Thursday, January 10, 2013
How not to talk about guns
Piers Morgan's interview earlier this week with radio host Alex Jones has gotten lots of attention, due to Jones's seemingly-unprovoked fiery outbursts and threatening manner. Morgan probably accomplished what he wanted to accomplish by having Jones on the show. He exposed the raving right wing conspiracy theories behind at least some Americans' attachment to guns, and probably scared a lot of people already sympathetic to gun control.
At the same time, however, Morgan probably didn't convince a lot of people who might be sympathetic to Jones's views, and he didn't even begin to engage in a constructive dialogue about responses to the problem of gun violence that we might get most people to agree on. Was that Morgan's fault? He seemed so calm and reasonable, while Jones came off as hostile and belligerent. What if anything, did Morgan do to set up that dynamic, and what could he have done differently, if he were genuinely interested in having a reasonable dialogue about gun control? The first thing was Morgan's choice of guest, obviously. There are lots of gun advocates Morgan could have asked on his show. Why did he choose this guy?
Even before the interview, Morgan starts off by stating his "position" on the issue. As noted in my previous post on this topic, we won't get too far in any dialogue about gun control by arguing over positions. The only way to find common ground on this topic is to talk about our common interests in protecting the safety of children and other innocent people.
Morgan never really engages with Jones on any of the points Jones is trying to make. Instead, Morgan, acting like a sly cross-examining attorney, demands that Jones answer a series of factual questions, such as whether the gun homicide rate is lower in Great Britain than it is in the United States. Jones had already conceded that point, however, and became outraged at Morgan's attempts to limit the discussion to what he called little statistical "factoids" like that. Morgan never asked the right questions, which would start by getting his guest to agree that all of us are interested in reducing horrific incidents of gun violence, and then proceed to analyze various ways of accomplishing that result.
In addition to asking the wrong questions, Morgan did something else to inflame the situation. He asked Jones several times to calm down. This is a clever ploy, because it seems so reasonable, but was probably the worst thing he could have done if he really wanted to have a civil discussion. Morgan probably knows that very well, as he is an experienced interviewer. If you are genuinely trying to get a hysterical person to calm down, the last thing you do is ask them to calm down, because that is only challenging the basis for the person's anger. Instead, you need to recognize and respond to the person's anger. You need to say something like, "you're really angry about this issue. I can see you feel very passionately about it." Had Morgan done that, Jones would have most likely responded by saying, "hell yes, I'm angry. I'm passionate." And that would have been the first step to getting him to talk in a more reasonable manner. (I discussed this technique, called affect labeling, in a previous post.)
But Piers Morgan had no interest in getting his subject to talk in a more reasonable manner. He did whatever he could to inflame him and expose him, saving the coup de grace of asking about 9/11 conspiracies for the end, just so he could portray anyone opposed to gun control as a nut. That's probably just what Morgan wanted to accomplish. But what he failed to accomplish was to actually engage in a reasonable discussion about the issue of gun control And that was mostly Morgan's own fault.