Watch Brendon Marotta and psychologist Ronald Goldman speak on the psychology of circumcision at the Boston documentary screening of American Circumcision:
Get the film American Circumcision here.
Watch Brendon Marotta and psychologist Ronald Goldman speak on the psychology of circumcision at the Boston documentary screening of American Circumcision:
Get the film American Circumcision here.
I’m putting together a book of the best thinking on circumcision.
Most of what is written about circumcision is surface thinking. Circumcision debates online devolve to bumper sticker ideological statements. “Circumcision is cleaner.” “Circumcision is genital mutilation.” “It looks better.” “It’s my choice.” And so on.
For a topic that affects the majority of the American population – every man, partner of a man, parent and child – circumcision has not received the same level of discourse that other important issues have. If either side of this debate is correct, it has massive implications for publicly policy, gender, sexuality, human rights, medicine, childrearing and a whole host of other topics. Yet mainstream discussion of circumcision remains at the level of middle schoolers giggling about the word penis, thumbnails of a banana with the tip removed, and pro and con lists that read like someone choosing a fashion accessory rather than making a lifelong decision for their child.
The issue of circumcision is reaching a tipping point. European nations are considering banning the practice. At the same time, the United States federal law against female circumcision has been declared unconstitutional. Presidential candidates and celebrities have commented on the issue of circumcision. Isn’t it time for the discourse around this issue to move beyond surface thinking into the real questions circumcision raises?
My documentary American Circumcision included interviews with top voices on both sides of the debate. It condensed information that would have previously taken months of study into a one hour and forty minute film. The movie received awards, and is currently available on Netflix. It currently stands as the definitive work of media on the circumcision debate.
However, despite covering on this issue more than any previous media, there were still aspects I was unable to cover. I built the film around the central question “is circumcision something Americans should continue?” Yet there are many other questions one could ask about this issue. In releasing the film and touring with it across the country, I had many people raise these questions at our screenings, on social media, and in the press and podcasts I did to promote the film. There are enough questions raised by this issue to fill a book, and justify a second artistic venture going even deeper into the issue of circumcision.
That is why I’m putting together a book of essays featuring the best thinking on circumcision. Each essay will explore a unique aspect of this issue. Like the film, I plan to allow the full range of perspectives so that readers can compare different viewpoints side by side and come to their own conclusions.
Some of the interview subjects from my film will be returning to contribute essays, however there will be many new voices.
If you are interested it submitting an essay, I would recommend picking one aspect of this debate and going deep. Find the perspective only you could contribute. For example, one sexologist has told me they are interested in writing a chapter just on what happens to the pelvic floor during circumcision. That is a unique aspect of this issue I have not seen covered elsewhere and something that only someone with their background could cover.
What I’m looking for is powerful writing. Although some of our contributors are academics, this book for the general public. Write in a way that captures attention. Personal stories, opinion pieces, original research, etc. are all welcome as long as it deepens our understanding of this issue.
If there is someone whose unique perspective you would like to see in this book, please share this blog post with them and ask them to contribute. I have reached out to a few “big names” asking for a contribution, but there is a greater chance of public figures contributing if they see their audience wants them to speak on this issue.
The power of this book is in the collaboration. This is an opportunity for public figures to speak on circumcision, next to top experts. Each author will be able to expand their audience to the combined audience of every other author in the book, plus the audience I have through my feature-length documentary on Netflix for only the cost of a single essay, roughly the length of a long blog-post.
Together we will create something greater than any one contributor could do alone, that will become a must-read for anyone interested in the issue of circumcision.
The deadline for contributions is June 30, 2019. My goal is to publish September 2019. Currently, I am looking at self publishing, but open to other offers.
To see my previous work on this issue, watch my film American Circumcision here.
In December 2018, I wrote in an email newsletter:
I’m going to go on record and say I think the tipping point [for the Intactivist movement] is going to happen March 2019.
It’s March 2019 now. Was I right?
The tipping point is when a movement a critical 15% of a population agrees with an issue, and it begins to landslide through the rest of the population.
The tipping point is not when a movement wins. It’s when a movement starts to take off. The tipping point for the civil rights movement wasn’t when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream speech.” The tipping point for the gay rights movement wasn’t when gay marriage was passed. Both tipping points began much earlier, and might only be visible in hindsight with the full vantage of history.
