Just a teaser there! Now for the real post!
So, I’ve been writing a biweekly column for the local paper, The Comox Valley Record. Not exactly the New York Times, the Globe or the Guardian. It’s a paper published twice a week and emphasizes ads over editorial content, but it’s making an effort to provide some coverage of social issues. The Record is read by substantial numbers of people locally so I get some people reading my work. They tell me so occasionally. It’s a challenge to write a regular column sometimes. Not that I’m at a loss for words. I’ve been writing for some time now about homelessness and affordable housing and local government involvement in such things. Problem is, I’m not at all convinced I’ve changed anybody’s mind on these topics. I generally try to provide evidence for my position and appeal to reason, but I doubt I’m having much effect. Of course, I may be surprised by what people are feeling about my work, but I have no idea what impact I’m actually having.
Generally I think that people are loathe to change their minds in any way. They have a huge vested interest in their ideas and more often than not in my experience when I’ve spoken in public I sense that people are not so much listening to learn, they are listening only to respond on the basis of their own ideas. That was how many of my students listened in class over the 36 years I taught at BC colleges. Not all of them. It’s hard to say just how many of my students had a change of mind after taking my courses. I know that some of them did to the point of going on to take sociology as a university major.
Obviously we teach and write with the hope that people will listen and change their minds if the evidence is compelling enough for the arguments we make. I’m not sure that happens all that frequently. I’m thinking that people change their minds for lots of reasons, just not often by appeal to reason. It strikes me and has struck me for some time that a person’s social status, class, ethnicity or nationality and sex have a profound impact on their worldview and what they allow ‘into’ that worldview. Of course, age, intelligence and many other factors will also have an impact. There have been a few studies about how people change their minds or don’t. Not a lot. A recent article in The New Yorker by Maria Konnikova (May 16, 2014) entitled I Don’t Want To Be Right addresses this issue. She writes: “When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.” So many of our attitudes, beliefs, values and ideas are habitual, entrenched and lovingly held, that we resist any attempt to change it. Some of our beliefs are held tentatively as in science, but for most of us most of the time, we don’t like evidence that contradicts what we believe or espouse.
Attitudes we hold towards other people in the class structure are generally quite entrenched. We hold wealthy people in high esteem and we feel that poor folks are less than worthy of our consideration. That’s class at work. We don’t want to support housing for the homeless because it’s their bed, they made it and now they must sleep in it, never mind all the evidence that suggests that the homeless are not always responsible for their life circumstances, especially homeless children. Evidence in this case will be discounted time and again by whatever means possible including misrepresentation, misquotation, lies, deceit, ad hominem argumentation and any number of other strategies. No, we don’t like our ideas to be challenged. After all, they’re served us so well for our whole lives. Why change now? Indeed.
We do change our minds sometimes but it usually takes a profound change in our life circumstances to do so. We change our ideas because our lives change and not the other way around. We may fall ill, become disabled, or experience a business failure, a marriage breakdown, death in the family, death of the family. So many life experiences have the power to change our minds and attitudes towards other people or other ideas. Appeals to reason on the other hand fail to move us, especially if the new beliefs would require us to re-think our whole worldview. The more highly we are committed to our worldviews and to our material interests, the less likely we are to change, no matter what the evidence to the contrary might be. No better example of this is the Cheney/Bush insistence on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Such bullshit so highly defended as truth. I’m sure Cheney would still argue that the weapons are there somewhere. He would be completely disingenuous in this, but he would at least be consistent.
So, why am I writing a column in the local paper that tries to convince people of the advantages, economic and moral, of providing housing for the homeless? Beats me. I’m still thinking about it.