A few weeks ago, a friend on Facebook asked, “Have any of you ever changed your mind about politics based on a meme, shared article, or social media post?”
I thought it was an interesting question. “Not based on a meme,” I typed, “but I have changed my mind after reading a particularly thoughtful post or an article that made me think about an issue in a different way.”
I was the only person to respond with any form of the affirmative. In a sea of “no,” “nope,” and “not me!” responses, one person said, “No I wouldn’t [sic].”
That’s a curious turn of phrase: I wouldn’t.
This person isn’t just speaking to historical events (no, I’ve never changed my mind based on a political post) but is invoking the future. Since I’m assuming this person is not clairvoyant, what’s really going on is that he’s making a statement about his moral standards.
“Have you ever drowned a kitten?” someone might ask.
“No! I would never!”
Or, “Did you cheat on the final exam?”
“I wouldn’t cheat!”
“Have you changed your mind?”
“Never!” comes the battle-cry, fist raised.
When did it become a point of pride to never change one’s mind?
I hear variations on this theme both online and in person: “I hate it when people post about political issues. I already know who I’m voting for, so I don’t need to see all that stuff.”
What if you don’t have all the information? What if you haven’t looked at an issue from a certain perspective? What if you’re misguided? What if you’re…wrong? What if I’m wrong?
It’s entirely likely I’m more worried than the average person about my knowledge base, about having all the information, about considering and reconsidering and reconsidering again because, well, I’m an anxiety-riddled perfectionist who has commitment issues with taking sides. At some point, I know I have to stop reading, stop listening, and make a choice – the best possible choice I can make in that moment with the knowledge I have. But this idea that revising your opinion shows either a weak mind or weak ethics (or both) is symptomatic of a diseased culture.
Symptom 1: Clinging to extremes.
Not only are we highly polarized in the U.S., but we cling desperately to those simplified black-or-white, this-or-that, us-or-them stances. We know our side, our side is the absolute truth, and any other perspective is absolutely wrong. Many people struggle to imagine – or admit to – more ambivalent possibilities, the contradictions, the gray areas present in any issue. People on both sides of the spectrum are equally guilty. I am often guilty.
A mark of intellectual maturity is being able to embrace contradiction. Sometimes, those minute degrees of contradiction can tip the scales in a new direction.
Symptom 2: Intellectual laziness.
“I already know who I’m voting for” is the equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and shouting LA LA LA LA LAAAAAAA. I would never change my mind. I’ll prove it.
What you’re saying is that you don’t want to be bothered with encountering new ideas and having to rethink your stance. Processing information is hard. Coming to thoughtful, reasoned conclusions in a flawed world is even harder. Harder still is hashing out those ideas with other people who may not agree with you.
Symptom 3: Information isolation.
“Well, I do my own research,” some might say.
This is one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for formal, diverse, higher education: humans can only research to the limits of our imagination. It’s hard to come up with a Google search phrase for a concept we’ve never encountered or imagined. Good instructors – experts in their fields who have spent more time reading, listening, talking, thinking, and writing about their subject of interest than most people ever will – can guide students to engage with material beyond their sphere of knowledge, with ideas they may never have discovered on their own. If your research consists of your old stand-bys, you’re missing a lot of information and a lot of perspectives.
More and more people rely on social media for their news. This means they get their information from a curated set of media outlets, friends, and family. We tend to block voices with whom we disagree, and we add voices that reinforce our worldviews. We all do it to one degree or another, but this means that we are becoming more isolated from perspectives different from our own and the people with whom we socialize.
In my own Facebook newsfeed, for example, out of a community of 500+ people and over 1,000 media outlets I follow, I don’t have a single outspoken Trump supporter. There are a few friends I suspect are Trump supporters, but they’re not admitting it publicly (which is telling in itself). In any case, that’s a huge statistical deviation. And there’s a reason for it: consciously or unconsciously, I’ve built myself a sturdy anti-Trump bunker.
Symptom 4: We don’t read enough.
I don’t know how many times a week I ask my husband if he’s read about something I saw online. I’ll give him a one-liner to catch him up, he’ll ask me a question, and I find myself saying, “I don’t know. I only read the headline.”
And I blush.
If we’re only reading headlines, bumper stickers, and memes, if we’re only listening to the one-minute sound-bite (I refuse to watch almost any video on social media that runs past two minutes) how can we possibly understand the nuances of an issue? How can we engage intelligently? How can we carry on a conversation about it?