Political movements are not adopted at a consistent pace. 80% of the population doesn’t care on most issues. They just want to live their lives in peace, and follow whatever the majority wants. If 10% is pulling one direction and 10% pulling another, when one side hits a majority-minority – usually 15% – then the uncaring-majority will side with them and start to change.
So are we at a tipping point for Intactivism?
Let’s look at the recent happenings in the past months.
In December, my documentary American Circumcision was added to Netflix, and trended as popular for the platforms 148 million users (60 million in the USA). Shortly after, activist groups reported increased interest.
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Hearing reports that our film is "Popular on Netflix." Who else is seeing this? . #Netflix #NetflixMovies #film #filmmaker #documentary #documentaries #movies #movie #circumcision #parent #parenting #baby #controversy #babies #birth #pregnant #pregnancy #netflixandchill #netflixshows #popular #popularonnetflix
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Doctors Opposing Circumcision appeared on the Ralph Nader Show. There have been lots of press and radio appearances for major Intactivist groups like Intaction, Bloodstained Men, and Intact America. Foregen also published their first first peer-reviewed research. There has been incredible momentum for the entire movement, and almost total silence from any opposition.
Now, Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has mentioned the movement by name and said he supports them. Although, he later moderated his statement, in an effort to attack him the media shared the Intactivist name and message across platforms that oppose Yang.
This is an indication that Intactivism is now a known movement that pundits are aware of. While those trying to attack Yang have been dismissive of the movement, many have not. Top Trump supporters have been supportive of Yang’s position, as have many on the left. When Stephen Colbert mentioned the Intactivist movement on his late night show, he joked it was a movement “for a better Wang” and even used Intact in place of “uncircumcised.” The language and tone has dramatically changed.
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In this clip, Stephen Colbert discusses Andrew Yang's opposition to circumcision and even uses the word intact. . To find out why this is a national issue, watch our film #AmericanCircumcision. (link in bio) . #Presidential #Colbert #ColbertReport #StevenColbert #StephenColbert #AndrewYang #YangGang #Yang2020 #DNC2020 #YangGang2020 #LateNight #LateNightWithStephenColbert #Intact #Intactivist #Parenting #Pregnancy
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If you were looking for evidence of a tipping point, a Presidential candidate mentioning your movement positively, a major Netflix documentary, and a surge of media and interest would all be a pretty good cues.
If you believe this isn’t the tipping point – what would be? Because whatever you think it is, I assure you – that’s coming. The momentum is there. The real question is – what happens next?
Knowing a tipping point was coming, I prepared by creating as much content as possible. I honed my interview skills by doing as many podcasts as I could. I built a system to generate tons of content on the platforms that matter. I advised everyone involved on this issue who would listen to do the same.
While I always feel like I could be doing more, my systems are in place, and I’ve got a pretty clear vision of what I want to create next. That said, what comes next may look very different.
I predict the next six months will involve a media storm. Now that the movement poses a real political threat, you can expect attack pieces to begin. These attacks won’t be based in fact, reason, or new evidence. They come because opposition groups feel threatened and want to lash out. Their hit pieces may be baseless and false, but it won’t matter. People make false accusations in politics all the time.
For those who have read Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, this is Stage 4 of a movement – the take off. At this stage, there may be a lot of “happenings” that are beyond anyone’s control.
Andrew Yang mentioning circumcision, and then Daily Beast following up for comment was not a story anyone could predict or control. No one told Yang to say what he did. An anonymous twitter user just decided to ask him. If one anonymous user can change that much, what will happen when the collective mind of the internet and media turns their attention to this issue?
Once this many people are involved, no one person will be able to predict or control what happens next. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to manage it all. Expect people on both sides to make mistakes or blunders, and others to suddenly surprise you with their skillful contribution. There may be an urge to control, but once this wave breaks in culture, it will be beyond anyone’s control.
The Tao Te Ching says “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” In other words, take right action and leave the outcome up to the world. Rather than trying to manage the entire movement, I plan to give my contribution and surrender the rest to God.
This is going to be a roller coaster. There may be points where it seems like everything is won. There may be points where it seems like everything is lost. In these moments, it may be tempting to become reactive and act from greed or fear. Instead, do you your part, and then step back.
