

Todd: I think we have still a very puritanical culture, despite – the culture splinters in a couple different directions. You have the rise of pornography, –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – you have the rise of women’s liberation, and having the autonomy to have the same level of freedom in their romantic lives as men, and simultaneously, you have this very conservative view of, “These are things not to be discussed in public company, or maybe ever.” And so, the notion of bringing sexuality, and having the power of just a physically pleasurable experience gives scientific merit to the idea of, “Listen, it’s okay to experience pleasurable sex in your life as long as you have consent, and you are freely volitional in those decisions.” And so, we’re just kind of poking the bear about some of the social norms in society.

Nico: So, what it really diverges from is this sense, puritanical, whatever you wanna call it, that all sex needs to have emotional connection, or is more valuable to the human experience if it has an emotional connection. And it might actually be the case that that is the case, right? It’s just when it comes to the finding in this case, which was with regard to – anxiety and status? Is that correct?

Todd: Yeah, social anxiety symptoms. Yeah.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: Feeling less anxious in everyday life.

Nico: But that just doesn’t play a role. It’s more of the physical acts of that aspect of the sexual encounter, I’m assuming?

Todd: Well, I mean, think about the implications, is having an amazing life. And if you’ll have better wellbeing, you’ll have fewer mental health problems. It’s anathema in a world where we should focus on very deep, cognitive reframing of your thoughts, and think about illogical thoughts, replace them with better thoughts. Sometimes, it’s simple. Sometimes, it’s eat healthier, have good sleep, hygiene, have great friendships, and have amazing sex and good adventures.

Nico: So then, The Art of Insubordination. How do we get to this book from that very different – or maybe similar, you could argue – area of research?

Todd: Yeah. So, the way I choose book subject matter is what’s the topic that I wish there was a book on that no one’s been talking about? And what’s the thing that I’m talking about the most, and it’s coming up in my research lab in my conversations? And one of them was culturally, over the – I wrote this over the course of six years. So, this is pre-Trump, pre-COVID. You really weren’t talking too much about mental health and social media back then. This is back when you had the Arab Springs, where Twitter was this amazing vehicle for people to speak up against tyrannical regimes in Libya. But you had a few interesting sociological trends.

You had the greatest drop in religiosity in the history of the United States, you had the greatest social mobility, in terms of people moving away from their friends and family from childhood all over just to follow jobs, and you had lack of job security, where people had an average of 12 jobs during their adult years. And so, you add all of these sociological trends together with a few other ones, and you start to ask yourself how can you live a more utopian vision for your own life, even when it rubs up against social norms that might be outdated or dysfunctional for you and for the groups that you care about?

Nico: Interesting. And you think in order to do that, we need to encourage insubordination or dissent, essentially?

Todd: Well, to some degree, this book is not about insubordination, it’s not about rebellions, and it’s not about dissent, it really is what are the mechanisms that lead to a more utopian society, right? Where there’s less poverty, more critical thinking, greater respect for people with ideological differences, greater respect for people who have individual differences in personalities and backgrounds. And the research over 60 years is pretty clear that one of these really strong mechanisms that people aren’t talking about is having someone that disagrees with mainstream thinking. Even if that person is wrong. There’s some residual effect where they make the group a little bit smarter and wiser to think about their decisions.

Nico: So, you begin the book by talking about Charles Darwin. Of course, the man who as your book says, didn’t come up with the theory of evolution, but perhaps popularized it. And you talk about how the lesson from his life is that if you outlaw dissent, you slow the speed of cultural evolution. Can you tell us a little bit about how you get to that conclusion from Charles Darwin’s life?

Todd: Yes. So, there’s dozens of people over the course of a few hundred years that preceded Darwin with this idea of maybe there isn’t a supernatural power that led to humanity, and kind of changes in animal species and plant species over the course of time. This has been a longstanding thought by a number of creative, really visionary thinkers. But none of them were that persuasive. And so, I don’t wanna give away all the details, but there’s stories of people being hunted down by police, police surveillance on people’s households, house arrests, people that were physically tortured, people that were killed.

And God, if you wanna talk about cancellation in 2022, I mean, these were people that essentially were removed from society in terms of no one was going to hear from them from the written word or the verbal word. And there are lessons learned about why they weren’t persuasive that go beyond just that society wasn’t ready for those ideas. Because I think there’s many creators in every generation where society wasn’t ready, but they were persuasive in their dissent such that the people said, “Huh. This is intriguing enough. They wanna watch this film, even though if I think it goes against all my values, or a book, or someone speaking.”

And I think there’s a lot of conformity mistakes in society. It’s not just about sex, age, gender, the ones that are the hot topics right now. It’s really even thinking about, “Well, what should we do with knowledge about the genetic influence on mental disorders, or personality traits, and what do we do about a society where we have opportunity-rich and opportunity-poor backgrounds? Some of the ideas that you have about what to do with this diversity of experiences is not necessarily what everyone else is thinking. The majority’s thoughts is not necessarily the best thoughts.

Nico: Well, that was the whole theory behind John Stuart Mill’s I think second chapter in On Liberty, right? It was the idea that – and you spoke about this a few moments ago, right? That confrontation with heterodox ideas, nonconformist ideas, even if you won’t ultimately accept them, there’s something that can be gleaned from engaging with them. It might be you change your opinion not fully, but partially. It might be that you get a greater conception of your opinion, your truth, with its confrontation with error, or it might be that you do change your opinion. And you talk about in the book how often opinion change happens over time. It’s not an immediate thing.

But there are things that you can do in the process of dissenting, or being a heterodox thinker that can almost expedite the process. Which brings me to the question about Darwin. What was the cultural environment, or his unique tact that made him rise above the rest in presenting these ideas to the general public? There’s one person – not to give away too much – who posited a theory of evolution before him, who I think you write was put in an iron maiden.

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: And I’ve heard that phrase before, and I’m actually a big Iron Maiden fan, the band.

Todd: Oh. Oh, me as well. I had the Eddie patch on the back of my denim jacket when I was in middle school.

Nico: Oh, no way! I was in a metal band for many years. We did Swedish Death Metal, which is a melodic form of Death Metal. So, you sing the choruses, and scream the verses, and all of that stuff, and – yeah. Iron Maiden was someone that was a band that we looked up to. But anyway yeah, at the time, I didn’t really ask myself what that name derived from. But the Iron Maiden is essentially a casket that has spikes on both sides of it, and then when you close it on someone, you impale them. And this is –

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: – what they did to one of the early proponents of the theory of evolution.

