How do you get people to change their minds? What do you have to do to get people to agree with you?
This is one of the greatest frustrations we suffer, not just in politics, but in life as a whole. Have you ever tried to get your spouse, your children, or your parents to change their minds about something important?
And those are people who trust you, who care what you think. It only gets harder when you step into the realm of politics, and all of a sudden you’re trying to convince someone you’ve never met to switch sides.
Still, you’re sure that you’re right, and it’s obvious they’re wrong. So why is it so hard to get someone you disagree with – say, a Donald Trump or a Barack Obama supporter – to change their ways?
Naturally, as a point of pride, none of us likes admitting we’re wrong. That’s especially true when it comes to important topics like politics, and even moreso given how people get treated when they “evolve” on issue: their sincerity is questioned and they get derided as “flip-floppers.”
But the problem is deeper than that. Suppose you’re trying to convince somebody that Obama’s economic policy has been a failure? You lay out statistics to make your case, but the response you get is, “Well, those numbers would have been even worse if not for Obama’s policies.”
How do you rebut that? It’s a hypothetical claim, and we can’t go back in time and run the clock all over again with different policies in order to compare outcomes. When it comes to economic, criminal, or military policy in general, we can’t run experiments – say, create two identical societies, give one of them a 5 percent sales tax and the other none – in order to determine what the cause-and-effect relationships are in the world. Not in the way we can with physics or chemistry.
What’s worse, even when we can predict the consequences of our actions, there are conflicts between moral values that defy easy answers.
And that’s why it’s so hard for us to get others to change their minds on politics, and for other people to get us to change our minds. (Really, think about what it would take for you to go, say, from being a Trump or Obama opponent to a supporter.)
Not that it never happens. Sometimes we shift course dramatically (like Paul on the road to Damascus). But we also resist changing our minds – just like our opponents do – on the basis of knowledge we claim to have but can’t prove conclusively. We’re sure that we’re right about economic policy, but we don’t actually have the experimental data to prove it.
As much as we insist that our beliefs are based on facts and reason (and that our opponents’, naturally, are based on emotion and ignorance), facts and reason don’t give us clear-cut answers nearly as often as we’d like. They usually do more to call our beliefs into question than to validate them. They show us how complicated the world is, and how inadequate our beliefs are.
And, to go back to pride, nobody likes to have the flimsiness of their beliefs pointed out to them. Socrates gained a reputation for being the wisest person in Athens, mostly based on his ability to prove how the politicians, artists, and teachers of his day didn’t actually know what they claimed to know. The people of Athens rewarded him with a jail cell and a free cup of hemlock.
This is, ultimately, one of the greatest tests of virtue we face in life: how do we treat people who disagree with us, and how much effort do we make to prove our beliefs before we adopt them?
And, in the middle of facing this test, are we expecting other people to behave with greater virtue than we are?
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