Every person working on this issue has a unique gift. There are many different methods and styles of activism. Rather than chasing the next happening, I would advise anyone reading to meditate and find the one place you can contribute what is authentic to you. If everyone makes their one contribution, it will do more than a thousand people talking “strategy” or seeking to intellectually control the world from their mind.
I have kept a copy of the Tao Te Ching on my desk since high school. I carry a copy with me when I travel. Whenever I feel anxious, I take it out and read a few verses. I’ll leave you with this from chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching:
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm
at the end as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
Enjoy the ride.
Read More: How To Start Your Activism
Many news articles on circumcision feel the need to mention: “The American Academy of Pediatrics says that the benefits outweigh the -”
Wrong. The AAP has no circumcision policy statement.
Let me explain.
All American Academy of Pediatrics policy statements expire after five years unless renewed. This is taken directly from the last AAP policy statement on circumcision:
The last AAP policy statement on circumcision was published in 2012. It was not renewed. That means, the policy statement expired in 2017 and the AAP has had no circumcision policy statement for two years.
Why are they doing this? My best guess is that the AAP has realized they are wrong on circumcision. Continuing to promote bad medicine creates a massive legal and PR liability for them. They haven chosen a strategy of silence in the hopes they can just fade away from the issue.
Why they don’t have a policy statement is irrelevant. What matters is that the AAP has no circumcision policy statement, and journalists who reference them having one are being inaccurate. At best, you could say “the last circumcision policy statement.” However, you cannot accurately say “the AAP policy statement on circumcision” because the AAP doesn’t have one right now.
If you’d like to educate yourself on the issue of circumcision, please watch my documentary American Circumcision, because it features top experts on both sides of the debate, including the AAP.
Get the film: https://circumcisionmovie.com/
Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has said he opposes circumcision, and publicly aligned himself with the Intactivist movement.
It all began when Andrew made it clear he opposed circumcision in a Twitter exchange:
Later, the Daily Beast followed up with an interview, and got a full quote from him.
“I’m highly aligned with the intactivists,” Yang said. “History will prove them even more correct.”
Yang said he had initially planned to have his sons circumcised, fearing they’d be “self-conscious” if they still had their foreskins. But his wife convinced him otherwise.
“From what I’ve seen, the evidence on it being a positive health choice for the infant is quite shaky,” said Yang, who did not address whether he’s circumcised himself.
To my knowledge, this is the first time a major party candidate has addressed the issue of circumcision, let alone directly endorsed the Intactivist movement. The closest previous candidate was Austin Petersen of the libertarian party.
Many in the conservative media are trying to use Yang’s stance on circumcision as a way to attack him. However, Yang’s stance is highly informed, and backed by the facts. By attacking him on this issue, conservative media is pushing the issue more mainstream and exposing more people to the truth about circumcision.
If you’re interested in learning why a major Presidential candidate opposes circumcision, check out my documentary American Circumcision, currently available on Netflix and everywhere else movies are sold.
Update: Andrew has since backtracked on his original circumcision position, after receiving massive criticism from opposition media:
Sometimes what doesn’t happen is as important as what does.
In the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, detective Sherlock Holmes correctly reasons that because the dog on watch did not bark during a robbery, the robber must have been someone the dog knew. Holmes uses the clue of what didn’t happen to determine what did.
Many have talked about what did happen after the release of my film American Circumcision. There has been a massive outpouring of attention on the film and this issue on social media. I’ve been on numerous podcasts discussing it, and many leaders in the Intactivist movement have used the opportunity for press and media of their own. The film trended on Netflix and has remained popular since it’s release on that platform.
But what didn’t happen after the American Circumcision documentary release?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has remained completely silent on the film and the issue.
This is more than just media silence. AAP policy statements expire after five years. The last AAP circumcision policy statement was in 2012, and was not reaffirmed. This means that technically the AAP has no circumcision policy statement. To my knowledge they have not formed a new task force to release a new one. It’s like they have dropped the issue and are pretending it does not exist.
There is no way someone releases a major documentary on Netflix prominently featuring your organization and you don’t watch it. Yet when asked for comment by MedPage Today, the AAP said, “we are not aware of any of our spokespeople who have watched this movie. This is at best a well-worded lie of omission – “we are not aware of any of our spokespeople who have watched this movie.” The leadership has definitely seen the film and is aware enough of me that members have recognized me from a single glance in person.