Todd: Yeah. It’s even more gruesome than that. So, think of a vertical casket with metal spikes on both sides, and then you actually have an audience as you slowly enclose the person where the spikes impale them, and there are holes in the outside of this iron maiden. So, people are cheering as blood is actually coming out of the holes and then smearing the guard. I mean, it’s an interesting thing. Sometimes people bring up a non-historically accurate comment, such as, “There has never been more partisan animosity in politics than today.”

And I say, “Listen, in the 1800s, you go into a duel with people with guns to decide the fate of whatever thing you’re thinking about, and you go back a few hundred years before, you shove someone in an iron maiden. So, as bad as things are, I think it’s really important –” And this is a real important element about dissenting and defying from orthodox ideas, is it is painful to be socially persecuted. We should think historically about what happened to our ancestors, in terms of when they disagreed with the majority.

Nico: And it’s not just historically. I mean, there are certainly cultures today where if you dissent from the overriding orthodoxy, or at least dissent from what the government presents as the overriding orthodoxy, you can get buried in the ground in a stadium as people pelt rocks at your head until you die. I mean, really absurd, crazy stuff.

Todd: You had Charlie Hebdo what was that? Seven years ago. I mean, right? The idea that a bunch of cartoonists in a Danish office can be shot. I mean, this is our modern culture.

Nico: Right? French office with Charlie Hebdo, I believe.

Todd: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, sorry. You’re right.

Nico: Right. But getting back to Charles Darwin, why wasn’t he put in an iron maiden for example? What culturally had changed, or what had he done in particular that you think made his audience more receptive to what he was saying?

Todd: Yeah. So, here’s at least three things that modern social activists can learn from Charles Darwin. One is he spent 20 years – so, don’t spend 20 years – but he spent time collecting an alliance of people that had power and prestige in the scientific community in the UK. And there was Darwin’s Bulldogs. That’s what they were called. And they had better oratorical skills than Darwin. So, Darwin was not a good public speaker. There’s nothing on record of him on a podcast, in terms of stammering, and just 16 seconds of silence when you ask him a question. But that’s what it was like to talk to Darwin.

He was chronically depressed, he was very fatigued, some people believe he had chronic pain disorders, and he was not the most pleasant conversationalist. He was a good writer. And so, he collected people that had complimentary strengths to themselves that were good at debating, were good in terms of their persuasive speech, and they were also good at taking criticism, where they had titanium-coated skin. So, that was one of the elements. The second element was the way that he wrote his books, he used the word “We” and “Us,” –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – and this very communal kind of form, as opposed to, “I am the purveyor of this information. I’m the wise one. I discovered this thing. I am challenging religious doctrines about how humans were formed.” He’s saying, “We’re in this together. That you’ve seen things that are similar to what I’m saying.” And he would provide third most, these really beautiful analogies and examples. So, he would describe the very details of insects crawling on the ground, or pigeons in terms of why they have different-shaped feet. And this ability to use stories and narratives and images in the late 1800s was a very new phenomenon. I mean now, every TED speaker, they’re replicating each other.

Everyone’s got a story about their childhood, of how they were rejected, and they failed, and they didn’t get into college, or their basketball team. But back then, it was a very strange phenomenon to actually not just talk about the science. And there’s a lot of other scientists that could’ve been really really, as the term you use, expedite discoveries if they were to follow Darwin’s lead. The first person I always think of is Rosalind Franklin, who got left out of the Nobel Prize history, who really did the X-Ray calligraphy to figure out the double helix shape –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – of DNA. And she was cantankerous, difficult to work with – now, this was a very misogynistic time, so –

Nico: I was about to say. Did it also have something to do with the fact that she was a woman?

Todd: Yeah. No, no, no. So, everything’s understandable. But temperamentally, she was really high in quarrelsomeness, really high in neuroticism, and really low on openness to experience. So, that’s a tough combination to interact with. Nico, with your point, I think one thing to take away from Dissenting and Disagreeing is when we’re in the audience, we really should be good about separating the personality of the messenger from the message.

So, when we do meet people who are like Rosalind Franklin, who are quarrelsome and low in emotional stability and relatively closeminded, that should be relatively inconsequential to can we still humbly listen to those ideas? So, Darwin knew his weaknesses, he leveraged them in the way he wrote and in the way that he brought in people. He brought in people individually, meeting them one-on-one as allies, as opposed to, “I’m gonna release the book and hope that thousands of people of the public are going to support this.”

Nico: One of the things that your book made me think of is this idea that my boss, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt talk about in The Coddling of the American Mind, which is they address identity politics, right? And they talk about how there are two forms of identity politics, broadly speaking. There is common enemy identity politics, and then common humanity identity politics. And they talk about how during the civil rights movement, one of the reasons Martin Luther King, although he was largely reviled in his time, it’s hard to remember that the FBI tracked him, there were parties when he was assassinated, some really awful stuff.

But he moved the cause of civil rights forward, largely because he talked about shared values. We’re all Americans. We’re all in this together, essentially. Whereas what John and Greg call a “Common Enemy Identity Politics,” it creates an us versus them mentality. And it’s hard to bring the them around to your cause when you’re calling them evil, or oppressor –

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: – rather than a friend who maybe just hasn’t seen the light yet, and needs to understand. And this is Daryl Davis, who has been on this podcast before. He’s a Black man who befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to get them to give up their racist beliefs, turn in their Klan robes. And he found a lot of success doing that. And many of those former Klan members are now some of his close friends, because he showed them through experience and demonstration that their prejudices about who he was just based on the color of his skin were wrong.

So, I think you can have people who are working toward the same goal, but pursue it tactically in different ways, and therefore have different outcomes. I mean, I wouldn’t have a job in communications right now if that weren’t the case, right? Trying to understand what really appeals to people meeting them with their values, and trying to bring them along to this broader cause that we defend every day, which the cause of free expression.

Todd: Hey Nico, can I bust in with two thoughts that that kind of spins off for me?

Nico: Sure.

Todd: There’s this great work by Texiera, where they talk about –

Nico: Texera? Is that T-E-X-E-R-A?

Todd: T-E-X-I-E-R-A, I think is how you spell it.

Nico: Oh, okay.

Todd: I don’t remember the first name, ‘cause I just read these articles.

Nico: Oh, okay.

Todd: Hundreds of articles a week.

