I get a little philosophical on Fridays–hey, it’s the Sabbath approaching–and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something that is not as valued as much in today’s society, at least in America, as it has been in the past. I’m talking about changing one’s mind. It’s not that persuasion itself is a lost art today, but I think it’s more that being persuaded is. Our society has become so fragmented, politically, religiously, socially, that changing our minds, especially on “big ticket” issues like politics or religion, has become almost taboo. We have become a nation of tribal loyalties, where adherence to a particular idea is paramount and reconsideration of ideas is almost blasphemy. This, in my view, is a terrible shame.
I had an experience with this phenomena only last week. I ran an article, also on Friday evening, explaining why, after 23+ years of being an atheist, I’ve recently embraced a belief in God. All of the comments here on WordPress on that blog were pretty supportive, but a small contingent of militant atheists on Twitter (where I share all of my blog posts) was decidedly hostile. One of them, much as I predicted, claimed that I obviously “didn’t really understand” atheism to begin with–an asinine statement, of course, but very telling. I’ve noticed that people who are especially committed to a particular religious or political belief often dismiss those who disagree by assuming they “don’t understand” it, but to label someone who has changed their belief from deeply-committed-X to deeply-committed-Y as having never understood X in the first place, seems indicative of a mindset that rejects the possibility of mind-changing.
We also see this in politics. Think back to the Presidential election of 2004. What was George W. Bush’s major political weapon against his Democratic opponent, John Kerry? Aside from the “Swift Boat” nonsense–which was done mostly by dark-money surrogates–the theme Bush himself hammered over and over again was that Kerry was a “flip-flopper,” to which Bush contrasted himself as a rock-steady northern star who would never change his position on anything. Kerry enabled this attack by trying to explain, unconvincingly and awkwardly, why (for example) he voted in favor of the Congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq War in 2002, and then two years later seemed to be anti-war. The Bush people made hay out of his statement, “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Bush made out Kerry’s mind-changing as a deep liability, and Kerry essentially conceded this point.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates involved great moral, political and religious issues, but many people who witnessed them were persuadable–a state of affairs very unlikely 150 years later.
It happened again in 2012. Mitt Romney privately admitted that the label which had attached to him as a “flip-flopper” was essentially indelible–in Romney’s own words, trying to convince people he wasn’t a flip-flopper was as futile as trying to convince people Dan Quayle was smart. (For the record, it is demonstrably true that Romney changed his mind on almost every major issue between 2004 and 2012). According to Jonathan Alter’s wonderful book on the 2012 election, The Center Holds, there were fewer “undecided” voters in 2012 than in any Presidential campaign up to that time. Barack Obama won re-election because most likely voters decided for him no later than the spring, and never revisited their decision. The 2012 election, as was 2008, was not about persuading undecided voters, but about which party could mobilize more of their committed supporters to go out to the polls to vote on Election Day. Mitt Romney simply never had any realistic chance of winning the election. Nothing he did could make any real difference, because nobody was willing to change their mind.
It didn’t used to be this way. In the 19th century, three of the most important people in American politics who dominated the scene for 40 years, from the early 1810s into the 1850s, were Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, all of whom were Senators. All three were known for their brilliant oratory at a time when oratory meant something. People could be persuaded by their words and arguments. Or, look at the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. These debates meant something because what Lincoln and Douglas said on the stump about slavery had a real chance of persuading people one way or another. Audiences went to the debates not with their minds made up, but with their minds open. It took several more years, but Lincoln eventually won the debate. He persuaded a formerly divided nation to take up arms to end slavery. That’s persuasion on an almost Biblical scale.
This famous ad from the 2004 Presidential campaign mocks John Kerry’s frequent changes of mind. If Daniel Webster lived in the 21st century, would he have run a political ad like this?
I argue that persuasion on this level is simply unimaginable today. The parameters of what passes for “debate” today are far narrower than they were 150 years ago. We tend to think of “debates” today more as theater than as a rational and fair exchange of similarly-situated ideas. Sunday morning news shows feature talking heads who do nothing more than shout pre-scripted bullet points at each other. We think “debates” are little more than verbal wrestling matches, where the media interest is the entertainment value of watching sparks fly between intractable foes, like the recent match-up of “science guy” Bill Nye with arch-reactionary creationist Ken Ham. That isn’t really debate, because there is no possibility of ever being persuaded. Most people tuned into that show to see Bill Nye trounce the reactionary creationist, which he did with admirable skill. That’s something–entertainment for sure, maybe education–but it’s not debate.
I’ve changed my mind on many “big ticket” issues in my life. I was once an atheist; I am now a Jew. I initially supported the Iraq War; later I turned very strongly against it. I used to think marriage was not for me; now I am very happily married. For most of my life I’ve supported the death penalty, but in recent years I’ve begun to rethink it. Some people might think this makes me “wishy-washy” or that I lack a strong conviction about anything. Nothing could be further from the truth. I change my mind. The freedom to change one’s mind–and by that I mean social freedom, moral freedom, not just legal or political freedom–is one of the things we should cherish most about living in a free society. Let’s not lose sight of that freedom. Let us stop being so tribal, so torn on the bias, and again celebrate the virtue of persuasion. I’d much rather live in a nation of “flip-floppers” than one of intractable extremists.