However, there have been no public attacks on me or the film, even through proxies or allied journalists. It would have been easy for them to reply “we disagree with some speakers in the film, and refer you to our previous circumcision policy statement,” but they didn’t even do that. “No comment” is a comment.
Compare that to their response to anti-vaccination documentaries. The AAP has tried to lump both the movement against vaccination and circumcision together (even though they are not the same), but their actions reveal a different perspective. The AAP has released a public statement calling on major social media companies and tech giants to censor anti-vaccine information. Member of the AAP have also retweeted and celebrated the de-platforming of anti-vaccination documentaries from Amazon.
Compare the two reactions – anti-vaccine documentaries get press releases and de-platforming, but when it comes to my documentary, they can’t even get someone to say “he’s wrong.”
I’d like to think that this is because my documentary is more scientifically accurate than those other documentaries. Every scientific study we reference in the film is shown on-screen. We include experts from both sides including the AAP. However, many of our interview subjects are highly critical of the AAP. If there was any way of debunking those criticism, or any inaccuracy in what they said, don’t you think the AAP and other pro-circumcision groups would be all over it?
You can tell that @circmovie is entirely accurate by the fact that no large pro-circumcision organization has issued any meaningful response to it.
— Brendon Marotta (@bdmarotta) January 25, 2019
There hasn’t even been a “de-bunking” article written by smaller pro-circumcision groups, doctors trying to make a name for themselves, or AAP-allied media. No one has taken a meaningful shot at this film. That’s how you can tell the documentary is pure unassailable truth.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be an attack later. However if that happens, you will know I’m being attacked for political reasons, not because anything I said was not true. If someone goes through my back-catalogue looking for statements they can misinterpret, it will be because they had to respond, because silence was no longer an option. In fact, they may have to respond because I’m speaking truth, rather than the opposite.
Major pro-circumcision Jewish groups have not commented on or attacked the film.
When activists attempted to age-restrict circumcision in the city of San Francisco in 2012, groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Jewish Community Relations Council, and their allied media came out in full force against the Intactivist movement, attempting the brand any criticism of circumcision as anti-semitic.
Since the film American Circumcision covers those events, I was prepared for a similar over-reaction. However, the film treats Jewish people with great respect. Many of the strongest voices against circumcision in the film are Jewish, and there is a clear distinction made between criticism of circumcision – which is legitimate – and personally attacking someone for their race or religion – which no one in our film does.
As a consequence, no major Jewish group has made any criticism of the film. Jewish groups are clearly aware of this issue. During our release, major political parties in Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden have all discussed a circumcision ban, and were met with intense political pressure from groups like the ADL, which issued a public statement on the Iceland ban.
While you might think our film is “too small” to be noticed by them, keep in mind the ADL keeps lists of people they consider anti-semites who have only a handful of followers. A major documentary released on Netflix mentioning their work is certainly something they are aware of. Yet, there has also been no response from them or allied Jewish organizations.
There have been two smaller incidents where Jewish people who had not seen the film tried attack it under the argument that ALL criticism of circumcision is anti-semitic, but this has mostly resulted in their humiliation. When, a local Jewish group in Oxford threatened to protest a screening of the film there, I gave this quote:
“Those criticising our film have clearly never seen it, because we interview multiple Jewish men on both sides of the debate. Those against circumcision say they feel harmed by the practice, and that it was done without their consent.
“Anyone protesting our film should be considered an anti-human rights activist trying to silence Jewish men.”
I was told by local organizers that after this article, no one showed up to protest the film, and local opposition went silent.
Likewise, US Senate candidate and Jewish doctor Cathleen London also attacked the film without seeing it. By the end of her meltdown, she deleted all her social media, ended her Senate campaign, and gave a bizarre interview that revealed just how mis-informed she was on this topic. (On the upside, I can now say the a US Senate candidate has issued a comment on my penis, albeit mid-meltdown.)
These are minor incidents, that wouldn’t even be worth talking about, except that there hasn’t been anything else to talk about. The only Jewish groups that have criticized that film are those that haven’t seen it.