Nico: Well, we’ll try and go find it in the show notes and we’ll –

Todd: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it basically compares Malcolm X’s approach and Martin Luther King’s approach. And how they describe it, the framework is a normative disagreement with what the mainstream is doing. So, that’s Martin Luther King Jr, in terms of, “All right, we’re gonna have boycotts, we’re gonna send out flyers, we’re gonna have protests,” and then there’s the Malcolm X nonnormative approach, where it’s sort of like where you’re spray-painting people’s houses, you’re physically attacking people, you are lambasting people’s character, you are publicly shaming people, and – well, they didn’t have it then, but now, it would be like computer hacking. Doxing people, and hacking –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – into computer systems. And the question was what would be the support for people outside of this cause for normative and nonnormative forms of dissent? And it’s really clear. It doesn’t matter which country you’re exploring. Normative dissent. People want these very –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – peaceful, bland, Captain Crunch cereal kind of dissent against the mainstream. But here’s where he ended with the discussion, which was perhaps as a hypothesis: the Martin Luther King Jr’s of the world, they need the Malcolm X to serve as an alternative, undesirable and unlikeable foil for how you could be arguing against the mainstream at the same time.

And so, perhaps Martin Luther King Jr isn’t as inspective in terms of civil rights activism without the camp that’s under Malcolm X of his nonnormative approach of saying, “Okay, we don’t really want that in our community.” So, Martin Luther King Jr is looking a lot more attractive, a lot more, for lack of a better word, sane and interesting, and I can attend to that message, because I can’t attend, and I’m not going to attend to Malcolm X’s message.

Nico: Hmm. I’m trying to think of just modern parallels. And I’m sure as our listeners are hearing you talking, they’re coming up with them in the head.

Todd: Oh, I’ve got one from – yeah. I mean, one is you have the splinter group of this anti-abortion group that are calling themselves “Abolitionists.”

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: And so, these are the people that basically believe is not only do we believe that abortion should be illegal to anyone, and even perhaps incest or rape, including those as caveats, but also, the woman should be charged with murder. And what the road has been for people that were anti-abortion for the past century has been the woman is a victim in this situation as well, because nobody wants to be in a scenario where you have to decide –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – to any medical procedure where you have anesthesia in the first place. And that shift to saying, “Not only are you not a victim, but you are actually someone that is actually an illegal enemy of the state,” to some degree, the anti-abortion movement could actually get more traction by this extreme element being there of saying, “Listen, you guys are whacky with this idea, in terms of the idea of you’re gonna put someone in jail for life or give them the death penalty because you’re concerned about the death of the unborn.”

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: And then, all of a sudden, the other people look a lot more pragmatic and sane in listening to their message. And so, there’s something to be said of it might be an interesting – it’s a hypothesis that –

Nico: So, you open up the Overton’s window really really wide so that people who are maybe in the middle of that window look more appealing perhaps?

Todd: Right. And this is in the aftermath of Trump, where we’re seeing this as well. It’s like okay, you have people that seem somewhat sensible, the language isn’t littered with ad homonyms. And so, at least you’re on task in terms of governance. And that sounds so much saner than a Trump who’s leading the country. And that’s the danger, is while this might be useful for persuading if it’s for a benevolent reason, if it serves a benevolent reason, this can be used as a force for creating real problematic, dysfunctional practices in society.

Nico: The abortion debate is interesting. It might be a good case study in how to dissent effectively. From either side, right?

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: And so, I read and listen to the stories in the news about the abortion debate. And one of the things that strikes me is that the coverage or the messaging from both sides doesn’t seem to be appealing to those on the other side. For example, I saw a Facebook post from Planned Parenthood and the state of Pennsylvania – or maybe it was Planned Parenthood National – that led off by saying, “We love abortion.” And it just makes me think –

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: – is that really appealing to people who are on the fence of this issue? ‘Cause you go back to what was it? The Clinton era? It should be safe, legal and rare, right? Which if you’re trying to appeal to moderates, or at least move them slightly to your side, is probably a better messaging than, “We love abortion.” And if you love something, then maybe you – it seemed like it wasn’t really reaching people. And then, a lot of the messaging from the pro-choice side is around choice, and personal medical decisions, and if you think that pro-life people are probably more vaccine-skeptical too, then they would perhaps see hypocrisy on the idea of medical choice.

It’s my choice what I do with my body. There’s also the question of the not engaging with the crux of the argument from the pro life side, which is that this is a life, right? So, regardless of what you think about your medical choice, or bodily autonomy, it’s like what’s your argument for this other human who we see is living inside of you? And then, vice-versa, the pro life side just doesn’t engage with the argument that this is a medical decision, you see states going so far as to pass laws that don’t consider the life of the mother. And so, it all becomes about the child, and then not about the mother.

So, I just see it in this debate. I don’t see anyone using effective communication strategies to reach people on the other side, or to dissent effectively, if by effectively, you mean bringing people along to your cause.

Todd: Yeah. So, maybe the best way to use this as an analogue is actually go through a couple of the steps of if you were in the minority position, where you lack power, you lack status, demographically, there aren’t people that are like you in this situation, how can you be influential? And so, one of the first steps is to show that you are not on the outside. You are one of this group that you’re trying to persuade. And so, when you have – I can’t do both sides consistently. So, if you have someone that is against the choice, like women’s bodily autonomy and choice, –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – and this is gonna be decided by the state, if I was a psychological consultant for them, I would say, “You want to hone in on how you are pro women, and the women that are speaking be very clear in terms of how you care about women’s health, how you care about children that are already born, how do you care about children that are already in schools, how do you care about impoverished families where they’re barely able to make ends meet, and how are you gonna deal with children that are in orphanages right now? Focusing broadly on families, children and women first. And then, this becomes just one leg of this large table of things that you’re focusing on.”