Read. Read books. Read articles. Read poems and stories and personal essays. Read widely. Be discriminating about your sources. Pause to process and rethink your stance after you read. But mostly, just read.
Symptom 5: We talk at each other.
My son will argue any point, any time of the day, with any level of information (or misinformation) simply for the sport of arguing. It’s just who he is. Someday, because he can look at any side, follow any line of inquiry, he’ll make a great lawyer or scientist or inventor. He’ll be a great philosopher or writer.
But too often, we see conversation as a competitive sport. Debate has its intellectual place. Done right, it can lead to rich, complex understanding for all parties. Done wrong (which it usually is), our conversations are nothing more than a tennis match with no hope of resolution, no point.
“Don’t talk at me,” I tell my son. “Talk with me.” I want to hear what he’s saying, and I want him to hear what I’m saying, and then move together toward something higher, something more significant than an irreconcilable tennis match both of us are determined to win.
Listen. Really listen. Ask questions to be sure you understand. Reflect back what you think the other person is saying. Weigh it and respond thoughtfully. Keep an eye on your emotions. I don’t mean ignore your emotions, or remain emotionless. Just be careful in the ways you use those feelings.
Symptom 6: Mistrust of education.
This past week I read Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks. It’s a novel set in Appalachia in the 1930s, a time of massive change for a historically isolated group of people. I chose it because my family comes from Appalachia, from poverty, from an ultra-conservative worldview. The Appalachian voice and the novel’s themes tugged at the roots of my identity.
In the novel, a husband becomes convinced his wife is a witch because she grows to see herself as her own agent – she sneaks out at night to walk alone, she develops friendships outside her marriage, she attends classes offered by the new government agent in town, she wants their son to be educated. She also dares to claim her body as her own, rather than an object her husband, by virtue of ownership, can take and use at will. The husband’s fear of change – his paranoia – grows into a demon of his own making.
The plot resonated with my own story. My background is just eccentric enough that I often feel like I stepped from the 1930s into the twenty-first century.
The more I considered the book, though, the more I found myself shocked at how relevant it is to broader American cultural wars. We’re still arguing about who a woman’s body belongs to. We’re still arguing about what it means to be married. We’re still arguing about the place – and worth – of education.
In the last fifteen years, I’ve seen an increased trend toward not just suspicion of the educated, but outright contempt: “I don’t need a piece of paper. I have common sense. College will just brainwash you.” These could be lines straight from the husband’s mouth in Franks’ novel.
What if we revered our elders more instead of less? The ones who have gathered more life experience, more wisdom? What if we sat at their feet and absorbed their histories and their knowledge? What if retirement homes were more like temples, holding the sacred within their walls? What if instead of retirement homes, our elderly – our wise – were placed with reverence at the center of our homes?
What if we respected the knowledgeable and the pursuit of knowledge? When did the path of learning become something ridiculous, something only peculiar people chase, daydreamers who don’t understand or can’t survive the “real world” (and what is this “real world,” anyway)? When did academics become Ross from Friends, bumbling idiots who are barely tolerated by the people around them?
Symptom 7: Fear of failing or being wrong.
We are losing our capacity for creative play. We live in a culture that values the quantifiable, the efficient, that certain journey from A to B. We want what’s right, and we want it now, preferably in capsule form. A flavored capsule that goes down smoothly would be even better, thank you very much.
My students have a positive horror of being wrong. This is usually why they struggle to speak up in class, why I have to nudge and prod and convince them to take risks in their projects, to start with a question they don’t know the answer to and simply follow the path the question will take. There’s something wrong with our culture when we produce students who have a creeping terror of actual growth.
Being wrong is where the good stuff happens. It’s where humility shows us truths we’d never see otherwise. Failure is exciting. It’s dynamic. I respect a good failure.
People who know me even superficially can tell right away I’m a bleeding heart hippie leftist. Those who have only known me in the past five or ten years, though, would be surprised to know I voted for George W. Bush the first time around. Even worse, I voted for him for no better reason than that was how my husband voted (he’s done a lot of changing, too). And if I’d been old enough, I would have voted for his father.
I’m a big believer in the power of changing minds. When people accuse political candidates of “flip-flopping,” I understand the mistrust of the pandering politician. But I also believe that people do change. They gather information, they listen to other points of view, and yes, I hope they change their minds. If you haven’t changed your mind about something significant, that tells me more about your fear than about your courage or your standards.
Poet and educator Taylor Mali said in his poem, “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”
I wish you a life filled with fruitful flip-flopping.