The Corner

Politics & Policy

How to Change Minds

(Eachat/Getty Images)

I’ve been reading through Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution recently, one of the greatest cultural artifacts of the 19th century. In Chapter III of that great work, he offers his readers a few words of sage advice on how best to combat lies. It’s advice that we who inhabit this partisan and polarized place and time still need to hear:

Where thou findest a Lie that is oppressing thee, extinguish it. Lies exist there only to be extinguished; they wait and cry earnestly for extinction. Think well, meanwhile, in what spirit thou wilt do it: not with hatred, with headlong selfish violence; but in clearness of heart, with holy zeal, gently, almost with pity. Thou wouldst not replace such extinct lie by a new lie, which a new injustice of thy own were; the parent of still other lies? Whereby the latter end of that business were worse than the beginning.

“Think well, meanwhile, in what spirit thou wilt do it.” This is where most of us, myself included, tend to stumble when we argue and debate with friends who disagree with us. If we truly want to change minds, we all have to be mindful of the fact that we gain nothing by winning the argument and losing the person. What’s more, people generally try to avoid changing their minds on big subjects whenever they can. Psychologically, it can feel humiliating, disorientating, and doubt-inducing in other areas of life. “If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?” As a result, it can radically diminish one’s confidence and sense of self. If people have to choose between changing their mind on something that matters and preserving their sense of self, they will always dig their heels in. 

This is why it’s so important, in the words of Sun Tzu, to “build a golden bridge for your opponent to retreat across,” when arguing over matters of substance. You have to express your point of view in such a way that allows your interlocutor to be persuaded without losing face or ceding status. There must be a way for them to climb down from their position while retaining their dignity. 

That so little of our discourse takes on this character is a testament to the fact that we have long since ceased all attempts at persuading our neighbors of the truth, goodness, and beauty of our respective positions. Take, for example, the rank condescension and contempt exhibited towards anti-vaxxers in this “Public Service Announcement” that was recently aired on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show: 

I, no less than the doctors in this video, am convinced that every eligible American should take the coronavirus vaccine. But the notion that a video like this would ever convince vaccine-hesitant Americans to change their position instead of entrenching it further is ridiculous. It’s clear that the video was never about persuasion in the first place. It was about servicing Kimmel’s progressive viewers with the intoxicating pleasure that all of us derive from having our priors confirmed and our self-satisfied sense of certainty fortified against all comers. 

The dispensation of this particular pleasure is what most of American news media is in the business of supplying to its consumers in 2021. In this respect, the Right is no better than the Left. The endless ream of YouTube clips that show Ben Shapiro “UTTERLY DESTROYING” a hapless college student a decade-and-a-half his junior are perhaps the most famous examples one could point to of how the schadenfreude-industrial complex can generate millions of dollars for conservatives as well as progressives. Nowhere in our national life today, for instance, are you likely to find any public conversation between Left and Right resembling the extraordinary debate conducted between William F. Buckley and Noam Chomsky on the April 3, 1969, episode of Firing Line, which you can (and should) watch in full on YouTube here.     

This is primarily because productive debate depends on the willingness of both sides to attribute benign motives to their interlocutors. You have to start from a point of agreement that there’s some shared vision of the Good that you’re both aiming at, even if you think your opponent’s vision of it is refracted and obscured to the point of error while your own is much closer to the mark. A productive debate about abortion, for example, would depend on the willingness of pro-lifers to concede that their opponents do not see themselves as out-and-proud baby murderers, and on the willingness of pro-choicers to get beyond their suspicion that opponents of abortion care about nothing more that “controlling women’s bodies.” But we simply will not extend one another this courtesy.

This is a great shame, because changing one’s mind is a lot like a trust exercise. You have to be willing to step off the precipice on which you previously took your stand, convinced that those who were previously your opponents will catch you without jeering you, flouting you, and insisting you divest yourself of all your dignity and self-respect. There’s a kind of intimacy and an assuredness of unconditional friendship between conservatives and progressives that has to be in place before the mind of either can be changed by the other. Hence Carlyle’s emphasis that lies must be corrected “in clearness of heart, with holy zeal, gently, almost with pity.”             

But how far we are from this kind of friendship today! In 2021, the relationship between progressives and conservatives in America looks a lot less like a trust exercise and a lot more like a violent video game. Both sides sit alone at home in front of a screen, stroking the prejudices of their ideological peers and congratulating one another as they “hit,” “slam,” and “destroy” their enemies, who in turn appear to them as little more than pixelated, two-dimensional avatars, tailor-made for recreational abuse. 

There’s no remedy to this state of affairs, and no hope of creating a polity characterized by persuasion, until both sides emerge from their partisan bunkers and greet one another in the clear light of day with the words of our shared nation’s greatest son, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” We all must convince our political adversaries that this proposition is true — with actions as well as words — before we can expect to convince them of anything else. 

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