That would be the strategy that would actually be more effective, saying, “Listen, I’m a woman, I care about women’s issues.” So, this isn’t just about relating to longstanding religious reasons about what should or shouldn’t be done. We’re not bringing morality in, per se. This is underneath this very comprehensive, broad umbrella of women’s issues I care about. And I think that after the Supreme Court decision about Roe V. Wade, overturning it, there was a big failure in terms of not emphasizing other issues about women, family and poverty.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: Because people look for hypocrisy. We’re all hypocrites.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: But we really look for the hypocrisy in other people. And if I was a psychological consultant, as you were saying for Planned Parenthood, I agree. So, I’ve never seen this advertisement before. But I would actually argue that the best advertisement would be the opposite of that, is say, “We despise abortions. We would love a society where this doesn’t happen. Here are all of the things, the reasons of why an unfortunate situation happens, and you have people in unfortunate situations, and it’s in the same category of great adversity that every one of us has experienced. We’ve lost parents, you’ve been exposed to people with cancer, you’ve been exposed to people who are childhood sexual abuse survivors, –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – and in this realm of how much suffering there is in society, this is one more that we’re trying to reduce.” And if you went from the arena as you’re saying of there’s a common humanity that we all suffer in our own unique ways with our negative life events, you can grab people to say, “Listen, I don’t agree with you on this one, but damn do I understand that life is freakin’ hard, and this is another hard situation.”

Nico: How does social media make it hard to actually tailor your message to your audience, right? ‘Cause you think about Twitter, and you have a visceral reaction to the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe V. Wade, or perhaps Biden’s decision to cancel some student debt, which just happened today. You think about what you think about the issue, and then you almost in a cathartic manner, just blasted off to your 2,000 twitter followers who have various personal beliefs, may come down on various sides of the issue. It doesn’t force you to actually think about who you’re trying to reach, what messages might resonate with them, articulate shared values or shared history.

You talk about how appealing to history is important in bringing people along to your side. So, it almost trains an advocate to rush to judgement, to rush to – and yeah, it just doesn’t seem to inculcate the sort of things that you talk about as being necessary to argue and dissent effectively in your book.

Todd: Yeah. I mean, the problem social media, and particularly thinking about Twitter – well, it’s always useful to remember – and I wish that mainstream media would remember this – that less than 10 percent of the culture has even stepped foot into the land of Twitter. The idea that you would go there as a repository for news is just absurd. I think it’s really important to think about what are the incentives on a particular platform, even here on a podcast? The incentive there is extreme speed to get factions that support you. So, to get a faction to support you, you have to lean as far away as possible from moderate, sensible, comprehensive, two-sided messages, right?

Nico: Yeah.

Todd: A two-sided message is basically to say – so, we’ll go with the example of Biden trying to remove student debt from the past – the two-sided message is, “Listen, we want to remove some of the debt and the burden of people that can no longer afford their own households, we have a incredible sociological number of people that are unable to live without their previous biological family. Living with their caregivers.”

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: Society is having a drop in creativity innovation when people don’t have financial and social independence. So, the problem on social media is you quickly respond with some very witty thing of, “Well, what do you do with the people that took jobs and paid off their student debt, and it was really hard to make ends meet? And now, they took a job where they’re underemployed, and doing something that is beneath their skills and education, because that was the only pathway in order for paying for college.” But everything’s covered there.

And so, when you have these caveats, to give an effective message from the Biden camp, if I was a psychologic consultant, is I would address this before someone addresses that on social media. Your two-sided message is you have the footnotes and say, “Listen, here is a subgroup you’re gonna mention, and we can anticipate that. And this is why we did or didn’t include them in who we’re gonna care for, in terms of student loan forgiveness.” The failure to do that and giving a one-side message is less persuasive.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: Especially when you’re in a power position such as you are the President of one of the largest, –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – most important countries in the world.

Nico: Yeah. It’s essentially steel manning the other side’s argument before saying – presenting the best form of that argument before saying, “But here’s why that argument is flawed, or here’s why that argument is wrong.” Which is difficult to do, ‘cause it means actually investigating what the other side believes, if you’re gonna do it effectively, right?

Todd: Yeah. I’d actually make the bar a little bit lower than steel manning. So, I think what you’re describing is the optimum way of debating.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: I think the satisficing strategy for dissenting is at least giving a couple of caveats of where your idea has flaws, because everything is imperfect. And so, by you being the purveyor of the problems in your storyline and your message, you get to continually return to the fact, “Listen, I mentioned that. Thanks for bringing it up again. Let me flesh it out even further.” So, think about it as having a couple of footnotes, or where there are boundary conditions to where your idea works and doesn’t work.

Nico: How similar is that to a passage in your book where you talk about how expressing vulnerabilities or caveats, or just being candid about the challenges that you face can actually bring people on to your cause? Almost as a way of making them more sympathetic to you as a person.

You quote a philosopher, Alain de Benoist – and I’m probably butchering the name. It’s a French name – who said, “It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when all of the while, it’s really only the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.”

And when I think about that passage, I think about Mitt Romney. 2012, right? He loses to Barack Obama in the presidential election, he’s described as a robot, very mechanical, very political. If you’re working in the communications world, it’s like you just can’t get him to connect with people on a real level. And it’s almost because he didn’t want to reveal his real person. He wanted to reveal –

Todd: Right.

Nico: – what he thought a politician looks like. And then, a documentary is produced about his life that followed him on the campaign trail. And you get an inside look at this person, and their insecurities and –

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: – their challenges, and who they are as a person, and they start to look a little bit more like you. Hillary Clinton is said to have had the same problem in the 2016 campaign. People just couldn’t connect with her. She’s almost a little bit too robotic. And what you’re saying here is one of the ways to bring people along is to be a human, more or less, in front of an audience. Which is difficult, right? Because it requires you to share your vulnerabilities.

Todd: Yeah. There was a great study – and I’m gonna link this back to Mitt Romney – of Brackman, wanted to know how can you canvass effectively for transgender rights in terms of can they have access to the bathroom that matches the gender that they identify with in North Carolina.

And what they came up with was the most effective strategy to get people to sign on and support the rights for people of transgender to actually go in the bathroom that matches their gender identity, was not to beat them over the head, not to tie them to a particular political party, but for that person that was canvassing door-to-door to reveal a personal story of their own ostracism and rejection, and ask them, the people that they’re knocking on the door of, “Hey, have you ever experienced –?” Thinking of high school, and when you’re in your awkward 20’s of like, “Have you had a period where you didn’t fit in, and you had a difficult time? Who are you when you felt like an imposter?”

And that conversation about connecting about rejection, and social persecution, and difficulties with figuring out what your identity is separate from, what you should be or ought to be, that conversation first led them then kind of into this message of, “Listen, here you have a whole group of people that they’re not fitting in anywhere. And it’s difficult for them.” And it was the emotional residue of talking about shared adversity, carried over into the conversation of, “You know what? I don’t just see them as an other. As someone who’s transgender, because I’m not transgender. I see them as another person who’s experiencing difficulties. And I don’t –

Nico: Shared experiences.

