Changing Your Mind

Dear Reader,

You cannot make someone change their mind. That’s it — there’s no room for debate (and I dare you to try to change my mind about it). It’s just not going to happen, no matter how earnestly you argue your case, no matter how perfect your logic, no matter how righteous your cause. It’s not going to happen unless the person is already willing to accept your position and allow their mind to be changed. The notion that we can change people’s minds by virtue of (insert arbitrary values buzzword here) is, in my mind, a toxic element of the progressive agenda that needs to be reexamined.

Here’s the problem. We don’t control the narrative of our actions or our arguments on a level that is widespread enough to affect the kind of change we need. We have people protesting our new president, marching for womens rights, and standing outside in the frozen hell-hole that is North Dakota to fight for a just cause, but those stories can be twisted into the service of any agenda with the proper narrative form. A protest becomes a violent rabble-rousing mob of whiny incompetents who are upset because they lost. A march for women’s rights becomes a self-righteous political stunt filled with angry, man-hating, baby-killing feminists. And an inspiring, passionate struggle of human endurance for human rights becomes an un-American, stand-in-the-way-of-progress. You see the difficulty?

So, not only can’t we reach the audience we most need to with our arguments, but whenever we do, we find that we can make little headway into their ideology. And I think the reason for this is relatively simple. None of us is willing to admit to the possibility that we’re wrong. (Because of course, we’re right. Right? We’re more tolerant, less hateful, less bigoted, more open, caring, and compassionate people — simply by the virtue of what we believe and the progressive nature of our political agenda. So of course we can’t back down from our ideology — it would be immoral and insane to even consider the idea!) So let me ask you a question: why should they do any different? Because we have the audacity to tell them they’re wrong?

In the simplest of terms, we need to get over ourselves. We’ve allowed the conservative agenda to simultaneously paint ours as naively idealistic and devil-worshiping evil, while they manage retain the religious moral high ground of devout christians and the practical appeal of a plainspoken and down-to-earth agenda. Never mind the hate filled rhetoric and fear mongering of this last election cycle. Never mind the fact that our own culture of political correctness and compassion helped set the stage for deliberate insensitivity to be passed off as trustworthiness. Never mind that we were all so convinced we would win that our loss came as such a shock to so many people. Never mind those on our side who forgot that real lives hang in the balance — who voted for their conscience rather than try to defeat a democratically elected fascist tyrant. All of that sucks, but it’s the reality we live in and I think it’d be nice to find an effective way to do something about it.

So we start by letting go of our own righteousness and moral superiority and condescension toward our opponents. We start by de-personalizing politics, and not making judgements about people based solely on what they believe. We start by asking questions more and listening more and talking less. And when we do talk, by remembering that more than one road leads to Mecca, and that it’s worthwhile to speak in the language our opponents understand best. We start by engaging with people who disagree with us and challenging our own convictions, rather than arguing in circles with each other and assuring ourselves of our own progressiveness. We start by recognizing that other than in its content, our ideology is no different than any other. We start by letting ourselves believe that maybe — just maybe — our point of view isn’t perfect. Because let’s face it — whose is?

I recall a discussion in my senior seminar class on environmental studies back in college. There was an impassioned debate about how we might make people care about climate change, fracking, and all manner of environmental travesties, and it was going nowhere. Everyone had a different idea, and we were all so attached to our own ideas that we spent more time trying to convince each other that ours was the best one (mostly, I’m sure, because we all really believed that it was) than we did listening to what the others had to say. The result being that all manner of constructive conversation was shot to hell. My own position during that ill-fated discussion was similar to the one expressed at the beginning of this essay: we can’t make anyone care about an issue if they don’t want to, and that we should focus instead on creating policies and regulations that would actually affect physical change. And I argued for this position as blindly and passionately as the rest of them — convinced that I was right — even though the nature of my argument was ironically self-defeating. Despite that, at its core, this is an argument grounded in humility: that though we believe something, we remain open to the possibility (indeed, the likelihood) that we might be a little bit wrong. That we don’t become too personally attached to an ideology that any challenge to that ideology is taken as a personal affront, and someone who disagrees with us becomes someone to be despised.

For all the lofty rhetoric thus far, my position is essentially one based on pragmatism and skillful social engineering. And it comes down to this. People are more likely to listen if you don’t start off by telling them that they’re wrong. They’re more willing to accept an idea if you admit that you might be wrong yourself, but explain what you think and why you think that way. They’re more open to new ideas if they don’t feel like what they already believe in (and by extension, who they are) is under attack. It’s easier to persuade when we speak to people from their own perspective, and make an effort to respect their opinions and beliefs. And people generally respond better when we step down from our moral pedestal of progressivism and treat them with the dignity and tolerance we claim to aspire to — whether we believe they’re deserving of it or not.

Yours truly,

JD