Bethany’s link about changing a mind over at Graph Paper Diaries has stuck with me. Run through that first before continuing, please. The problem is not what the people we disagree with believe, it is who they believe.
We all learn things and have them reinforced by what we read, but sometimes an idea starts to lock in, creating a real sea-change, and this may do that for me, though the idea is certainly not absolutely new to me. It may just be the right time. . For those who mostly agree with us, we can attempt persuasion via logical argument. There are people who I read often or who come comment here who have established credibility with me. Sometimes this is credibility around a single topic or a few, sometimes this applies more generally, because they have proved reliable in many areas. If I say, “I think Trump’s decision to deregulate hamster farms will be unnecessarily destructive to the Elbonian economy,” I might nonetheless pause if a reliable source counters “No, I think Trump has it right on the hamsters.”
Because of this I engage in the fantasy that the same thing applies with people I have more substantial disagreements with. My aim has been to be more precise, more complete, and more clear in my declarations. I do more homework, to confirm things and plug possible leaks in the argument. I anticipate objections and try to head them off at the pass. I look for better analogies, more persuasive phrases, tie-ins to other beliefs they likely hold. (I assign less credibility to those who don't do this themselves.)
This mostly doesn’t work. I may have wasted enormous amounts of energy over my lifetime, in conversation, in writing, in commenting, and in imagination crafting these beauties. Yet no matter how well I succeed in any encounter, people are likely to immediately return to the same sources they have trusted. After watching various gun control arguments rise and fall, I have mine whittled down to a few that I think unassailable, and I have tight answers for my opponents’ most likely claims. Neat. Simple. Seeking only refinement of expression and a fair hearing. Yet when I am done, even if I have temporarily left them without a leg to stand on, they will pick up the Washington Post, and they will see the FB posts of their friends and relatives, and will listen that night to NPR.
Multiply this by many subjects, and the same sources they trusted yesterday – their pastor, people in their profession, a scrap of a course they took in college, a blogsite or news site they visit daily – will start in again, dragging them back to that culture’s center. Unless, of course, they are natural contrarians who say “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute,” about everything reflexively. That would be the photographic negative of the same problem.
No disproof can be allowed to stand – some weak point must be found, ignoring the 90% strong points. The conventional wisdom will be cited, agreed upon by the purported experts, and that will carry the day. The facts don’t matter. To change their way of thinking, people generally have to change their sources of who they believe. We don’t tend to abandon our sources unless A) they prove to be horribly wrong about something we know on our own. Even that is seldom enough “Yeah, the Globe has just got this thing about education and gets it wrong, but it’s still better than the Herald!” They must lose credibility on a few issues, unless the one area of fault is of huge importance. Or B) Some new source must come in which is also believed, and has explanatory power. That new source creates an island of its own, setting up its own credibility, and will itself link or otherwise refer to other new sources. A new coworker, a new website, a book we got for Christmas – these don’t always directly contradict our old sources, they just move in and set up shop.
I wish I had the ability to do that latter. I am much more wired for refutation and explanation. Those are necessary foundations, but are not the usual persuaders. The takeaway is to spend less time in refutation and more meticulous explanation, and more in encouraging the new sources. The old sources will not be abandoned until their replacements are visible and already partly-believed. Sometimes I can at least provide new angles.