Todd: – want them to experience social difficulties.” But it’s really about the narrative about personal hurt that’s what induces people to be more receptive to your message. Your message still has to be good. But really, when it comes to minority dissent, the only thing you can ask for is you’re looking for an open, receptive audience, where they’re willing to be persuadable. Can you get them to sit in their seats metaphorically or literally? And then, it’s up to you to have a persuasive message, which is an entire different set of strategies. And Mitt Romney, as you were saying, was very problematic, because everyone knew he was Mormon. But he was so afraid of touching this third rail.

He made it into an issue that wasn’t an issue. If he was someone that said, “I want you to know, it’s really hard being a minority in the country, as there’s a lot of religious people, there’s a lot of people that aren’t religious, and I wanna tell you not about my belief system, but what it’s like to try to make ends meet and socially connect with people when people despise you, when they hear about something that’s cored to what you care about.” And if he played with that realm as opposed to hiding from it, I suspect he would’ve gotten quite a number of extra percentage points in the presidential race.

Nico: Yeah. What he tried to do essentially was to fit in with whatever he envisioned in his mind a presidential candidate looked like. But we all know when the emperor’s not wearing clothes. We know when they’re not being their authentic stuff, or they’re trying to hide something. And the irony is that we all have those vulnerabilities, and we are all self-conscious about those sorts of things. And acknowledging them in fact, makes you more like what people want, or what people know actually exists in the office holder of the president, presumably, right?

Todd: Yeah. Yeah. And if you’re a teacher in a classroom, the idea that you have to have this steel, stoic, Spock-like experience, and you’re just providing knowledge is not the way to reach students. I mean, the way to reach students is when you talk about why this experience is so emotionally poignant to you, and why you’re talking about slavery, and why you’re talking about Ukraine, and why you’re interested in World War 2, and you start talking about your grandfather or your grandmother who maybe you lost a family member in the war, and they were raising kids by themselves.

Those stories are the entry point into getting students to kind of really listen and then retain knowledge and information. But we’ve really trained everyone to be quite stoic, which is not the strategy to win people over.

Nico: Yeah. There’s a reason that when animal rights groups ask for donations, right? They show a video or a photo of an animal that they’ve helped who looks like they’re in distress, right? And I believe there’s studies on this as well. There’s a book that everyone in the communications department here at Fire reads. It’s called “Made to Stick.” And it talks about how if you talk in the abstract without telling any stories, philanthropy is not as effective as if you just tell one story of one person. And this goes back to the Stalin quote, right? “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic,” right?

Todd: Right. Yeah.

Nico: You need to put some emotional meat on the bones. And it’s hard to tell a million stories. But you can tell one story for example, and people can extrapolate from there. Maybe add a statistic on the end to say, “No, this isn’t just this one person. This is happening to thousands of people as well, or thousands of dogs,” or whatever it is.

Todd: Yeah. And not to hit every single culture war topic in one single episode, but I mean, one of the problems –

Nico: Well, let’s try, right?

Todd: One problem right now with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategies that are being deployed in organizations and in my world and university college settings is exactly what you just described, is as opposed to revealing the stories of individuals in that exact organization, the history of that exact organization, there’s sort of this generality of, “We have this problem. We have a patriarchal system. We are a White supremacist organization. That’s the nature of our structural system.” And when you get critical thinkers who are saying themselves, “But is this exact satellite plant of this company, is there racism here? Is there sexism here?” Because I realize in society, there are problems to question.

But this might be a place where we are overreporting it, because I haven’t heard anything in this exact place. And then, how does that compare to just general people not fitting in because of their personality, their physical appearance, just being an immigrant, and not having a good grasp of the English language. When you make these pragmatic comparisons that people can understand that you are listening to the other side, you don’t just get the public nodding of the head, you get people actually willing to put the squid equity into the cause that you’re interested in.

And we really have to be careful, because I think a lot of the social activism of today, they’re really honing in on support is defined by the amount of people that give likes or actually nod their head and sign up for something, as opposed to, “But would they be doing it if they weren’t looking for likeability within the group?”

Nico: Yeah. You talk in the book about how people instinctively have a go along to get along attitude, and don’t want to be seen to be apart from the group. Although I will say, I think there’s a strain of person – and I’ve always kind of fallen into this category – that if everyone’s going right, your instinct is to go left, or if everyone’s going left, your instinct is to go right. And you talk about this in the context of Rick Barry. So, would you share with our audience a little bit about that story, and Wilt Chamberlain, and how that fits into this go along to get along type mentality that works against dissent and subordination, and ultimately perhaps in this case, progress, or at least scoring ability, that is?

Todd: Yeah. So, this is the land of sports. And most people who are listening to this probably have never seen any professional basketball player act like a little kid, and take a basketball between their hands and then rock it between their legs and throw a shot into the hoop from between their legs. Most people throw overhand. But little kids instinctively throw underhand, because they instinctively kind of know that if their physical strength is not sufficient to get the ball 15 feet above their head, rocking it back and forth between their legs gets enough physical momentum to get that ball further up.

And there are a number of physicists that have shown that if you want to increase the probability that you were gonna get the highest percentage of points by throwing a basketball into a net, you are better to throw it underhand than overhand. But right now, I think there are three players between thousands of college basketball players, and hundreds of professional basketball players, I think there’s three people that throw underhand. Even though statistically and scientifically, we know this is the most effective strategy. Rick Barry in the 1970s had the highest free throw percentage of shooting the ball and getting the ball through the net out of everyone in basketball.

And he’s in the Hall of Fame. And when he retired, not a single professional or college ball team asked for his advice of how can we get people to get more points on the board. And it’s worthwhile kind of taking a step back for a second and saying, “The No. 1 thing as a basketball player on a team is to score points and win games. And the way to win games is to score points.” So, the idea that you would reject a strategy that works because you don’t like the way it looks, players give in basically.

Nico: Yeah, Shaquille O’Neil famously said he’d rather shoot 0 percent than shoot underhand. He said –

Todd: Yeah.

Nico: – he’s too cool for that.

Todd: Yeah. And a number of players on record have said, “I would never shoot like a girl. I would look like a wuss. I don’t want the crowd to be against me.” And then, Wilt Chamberlain interestingly – so, he was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, considered always in the top five. Famously scored over 100 points in a single game, which will never happen again. And he had a very horrible free throw percentage. So, somebody fouls you, you get to the line, you get two free throws. Maybe –

Nico: Yeah.