I know for a fact Jewish groups have seen the film, because during our Kickstarter, a major Jewish film festival reached out us to submit the film. I told them it wasn’t done, but would submit when it was. They reached out multiple times during our post-production asking us to submit. When I submitted, I got a standard rejection letter.
This is strange, since we certainly fit their niche and standard of quality. I now wonder if the festival wasn’t running opposition research for allied Jewish groups who wanted to see an early copy of the film. If this was the case, I can only assume upon watching the film they realized there was nothing offensive here, and decided to move on.
Again, this isn’t to say attacks may not come later. People make false accusations for political gain on controversial issues all the time. But if those accusations come, you will know it isn’t because of the content of the film or anything I’ve said thus far, but because someone was threatened by the truth of my work.
Going into the release of the film I was prepared for major opposition. I was prepared for people to misinterpret my work or say things about me that were not true. I’d seen the same happen to films tackling less controversial topics. But it simply hasn’t happened. Why?
One of my mentors likes to say that “the sages say what no one argue with,” meaning that if you only say what is obviously true, no one can disagree. When making the film, I chose to remain on the ground of obvious truth. Everything said in the film is about a specific scientific study, personal story, or clearly the person on-screen sharing their opinion or perspective. We include multiple opinions and perspectives, so it’s clear these perspectives are not analogous to mine, because many directly contradict one another. The film is a summation of the current circumcision debate, that never stretches into arguments or territory that we couldn’t defend.
When I speak on the film, I try to do something similar. I make it clear when I’m referencing a specific study or policy statement, or sharing my personal opinion. I believe this strategy has paid off, in that it has left critics with little to argue with. The one hit piece we’ve received required the reporter fabricate much of our conversation, which was easily exposed when the full recording was published.
There may be greater conflict in the future, however our current release has left those with an interest in silencing this debate without a clear angle to attack. Were there any inaccuracies in the film, you can be sure they would have jumped all over them and used them to attack the film. However, the silence of our critics is evidence of the truth of the film.
Since making the documentary American Circumcision, I’ve gotten many messages from people asking how they can make a difference on this issue.
“How can I make a difference?” is a universal question for anyone who discovers a new issue or wrong in the world they wish to right. While most people ask me this question in the context of my documentary, the advice I’m going to give applies to any issue or cause that is important to you.
First – what are you good at? What would you be doing if there was no cause or issue for you to work on and you were just doing what you love?
People ask me what to do on the issue of circumcision because I made a film about that issue. What they don’t know is that I’ve been making films since I was fourteen. It’s what I love doing and and did professionally before ever discovering this issue. When I became aware of the issue of circumcision and felt like I had to do something, film was the medium I chose, because I already had a unique talent or super-power there.
Many people think that when discover an activist issue they need to start doing something new or different, but you probably already have a unique skill, talent, or super-power you could apply to this issue. It doesn’t have to look like what people are already doing. At the time when I started, I wasn’t aware of any other films being made on this issue. What I did was new and unique, and your contribution could be too.
For example, one guy I know is good at internet marketing and self-publishing on Amazon. He is helping activists self-publish content on this issue. Another speaks Spanish and is translating activist materials. You wouldn’t think of these as normal activist skills, yet they have something unique to contribute that helps other activists.
There are already dozens or organizations working on the issue you care about. Begin contacting them and asking how you can get involved and volunteer. If you have a unique skill, let them know, but be willing to work on the places they need help especially when you are just starting out and getting to know people.
As much as possible, see if you can get to in-person meet-ups where you can make real friendships and connections with people. If there is nothing near you, search online and ask others on social media. There may already be a group involved on your issue in your town that your aren’t aware of. If not – start one! There may be others like you in your area who want to do something, but haven’t been able to find a group. Create an informal meet-up and start connecting with others.
As much as possible however, contact larger groups and ask what they need. So much of this work can now be done remotely. For the first time ever in human history, you can connect with anyone on the planet using technology. Take advantage of what others have already done and help amplify their efforts.
The more you connect with other activists, the more you will find a place for you personal super-power. For example, you may be gifted at organization. If you meet an artist who is very good at creating, but not very organized, your unique skill might empower his, and together you can contribute something even better than either of you could individually. As much as possible, start connecting with other activists and volunteering to help.
