Mad Online: You might be missing Ben Carson’s point

The other day, it came to my attention that many people were mad online. This is not a rare occurrence — Twitter is something like a massive, wooden warehouse full of newspapers and gasoline and airborne grain particles, where the slightest bit of friction, no matter how innocuous it might be anywhere else, will spark an inferno that consumes all in its path. The cool waters of reason, of course, are no match for such a blaze.

In this case, the friction was none other than Ben Carson. He’s been the friction before, and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be the friction again. Which is a shame — Ben Carson is singularly brilliant, one of the most accomplished and decent men in our country, and he oughta be regarded as highly as anyone in the land. That doesn’t mean he should be the president — but maybe we oughta at least hear the guy out once in awhile.

It’s likely you’re aware of Carson’s comments in a SiriusXM interview released on Wednesday — well, some of them, anyway. In the interview, Carson discussed poverty and the mentality needed to escape it. These are topics Carson is well-qualified to weigh in on, as he grew up poor and went on to become one of the most successful neurosurgeons in history.

“I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind,” Carson said, in the most controversial segment of the interview. “You take somebody that has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you could give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”

The collective scorn of the Internet is directed at just six words of the interview: “poverty is a state of mind.” Of course, the qualifier “also,” is conveniently left out — including that one little word, which indicates Carson believes there are many factors to poverty, would dampen the outrage-potential. There’s also not much attention paid to the point Carson made just moments later — that government can provide a needed boost to help people out of poverty — a belief that most of those rabidly criticizing his “state of mind” clip would share.

The most unfortunate part of this rush to condemnation is that Carson’s right. The concept of mindset influencing performance is supported by psychology — notably in the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In her 2006 book “Mindset,” Dweck argued that success in almost any human endeavor — education, athletics, finances, etc. — can be influenced by the way individuals think about their own intelligence and abilities.

“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits,” Dweck said in a 2012 interview with onedublin.org, referring in this case to a classroom scenario. “They have a certain amount and that’s that. . . In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Dweck and other psychologists believe people who approach life with a growth mindset are more likely to succeed than those who approach life with a fixed mindset. This idea is also generally accepted in our culture and taught in our education system. It’s hardly even a controversial idea — you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d argue that a person’s mindset doesn’t impact their performance.

Of course, it would be silly to suggest that mindset is the only factor that influences achievement in life. A fixed mindset doesn’t necessarily relegate you to failure, nor does a growth mindset guarantee wild success in all endeavors.

Here’s the thing: Carson wasn’t saying mindset is the only factor in poverty. He correctly stated that it can be a factor, implying that a change in mindset could certainly help some folks struggling with poverty. Carson wasn’t saying that poverty is just a result of weak-mindedness or that the only thing poor people need to do is get their head straight and pull themselves up by the ‘ol bootstraps — to paint his words that way is petty, vindictive, and divisive. Even worse, it discredits a really smart guy who’s just trying to help.

Sheesh, I guess I’m mad online now, too.