Todd: – one if you’ve got a two point shot. And it was incredibly low. And then, one season, he was given a trainer that taught him how to shoot underhand to increase his free throw percentage. And that subsequent season, he had a huge spike in performance. One of the best years of his entire career. But there were people that – they call it the Granny Shot, ‘cause it’s –

Nico: Uh-huh.

Todd: – like what a grandma would do. And so, there were people in the stands, men that would dress up as a grandma with a grey wig, and a pearl necklace, and a skirt, and they would scream at him and chant against him. And he, the greatest basketball player alive at the time, incredibly physically attractive man who attracted lots of women and lots of fans, decided, “I can’t deal with this level of rejection and criticism,” and turned back to his old way of shooting poorly overhand.

And if you are one of the best shooters in the history of sports, and you are winning championships, and you are winning MVP trophies, and still the social conformity is so much more attractive than standing out and being exceptional, what does that say about the chances the rest of us have, the mortals among us, about standing up and being nonconformist because we found a better way of doing things?

Nico: Well, it just shows that our heroes are pretty much as insecure as we all are, right? I mean, –

Todd: Yes.

Nico: – he was shooting 38 percent from the line.

Todd: That’s right.

Nico: And he started shooting underhand, and it went up to 61 percent. Almost double.

Todd: You’re talking about 10, 15 more games the team is winning per year.

Nico: Yeah. I mean, an incredible amount. I mean, 61 percent is still low, I guess by professional standards, but it’s still astronomically higher than what he was shooting before. And he gave up on it because he thought he didn’t look cool, or because he was mocked. And your No. 1 goal, as you say in basketball, is to score points. So, it’s just an incredible demonstration in my mind, and it’s a perfect example that we all want to look cool, we all want to fit in, we are all slightly insecure, and we’ll often try and fit in to our own personal or professional detriment.

Todd: Well Nico, there’s also another interesting maxim which is the more money and prestige that you have in society, the more you have to lose. And so, we say to ourselves, “Well, if the billionaires can say whatever they want, the CEOs can say whatever they want, the heads of the titans of industry.” But they have the most to lose by being criticized in terms of what will happen to their evaluation of their company and their employees. And so, to some degree, there’s nobody that’s really immune from these conformity mistakes, in terms of choosing subpar practices over what works if society or the groups you care about think that it’s a bad idea, even if it’s a good idea.

So, it’s incumbent upon dissenters for people to be more socially courageous, and speak their mind, because you are actually one of the elements that leads to cultural evolution. And it conduces a very meaningful task when you decide that your group is going in the wrong direction, and you’re gonna say something because you care so much about the group. Not because you don’t care, ‘cause –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – you do care. You’re willing to sacrifice yourself for the vitality and longevity of the group.

Nico: You also talk about status quo bias, which is we just do things because they’ve always been done that way. And I think that’s more or less what you find with free throw shooting in basketball. But it takes a special person who may just have an aptitude for coming up with creative solutions to problems who will propose a new way of doing things. I don’t know if Rick Barry was the first person to shoot underhand to figure out that maybe that’s a better way to increase my percentage from the line.

But there’s also the person who decided for the first time that they were gonna go over a high jump bar backwards. I forget what it’s called. It’s a something flop. My wife who was a high jumper in college will probably get mad at me for not remembering what it is. But if you encourage dissent, if you encourage creative thinking, if you remind people that status quo bias is a real thing, you start to encourage people to think outside the box is just another way of putting it, which in and of itself, provides the opportunities for progress, right?

Todd: Yeah. Yeah, and think of more mundane examples, right? For how many decades have organizations revolved around brainstorming sessions in a group? And then, all of a sudden, somebody realized, “You know what? People are silencing their ideas. We’re getting fewer ideas and less creative ideas. But when we ask for people’s ideas ahead of time, and we actually collect that information, and then share it in the group anonymously, we don’t include the names with those ideas, you get people to debate more freely, you get a larger number of ideas, and you get people that are more likely to tinker and play with ideas, because they don’t know which idea is tied to the socially attractive people in the group.

The people that they want to hang out with, the people they think are cool, the people they think are physically attractive and witty. And still today, I mean, every faculty meeting that I go to a George Mason university, we talk about it in a group setting, and I keep saying over and over again in my email, “Listen, we have to collect the ideas. We know this. We know the science. We’re a group of scientists.”

We know that if you raised your idea in a group setting, and everybody sees you, those people that are more likeable, their ideas will be treated as if they’re better than the more introverted and quiet and anxious, or marginalized people in that group. And still, people listening today are probably – a whole number of them are in organizations that play this. So, you can decide to –

Nico: So, you’re almost arguing in that case for the sort of dispassion – I forget what you call it in part three of your book – analysis of ideas. So, you’re almost stripping away all of those argumentation tactics to bring people on your side so that you can analyze an issue or an idea dispassionately. And –

Todd: Yeah, yeah.

Nico: – what format do you take that? So, the suggestion box, essentially?

Todd: Well, you can imagine collecting it on a bunch of post-its. You get somebody with really good handwriting so you can’t even tell the handwriting.

Nico: Uh-huh.

Todd: They write out all the ideas down, and they get posted all over the walls in the group you go in. And all you’re doing is looking at what ideas do you like, and offer your ideas for how to tinker and build and improve upon what’s written on all the walls. You have no idea who said what. I think of this as how can we remove all of the proxies of intelligence and creativity that suck? That we end up falling prey to? So, we tend to think that loud people, assertive people have better ideas. We tend to think that people have –

Nico: All people. Right? And isn’t that –

Todd: All people.

Nico: – something that you find compulsive?

Todd: Yeah. To all people. People who have more social effervescence and charismatic have better ideas. And we think the people that actually speak much more fluidly and fluently that they have better ideas. But none of these variables that I just mentioned are correlated with the quality of ideas. And so, if we can keep reminding ourselves that, an organization or a group of people will perform better.

Nico: So, I realize we’re almost at an hour here, and I do have a couple of more questions, so I’m gonna try and get to them. You write that acts of insubordination don’t usually win over members of the majority right away. Instead, they sew seeds of doubt, and these mature overtime into new perspectives. And one of the things that you posit is that there’s this 25 percent rule. That it takes a solid block of about a quarter of a population espousing a minority position to transform a group’s beliefs or behavior. But that can’t be the full story, right?

