Identity and Changing Your Mind

Changing minds may take as long as it took for nature to etch this structure out of rock. Sedona, Arizona. April 23, 2016.

Changing minds may take as long as it took for nature to etch this structure out of rock. Sedona, Arizona. April 23, 2016.

Let’s start here: I’ve long realized the futility of religious debates between people of completely different faiths.

Discussing the nuances of interpretation when you agree on general principles works, but when two people have no foundation of religious agreement upon which to rest their elbows during a fine-points arm wrestle, you end up in full-on judo-wrangling mode.

Religion isn’t rational. That’s the point. It’s about faith. You actively choose to believe even without concrete, scientific evidence. The leap of faith is the trust and the test. Without the leap, belief holds no challenge. Without the leap, you’ll never reach the rewards.

Let’s continue here: I’d assumed otherwise general human rationality about political and social stances—the ones at least predominantly disconnected from religion. I’d assumed that, based on new information and perspectives, rational people would change their minds.

Oh so wrong.

Over the couple months I spent getting to know someone late last year—an intelligent person, by the way—I witnessed a forced, willful ignorance.

He would lash out at people who exposed him to facts, perspectives, and ideas that threatened to challenge his long-held beliefs—even when clear, objective facts disproved his thinking. If he changed his mind, he seemed to feel he would admit to having fostered a world view—and, therefore, identity—founded on ignorance or faulty information. And then he’d need an entirely new identity.

Further, his friends and family mostly seemed to share his thinking. He’d gotten it somewhere, after all. Changing his mind might require him to find all new people. Not easy—or particularly fun.

Ignorance kept his cocoon safe.

This interpersonal experience made a hopeful, optimistic, Pollyanna-ish person—me—feel horrified. And then bereft.

Without people openly willing to reconsider social and political perspectives upon exposure to new facts and experiences, change will require a monumental effort involving all age groups, all cultures, and all socioeconomic categories—and all these efforts may not pay off for generations, if ever, and only after numerous large and small setbacks along the way.

Further, when people tie their identities to certain beliefs and stances, they will always waste energy on hate, as hate bonds them with their people and solidifies their tribe.

I should know this.

After all, as I’ve noted, intolerance may have deep roots in human nature. And my study of intellectual history has taught me that people change their thinking either through a slow evolutionary process or due to a major cataclysmic event that, in most cases, affects an entire society or group.

An example of the former: At the end of “Straight Outta Compton,” a movie mostly set thirty years ago, I thought, “How far we have not come.” An example of the latter: U.S. citizens only fully realized that the world didn’t universally love them after the September 11 attacks; the mind change came nearly immediately, but only after a brutal wake-up call.

Let’s end here: I shouldn’t have felt as surprised and forlorn with disappointment as I did when I witnessed determined, willful ignorance first-hand. Yet your brain knowing something means little when your heart encounters it.

Tell me about when you last tried to change a mind.