It may seem like I went off and did something on my own by making a film, but my film was the result of many connections. I connected with each person who I interviewed in the film. I connected with an audience that funded the film and spread the word about it. I even connected with people outside the issue who had skills or connections in the film world and were able to help me complete and distribute my project. While I had a unique super-power only I could contribute, that power was amplified by the hundreds of people who supported my film.
Even if you decide to do something new or unique, whatever you do will be amplified by existing organizations and other activists working on the same issue. Connect as much as possible and see if there are ways you can volunteer your unique talents with existing organizations.
Every activist organization I’ve ever seen, no matter the size, needs more money.
If your unique skill is one that generates a lot of income, or you are short on time, there is no reason you couldn’t just focus on doing the job you already love and contribute a portion of your income to the cause. Every organization loves big donors, and if an hour of your time can go for $300, that money might be way more useful to the organization than if you spent the same hour standing on a street-corner holding a protest sign.
Money is a super-power. I’ve talked about finding your unique super-power, but if you know how to make money, you have a unique super-power that most people wish they had. Use it!
You can contribute money no matter your income level. One activist leader told me that if everyone on her email list just contributed five dollars a month to their organization, they’d meet all their funding goals. Have you given your five dollars? You pay more to go to a yoga class or get a fancy coffee in the morning. Everyone can find five dollars in their budget they are spending on something frivolous and contribute it to things that have real value.
Put it another way – which would great more happiness and joy in your life – that extra drink on your night out, or knowing you helped make the world a better place by giving to others?
If you can’t cut spending, see if you can find a way to make more. Could you work an extra hour at your job, and give your wage for that hour to a group you support? For some, that might only be a few dollars an hour, but it’d be a few dollars more than they had before.
To re-cap, you can…
…or some combination of the above.
What you give depends on what you are able to and what you can create the most value with. If you don’t have a lot of money, give time. If you have a unique skill, give that. Etc. You know what you can afford, and what you are best at.
Now let’s talk about the inner-game of contributing to cause, because without this you might burn-out on just the above.
When people first discover a cause they have a lot of enthusiasm and want to charge into action. Good! That enthusiasm and fire in the belly can lead to a lot of positive change. However, it’s important to feed that fire and make sure it doesn’t burn-out, because social change can take years or even decades.
When people discover a new issue, they often experience emotional pain. There may be grief at being harmed by something you didn’t know was wrong, or anger that the world is the way that it is. These emotions if unacknowledged may come out unconsciously, or be projected on others. They may even lead to counter-productive actions that set back the movement you care about back.
Anyone involved in an issue should also pursue healing work and self-care. You can’t change the world, if you aren’t first willing to change yourself. Healing work does not excuse the perpetrators or mean that what they did was not wrong. It means that you are taking ownership of your own life and reclaiming the aspects of yourself that others tried to harm. The more your judgement is not clouded by trauma, the more you can be fully present in the work you are doing and effective as an activist.
If while working on a cause or issue, you start to feel burned-out – take a break! Your mental health is more important than any cause. Although many people find activist work energizing, have the self-awareness to know when you are drained and need to re-charge. You will contribute more to the causes you care about if you are happy, healthy, and emotionally whole.
You discovered this issue because you were willing to learn something new. However, there may be more to the issue and activism process you still don’t know. Keep learning!
There are always new things happening on every issue. Likewise, activism techniques and methods are constantly changing as the way we communicate and the platforms we communicate on change too. A decade ago, social media was just beginning to become a thing. Now, if you aren’t on social media platforms you are basically invisible.
Activism benefits from a “beginners mind” – always looking at the issue and work with a new perspective. Even if you have been involved on an issue for over thirty years, there is always something new you can learn or a new skill you can pick up.
Remember how I mentioned unique super-powers earlier? Well, you can add more of those. It takes about six months to learn a new skill. What would happen if you added website design, photography, or event organizing to your skill stack? Plus each skill you add compounds with the others you already have. I’m a filmmaker, and I’ve done public speaking, but the fact I can do both creates a unique opportunities like a film tour that wouldn’t exist if I had only one.
I know people who are going back to school just because they know academic credentials or a law degree would give them an extra skill in the work they do. These are multiple year expensive commitments, but they can also fun and open new doors in other areas of your life. Don’t limit yourself in what you want to learn.