Because you have plenty of public opinion polls where you find there’s 25 percent support for something that never ends up gaining majority support, and might actually regress in one way or another. So, what does it actually take? Maybe it requires a minimum of 25 percent to start taking off. But Christianity was a minority position before it got to 25 percent within the Middle East before it took off and to become the religion of the West, right? So, what’s the additional element of that story that takes it from 25 percent to 51 percent?

Todd: Yeah. Great question. So, it’s not a story. It’s about six to seven studies actually found this. Random groups of people, organizations, as ideas move around, as people figure out that about 25 percent support this idea, it starts to increase in mass. It starts to collect. Start to collect more characters, and the alliance gets bigger and bigger. Underneath that 25 percent mark, these ideas often don’t have a chance. So, there’s a couple of strategies that are pretty effective. One, we mentioned earlier, but it bears repeating, is if you think you’re gonna have detractors for the idea you have, meet with those people individually so they can save public face, –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – and they can actually offer their criticisms of your idea before the group meets, or they can actually realize of, “Listen, now that you’re seeing me face-to-face, is the idea the thing that you have a problem with, or is there something about the way that I’m sharing this idea?” One-on-one, people are much more receptive to actually sharing transparently exactly what it is that’s bugging them about it. And it might be something that has nothing to do with the idea. It might be your arrogance. There’s a lot of people in organizations or group settings that are like, “Listen, just bide your time, and in 10 years, you’ll have all the power you want to say, and all your ideas will stand a chance.”

And I believe that’s a very antiquated notion. I think often, newcomers come in, and they are not staying in their lane, and they pop into a group, and they realize, “Oh my God, I can see all of the flaws of how you guys communicate.” Just the idea that I see all of the women sitting over there by themselves at that side of the table, I see the same three people that are around the head of the organization on that side of the table, and all of the new people are scattered around with their heads down, because they know no one’s listening to them. The newcomer will recognize that. The people that have been there that get to sustain their power will ignore that information.

And so, we need to find a system where we can pay attention to the messages and not the messengers. So, one is doing it by individually. The second part is try to figure out where is the problem able to showcase its flaws objectively, as opposed to being an op ed. And so, when you can provide numbers, or a clear behavioral residue of why something works or doesn’t work, that’s gonna be extremely persuasive. And label when it’s an opinion, and label when it’s actually been test-driven, and there’s actually support behind this. This gets back to two-sided messages. A lot of people just shove all their ideas out there.

But when you say, “Listen, here’s my –” You see me say it here on this podcast. I’m like, “Here’s a hypothesis. We don’t know the answer. And here’s some science that actually supports this idea.” That makes you not only more trustworthy, it shows that you’re actually less biased, because you’re clearly defining things. And it shows that you’re competent because you’re able to discern between what has facts behind it and what ends up being subjective.

Nico: So, what you’re saying essentially is that once you get to 25 percent, it gives you a shot at reaching majority? There are other factors at play, of course. But some of the tactics you talk about in the book give you a better shot than some other tactics that people might use?

Todd: Yeah. So, think about school bullying.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: One of the best strategies – and this started off in Canada – one of the best strategies for studying school bullying was not getting more than 25 percent to be onboard of saying, “Hey, being kind and generous and compassionate is the way for adolescent boys to behave.” This is a much better route than being bullies.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: What they did was they would recruit football players, wrestlers, cheerleaders, and they would go into classrooms as peer counselors and talk about their experience of being insecure, and why they think that school would be better if it ended up being that there was less verbal violence, and less aggression that was happening towards other people, and you should stand up if you see someone getting bullied. And the idea is – so, I wasn’t just 25 percent. It was socially attractive people were particularly recruited to be part of that 25 percent.

Nico: So, the title of your book here is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively. I maybe should’ve asked this at the top of the program, but insubordination, dissent and defy are three different words that sort of get at similar things, but aren’t the same. So, can you talk me through your thought process in thinking about those, and how those three words intersect with the main thesis from the book?

Todd: I am so glad you said this. So, insubordination was chosen on purpose, because in a military context, this is the worst thing you could do. You are the black sheep. If you look at a dictionary definition, insubordination is you are in a hierarchical structure, you are at one of the lower rungs, and you have challenged the rules, the norms or the guides of how you’re supposed to behave in that hierarchical structure.

And so, the idea of a private or a lieutenant challenging a general is anathema in the US. Now, in Israel, in the Israeli defense forces, they train you is that if your leader, your general has problematic ideas, anyone can take the helm for that particular decision. But that’s not something in the American military that we’ve actually adopted that practice. So, this is about minority descent.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: This whole book is about when you lack the power and the status, which is most people in society. And even people that have power, they don’t have power equally in every domain in their lives.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: You have your household, you have your friends, you have your romantic life, you’re in your neighborhood, and you have your work, and your gym, or your local pub where you go for a drink. And so, it’s important to realize is that power is constantly fluctuating, and it depends where you’re looking at things.

Nico: And so, do you have a normative position then? You talk about good and necessary trouble. Is the good and necessary trouble essentially dissent because of what it does for the group? It helps you have a better understanding in your position, it forces you to confront contrary arguments, presents new arguments that might exist that could lead to cultural evolution or progress? Because for example, you have at the end of your book Hannah Waters, who is a student in high school who back in August of 2020 when schools reopened in her community, she complained publicly, and she talked about how the schools had, “Ignorantly opened back up.”

And you talk about how a generation of young people like Waters who care so damn much, they rise up and stand on behalf of what they see as progress. You can see people on the other side of that debate saying schools need to open up because of what it’s doing to educational progress, and student mental health protesting for example against school closures in Arlington, Virginia, where I was living in 2020. So, for you, is it good to have normatively people on all sides of the issue speaking up and dissenting, and maybe even being insubordinate? So, how do you think about or walk that line?

Todd: Yeah. So, there’s a lot of important nuances here. So, one of them is to what degree is there a contribution element that is beyond the self? So, you’re –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – transcending the self, and you believe there are dysfunctional norms and ideas, and you are challenging them without increasing the suffering of other people intentionally.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: Or even at the higher level, even unintentionally. So, in that exact case for example, at that time, that was kind of at the close peak of COVID. So, that level of dissent of that student changes one year later, one and a half years later. It becomes more questionable as the rates of COVID actually declined overtime.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: Now, where is the magic number? I definitely don’t know what the magic number is. So, I’ll give you a contrary example. You had those truckers in Ottawa that were blocking any supplies to being exported to Canada, because they felt that the mass mandates were too strong, and it was time to open up the communities. Why was that problematic? Why do I not view that as principled insubordination? Because what they weren’t thinking about was at the other side of the ledger, what is Canada losing?

