The Normal Person Lens
What good are good ideas if they can’t reach normal people?
Over the weekend, Ray Ortlund, a semi-big name pastor from Nashville, tweeted out a defense of David French. Here’s the tweet and an exchange with a person in the replies.
Both my tweet and Ortlund’s generated some disagreement, so I want to use this to shed some light on some of our social dynamics.
Why are people like Ortlund and David French so popular? There are many reasons, but one is that they’ve figured out how to appeal to normal people.
By normal people, I mean the average center-left to center-right people in the middle of the socio-political bell curve. They aren’t super-engaged in politics or religious disputes. They mostly just want to live their lives in peace. But they do notice when crazy things start happening, which is one reason a lot of them have, for example, started saying, “What the heck is up with my kid’s school?!”
The normal people lens is an important way to think about rhetoric and positioning.
Ask yourself, what would a normal person think about Ray Ortlund’s tweets?
I’ll tell you what they’d think: “What a standup guy, sticking up for his friend [subtext: a friend who is currently viewed by mainstream society as a respectable person].”
By contrast, normal people are probably going to be confused, taken aback, or turned off by people criticizing Ortlund. As I previously noted, loyalty and betrayal are notions buried deep in the human psyche. We recognize loyalty as virtuous even in enemies.
The attempt to deny that people who are opponents or even enemies can have characteristics or behaviors that are in some ways admirable or virtuous is another ones of those puzzling modern attempts to deny primal reality. I remember people denying that Al-Quaeda terrorists were courageous, for example. They’d claim that courage is only courage if it’s done in the service of a virtuous end. Whereas I think historically and instinctively, we can recognize that an enemy soldier behaved courageously even if we recognize their deeds were evil. Similarly, we have a sort of respect or admiration for mob bosses (as demonstrated by our fascination with them and the way we gobble up mobster movies) even if we recognize that their behavior is objectively evil.
So trying to make Ortlund look like a bad guy for defending his friend goes against human nature. This would be different if David French were conventionally viewed as a villain. But he’s not. I happen to think people should have a much lower view of David French than they presently do, but that’s not his current status in society.
Attempts to critique Ortlund by saying his labeling any opposition to French as “foolishness” is a form of slander aren’t likely to convince. It sounds like hair-splitting to normal people. Note that Ortlund is careful not to call French’s critics themselves fools, but only suggests that negative views of French are foolish (i.e., badly mistaken). Note that in the reply I posted above, he pointedly avoids attacking specific critics of French, and instead takes the high road, simply reiterating why he’s so positive about French.
The evangelical elite’s superpower is rhetoric. They are very, very good at it. One of the aspects of rhetoric that they are good at is in appealing to normal people.
Here’s the conundrum. Mainstream institutions of society almost exclusively elevate people who go along to get along and reinforce the elite consensus. The internet has made it easy to bypass gatekeepers with dissenting view, but the incentive structure of the outsider path rewards, and almost seems to necessitate, the use of tactics that turn off normal people such as conflict generation and transgressive affect.
The online meme culture of the dissident right is an example of transgressive affect used to great success. This form of mockery has actually been very effective in reducing the standing of various people and ideas in society. Similarly, hostile, confrontational strategies, such as those employed to great effect by conservative talk radio, have also been very successful.
There is definitely a place for these kind of strategies. I’d say they are even necessary in our “clown world.”
But they aren’t sufficient. These strategies, although they can draw large audiences, turn off large numbers of normal people and almost inherently end up as being about red meat to the faithful.
Donald Trump probably represents the high water mark of an appeal based on conflict and transgression. He’s a uniquely talented and charismatic person, and had the benefit of being able to point out obvious truths that our incumbents elite couldn’t muster the courage to say, such as that the Iraq War was a mistake. Yet his base probably only reached 30-35% of the vote. He did better because many others voted for him, out of party loyalty, to keep the Democrats out of office, or for some other reason. Even so, he never mustered a majority of the popular vote. Also, he inspired as many people to hate him as love him. Polarization can be good for marketing a product or personality, but will ultimately be niche at some level.
Our mainstream institutions and leaders in far too many cases have not been leading or stewarding our country well. We need critics of those people (and new blood ready to step up and lead), but we need to have at least some critics to resonate with normal people, not just with the faithful.
This isn’t easy to do, because mainstream elites freak out and try to destroy dissident thinkers who achieve mainstream resonance. Mike Cernovich’s documentary Hoaxed, for example, had great mainstream appeal and Amazon promptly banned it when it took off. One reason the media is freaking out over Joe Rogan is that despite his slightly edgy appeal, his episodes with people like Dr. Malone resonate with normal people.
This makes generating a dissident appeal to normal people doubly difficult. The dynamics of social media reward conflict and transgressive content that turn off a lot of normal people. And mainstream institutions are hostile to any dissident thinking that appeals to normal people.
But figuring out how win over normal people is critical, as is figuring out how to turn normal people against our opponents.
So it’s always good to ask ourselves before we post, tweet, engage in some sort of protest or other action: What would normal people think of this?
We shouldn’t always let normal people dictate our actions. But we should at least understand how they are likely to react. And at least some people on our side need to be focused on winning over normal people.
*This article was originally published at Aaron Renn’s Substack. Republished with permission.