P.S. If you found this post helpful, I would really appreciate it if you’d sign-up for my email list. I’m working on activist tools to make all of the above much easier, but they may not be ready for some time. Those on my email list will be the first to know.
Plus, I’m using my unique super-powers to write and create content – things like my film – that you can share with people new to an issue. You might want to sign-up for my email list, so you can see my unique super-power in action.
If you want to learn about an issue I care about, get my film here.
Let’s get this out of the way first – Flat Earth is a dumb movement. They are wrong. The world is round. Yet, the new documentary Behind The Curve about the flat earth movement is absolutely fascinating, and there is even something you can learn from people who have managed to find success pushing cause that is so clearly false.
The film Behind The Curve wisely chooses to focus on the anthropology of the flat earth movement, rather than the arguments, answering the question – who are these people who are so drawn to an absurd idea? What drives them? Why do they do this?
You meet two leaders in the movement who have a deep connection to one another – Mark Sargent and Patricia Steer. The film presents clear relationship tension between them, and by the end I found myself rooting for them to get together the way one would in any romantic comedy.
Part of the power of this film is that it presents people who believe absurd ideas with empathy, so you find yourself relating to them. The scientists in the film even go so far as to say that these people have a natural skpeticism which might make them good scientists, yet they fell off the path at some point, and have to be treated with empathy so they can return to the rest of society.
What is even more interesting is that despite the absurdity of their cause, flat earthers are finding an audience. Behind the Curve shows a movement where people build large followings, becoming niche celebrities, make merch, and even launch a 700 person conference at over $100 pet ticket by the end of the film. I have friends working on legitimate activist issues who struggle to get similar results. When was the last time you were able to get 700 people together for the issue you cared about?
So how do they do it?
First, they make lots of content. The documentary states that there are over a million hours of flat earth content on YouTube. That is a massive volume, and I’m not sure that there as many hours of content out there for even mainstream causes. But more importantly, flat earthers exploit the YouTube algorithm to create pre-suasion for their ideas.
Pre-suasion is when you here something before the real argument that primes you to accept it. For example, if I ask “when was the last time you had a big opportunity that changed your life?” and get you thinking about that, you might be more likely to accept the buisness offer I make next as a life changing opportunity. If I ask you to think about times someone scammed you first, not so much.
The YouTube algorithm wants you to spend as many hours as possible watching YouTube content. To this end, it suggests things it thinks you will like. However, this algorithm has been known to push people towards more and more extreme content on all issues. If you like a vegetarian video, it might start recommending vegan videos, because people who like one are likely to watch the other. The vegetarian content acts as pre-susaion for the vegan content. If you accept that the meat industry regularly hurts and exploits animals, it’s not a huge leap to accept that the dairy industry might also do the same thing.
Most flat earthers came to the movement through other conspiracy content. If you accept that “they” – whoever “they” are – are engaged in massive conspiracy to lie to you about 9/11, the JFK assassination, aliens, etc. then it isn’t a huge leap to ask “what else are they lying about?” If someone presents you a new conspiracy, you’ll be more open to it. So the YouTube algorithm drives people from one conspiracy video to progressively more extreme conspiracy videos. Hence, flat earth.
Second, they pace their audience. Pacing is when you acknowledge what your audience already believe and feels. One of the most popular flat earth videos mentioned in the film starts (paraphrased) ‘Is this a joke? No – but I could see why you’d think it is.’ The flat earthers acknowledge the fears and objections any normal person would have at the start of their videos. ‘Yes, this seems crazy. I thought it sounded crazy at first too. I actually came to debunk it. I started out just like you.’ This is textbook persuasion.
The negotiation book Never Split The Difference suggests doing an “accusation audit” in difficult negotiations. An accusation audit is when you name ever accusation the person you are trying to persuade might make of you. Many flat earthers do this – ‘you probably think I’m crazy, this is absurd, etc.’
What is fascinating about this is that flat earthers are better at applying the science of persuasion than actual scientists. Most scientists when they encounter flat earthers begin by invalidating their reality – the opposite of a pace. The ones interviewed in the film rightly say that in order to bring these people back to the scientific consensus you have to first begin by acknowledging their reality.