Who is suffering because certain exports are not making it into the country? So, blood banks went dry. Medical supplies went dry. And so, the idea that the mass mandate itself, this cultural issue was more important than actual people survival in hospital, and in family settings was not acknowledging the level of impoverished food supplies as a result of them trying to block the pipelines for stuff getting in.

Nico: And I think that – let me know if this gets to the crux of what you’re saying, that word “Acknowledging.” We talked about this earlier in the podcast, acknowledging the other side as a way to make your point, or bring people along to your position. Let’s say in the COVID case in August, the dissenter is someone who says, “I recognize that not wearing a face mask will cost lives. I recognize that COVID is a real problem in America. But the CDC is looking at this from a public health perspective.”

But there are other tradeoffs that come into play if you only consider this from public health’s perspective. The loss of jobs, the effect on student mental health, the students who aren’t getting their free lunches because they’re not in school, things like that. And they say, “On balance, given these tradeoffs, I acknowledge your positions. I still think it’s better that the schools open up.” Is that principled dissent as you define it in the book?

Todd: Absolutely. I mean, no question. So, I have an equation in the first chapter, right? Where the key ingredients are you’re deviating from the norms, you have the level of authenticity, and there’s a sense of contribution. So, this is where we get to the authenticity part.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: And to what degree are you dissenting because it wins you favorability points in your group? Which I view as not being authentic, but it is a core human denomination.

Nico: ‘Cause you own the libs, right? That’s a quote.

Todd: Yeah, right. Right. Exactly, yeah. This is just my way of gaining status in a tribal conflict. Versus what you just described, which is this is authentic because I have thought about the costs and the tradeoffs of making this decision, and this seems to be the proper way to go. On the end of being problematic in terms of their communication for principle dissent was when the CDC came out, it was one of their worst moments, and said, “Listen, we realize that COVID right now is at astronomical levels. We realize that masks are going to be helpful in reducing the transmission. But –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – unrelated to our mission, we’re gonna say if you’re in racial protests right now, the CDC supports you.”

Nico: Yeah.

Todd: It was one of their worst moments, because this is not their area of expertise, it makes no logical sense, and as you’ve said before, a large proportion of society was able to see that this was a nonsensical, nonpragmatic argument, and now you’ve raised questions about everything you’ve said before.

And I think it’s worthwhile to bring this issue up of exactly where they had a problem so that it doesn’t happen again, because we will have other pandemics. And we will have other areas of public health where we need people to focus. Your mission is the science, not racial relations to society. Both those things are important, but don’t mix the two, because then you end up losing the battle where you’re an expert on, which is public health.

Nico: Yeah. Well, I don’t wanna keep you much longer, but as a final question here – so again, the book is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively. And for our audio listeners, this is also available on YouTube – I have a question about the cover. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cover.

It is a cloudy landscape, there is something – it looks like an origami paper hat of some sort that’s being floated up by a hot air balloon over what looked like two waterfalls with a chasm in-between, and the other origami paper hats – and they could be something else – look like they’re about to fall down the waterfall while this other origami paper hat that’s being floated by the hot air balloon rises above the waterfall. So, I have to ask you, what is this a metaphor for, why did you choose this cover? I’m assuming the publisher came up with the idea?

Todd: No, no. If anyone is interested, I will send you the hundreds of covers that I went through. Because it was really important for me if it’s the art of insubordination. And I believe there’s an art and there’s a science to this. And this isn’t just science. Just the questions you’ve been asking me, right? There’s not clear, definitive answers of, “Here is the exact line where it becomes principled versus unprincipled dissent.

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: So, that was an artistic creation of that red balloon signifies –

Nico: Yeah.

Todd: – the dissent, and that origami is this creative idea that you’re kind of bringing forth to the other side to actually help make the world move in a more aspirational direction. And so, it needs –

Nico: Mm-hmm.

Todd: – the help of that – that red balloon is all of the strategies put together as you’re able to make sure this idea is elevated, it’s listened to, it’s attended to, and it’s got a shot of the highest probability of being integrated into society.

Nico: It might also be a message to the other origami hats that are about to go down this waterfall, that, “Hey, there’s a way to get over this waterfall. Just find yourself a big ol’ red hot air balloon,” right?

Todd: Yeah. I mean, the other origamis on the other side, they’re the lemurs. We are so big about social allegiances and social alliances that we often allow ourselves to think in a much less intellectual and rational matter, just because we don’t wanna lose status. And I’m suggesting it’s that be willing to be courageous, and take a few hits to live a more meaningful life. Because for yourself, and then for the benefit of other people who don’t have your temperament and your courageous actions.

Nico: Well, if your goal was to get me to look at this cover like it were a work of art and analyze it and try and understand its meaning, mission accomplished. So, well done. It was fun again. Here’s the cover.

Todd: Penguin will love this.

Nico: It’s just fun. Usually, I get book covers that don’t have as much intrigue to them. So, I appreciated that one, Todd.

Todd: Oh, thank you!

Nico: I appreciate it. Well anyway, let’s wrap it up there. We could keep going for hours, but I will spare my colleague Aaron Reese who edits this podcast the challenge of going through an hour and a half to two hour-long podcast and editing it back and forth. So, it’s been a lot of fun, and I hope we get an opportunity to meet in-person and perhaps do another show!

Todd: Listen, you are my favorite nonprofit organization on Earth. I talk about you guys all of the time. I think that Fire is absolutely essential to society, and if there’s any an organization that’s linked to the tenants and the philosophies and the strategies in this book, it is Fire. So, thank you for existing!

Nico: Well, I appreciate that plug. I appreciate that plug. So, this is Todd Kashdan. He is the author of The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively. If you do not buy the book for all of the interesting stories and ideas he has inside it, buy it for the cover, which is also itself interesting and artistic. This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleague Aaron Reese. To learn more about So to Speak, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel, where you can see us talking live, and also see me holding up the book cover that we were just discussing.

Most of our episodes including this one all have a video component to them. You can also follow us on Twitter or Instagram by searching for the Handle Free Speech Talk. We have a Facebook, facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast, and importantly, we have an email for feedback at sotospeak@thefire.org. Again, that email address is sotospeak@thefire.org. If you enjoyed this podcast, enjoyed listening, please leave us a review wherever you get your podcast. Reviews help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, I thank you all again for listening!