The Fatalism of Never Changing Minds

Recently, while I was at work, I overheard a co-worker’s conversation on the phone about how he never talks politics with friends or acquaintances because “you can never change anybody’s mind about stuff like that.” My first instinct was to agree with him, while my second was the realization that to accept this statement as a prima facia fact about political discourse is nothing short of a deeply pessimistic fatalism.

Granted, there are a lot of issues over which people will dig themselves down into a trench and refuse to budge, but if we begin with the assumption that communication, facts, or a deeper understanding of the world are entirely useless when it comes to human discourse, then we have, in a sense, given up before we’ve even begun. This isn’t to say that getting into heated debates with people who disagree with your beliefs should be pursued at the dinner party or the office lunch. Of course they shouldn’t. There are appropriate times and appropriate places for intelligent conversations about our world. But I have to believe that changing someone’s mind is never impossible. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No. Or at least not if the dialogue is conducted in good faith and both parties are willing to really and truly listen to the other’s facts, arguments, and ideas.

And therein lies the difficulty, because most people (too often myself included) are not willing to truly listen to ideas that are divergent from their own perceptions of the world. Of course, compounding this problem is the fact that many people don’t argue their beliefs in good faith or with a desire to enable communication and change. Yelling that Obama is a Kenyan born Nazi is not arguing in good faith (primarily due to the fact that there are, well, no facts to be found in their arguments).

I would like to believe that if faced with a compelling argument, backed by logic and factual evidence, I am willing to change my mind about issues and ideas and politics. Yes, I have my own emotional biases about how the world works, about what is fair and what is important. Yes, I am ideologically slanted toward a politics of fairness and equality and believe that government should play an active role in leveling the playing field for all its citizens. So I tend to vote Democrat and self-identify as progressive. If you come at me from a conservative viewpoint, I will naturally become wary and defensive and believe that I know better than you. Which, is most likely the same emotional state you will be in at the time.

However, if we can talk about facts and use reason in our discourse and if you extend respect to my viewpoint, I will do the same—or at least try, since we are none of us perfect. We can have productive conversations about differing political views only if we start from a position of respect and a willingness to listen. Sure, that doesn’t happen all that much these days, and sure, many in the media love the fact that our political discourse has become an ongoing episode of the Jerry Springer show, but it’s not impossible.

Because if it really were impossible to change our minds, to allow compelling arguments and new understands to change our view of the world, then we could never learn and change and grow.

The flip side to the notion of changeability, is that if someone is not willing to argue in good faith, or truly listen to you, or bother to respect your viewpoint, then don’t waste your time arguing with them because those are indeed the people whose minds you will never change.

The question we all have to ask ourselves each time we engage in a dialogue about firmly held beliefs is this: can I truly respect this person and can I truly listen to their argument. If the answer is no, that doesn’t make you a bad person. I have no respect for a Birther or a Flat-Earther and so getting into a dialogue with someone who holds those beliefs would be, at best, futile and frustrating for both sides. Being on opposite sides of a political issue is not what makes us enemies of one another. Rather, it is our actions and behaviors toward one another that will lead us to either civil disagreements (what we should all strive for) or outright war against each other (what Fox News and other “conservative” mouthpieces are promulgating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week).

And one does have to wonder why so many people seem so invested in making the citizens of the United States of America into enemies of each other . . .

(Cross posted at Daily Kos)

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