I wish this attitude of empathy and acknowledgement extended to other issues. It seems that when dealing with something as absurd as flat earth, people aren’t threatened, so they can acknowledge those they disagree with as human beings. When debating a more mainstream issue – which political candidate should win, what diet is best, how we should raise our children, etc. – this attitude of understanding goes out the window in favor of a blame or a screaming match.
The truth is that these persuasion techniques work regardless of the issue. If you can use someone to convince a large mass of people that the earth is flat, what would happen if you applied them to your more legitimate issue?
Lastly, flat earthers build community. Because their issues is so fringe, there is greater camaraderie in their movement. People in the documentary talk about losing friends over this issue. If most of your friends reject an aspect of who you are, you’re going to seek out people who can receive that part of you. As a consequence, flat earthers tear up and hug their leaders when they meet them. Finally, someone who understands me.
The leaders in that movement regularly engage their followers. The two mentioned earlier have a weekly radio show where they talk about what happened in the movement and issue that week. This regularly weekly content retains their audience and keeps them invested. Again – is anyone doing this on your more legitimate issue? Do you communicate regularly with your followers about what you’re doing and what’s going on? Why not?
The leaders in flat earth also have a sense of humor and play. One asks ‘name another conspiracy theory where people make funny merch like this.’ Even in a movement that claims that “they” are lying to you about everything and the whole world is a massive controlled conspiracy, people still frequently to find ways to laugh about their issue and make the movement a fun playful thing to be a part of. Meanwhile, mainstream political parties act like the world is ending every time they lose an election. Who is having more fun? Whose party would you rather go to?
The documentary is also a fascinating look at the opposite side of persuasion – how people believe and become attached to false ideas. Why do likable people who have skills they could use to apply to any movement become attached to an idea that is clearly false?
I think the persuasion ideas listed above can account for who people get into the movement. But what keeps them there? Why do they stay when presented with counter evidence?
First, cognitive dissonance. Once you believe something, you seek more confirming evidence for what you believe. So, if you clicked on this link, you were probably expecting to hear how flat earthers are dumb and wrong, right? This is an example of seeking confirming evidence. We all do it. When was the last time you read a book by the other side of an issue you’re passionate about?
Second, sunk cost. If you’ve invested hundreds of hours in a cause or idea, what does it mean if you were wrong? Was all that time wasted? You want to believe your efforts were meaningful, so you’re going to attempt to justify the issue you worked on. Plus, if you’ve developed friendships in the movement, will you lose those if you change your mind?
Many people who leave tight religious communities experience this. They’ve made all their friendships and social life through the church. If they change their beliefs, they aren’t just having a difference of opinion, but breaking up with an entire community and condemning themselves to loneliness. (I know, having left a church.)
As people increasingly find their sense of meaning and community in non-religious movements or political causes, we may see the same thing. These flat earthers have build a strong sense of community in their movement. What does it mean if they leave that all behind?
You can tell them they should just do it, but how what would the social repercussions be for you if you did the same? What would happen if you wore a red MAGA hat around your left-wing friends? What if you told your vegan friends you were doing the carnivore diet, or your paleo friends you thought meat was murder? What would happen if you joined a fringe religious sect, and began sharing it’s teaching with your friends? These are tests of friendship that reveal who is with you for you and who has conditions on their connections.
While the documentary explores this in the context of flat earthers, these are cognitive biases that effect us all. One could easily flip that around and say – what would it mean for scientists if they were suddenly to become flat earthers? Wouldn’t they lose all their sunk costs of degrees, social status, and friendships too?
And the truth is yes – these cognitive biases apply to us all. In an interview, one of the things the director of Behind The Curve said was that he hopes the audience looks at the ways in which they are like a flat earther. We all have places where we are easily persuaded, have sunk costs, and where our biases get the better of us. When people claim to be totally objective, they ignore all of the science and research around persuasion.
There are certainly groups and ideas I could extend the above paragraph to, it’s harder to look out how they might apply to us. There is a zen teaching that one should only ever apply the dharma to themselves. Likewise, Christ said not to worry about the speck in your brothers eye, but the log in your own. It’s easy to use this persuasion stuff to explore why other people believe dumb ideas, but the real challenge is being able to look at your own beliefs. In what places do you have these biases? In what ways are you not helping the issues you care about? How could you be more honest about the truth and effective in serving it?