We’re All Rowing the Same Boat

By Lynn Gerlach, Green Bay

On the frigid first week of November, I joined my Brown County Democratic Party friends to canvass Green Bay, seeking to discover minds that might be opened, opinions we might consider fluid, or even strong Progressives we’d not been tracking. On Saturday I entered dark, forbidding apartment buildings with stairways clearly not built to code and even a “condemned” sign on one apartment door. On Sunday I stepped up to spacious verandas complete with adorable Halloween decorations and autumn wreaths. On both days I met interesting people – mostly Trump supporters.

But I want to share with you this one befuddling experience. In that lovely Sunday neighborhood, under clear (cold) blue skies, surrounded by manicured lawns and cleverly carved jack-o-lanterns, I encountered two people on two different streets who gave me the exact same response, verbatim. Here’s a “transcript,” since that seems to be the tool of the trade these days:

Street #1:

LYNN: … So what is the one key issue you think we ought to be focusing on with the general election just a year away? What is the one issue that keeps you awake at night, that will likely drive your vote?

NICE LADY: Well, it’s everything. Just everything! I’m worried sick about everything…

Street #2, 15 minutes later:

LYNN: … So what is the one key issue you think we ought to be focusing on with the general election just a year away? What is the one issue that keeps you awake at night, that will likely drive your vote?

NICE MAN: Well, it’s everything. Just everything! I’m worried sick about everything…

And guess what, folks! The woman went on to tell me in hushed tones, “I’m a Republican,” and the man confided to me, “I’m a Democrat.” What?! She blamed it all on the Democrats, and he blamed it all on Trump and his sycophants. And yet they were both consumed by anxiety about the same thing – “everything.” Both conveyed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our country is in terrible straits and needs major life support soon. And she’s a Republican and he’s a Democrat.

What to make of it, my friends? It seems we’re all in the same boat, rowing in perfectly opposite directions, and blaming each other for the dizzying vortex below us. We can attribute it to “polarization” and kid ourselves that installing a Democratic administration will solve all the problems and make “the other side” fall in line – or render their opposition moot. I don’t buy it. And yet I don’t know what to do about it. And that’s what keeps me awake at night.

In the summer of 2018 I read Howard Gardner’s Changing Minds, not because I was smart enough even to know the book existed, but because a nonprofit group with whom I associate asked me to join them in their summer reading experience. I even wrote an article about it for my blog: Changing Minds – a Magic Wand? You can read my article (and weep), but I’ll briefly summarize it here: It’s easier to talk about changing minds as a general concept than to actually change any one particular mind. Why? As we age, we develop strong views resistant to change. Even worse, it’s particularly hard to replace simple ways of thinking with more complex ways (and the world just gets more complex, doesn’t it?). We go to great lengths to square discrepant information with beliefs we hold dear just so that we don’t have to change our beliefs.

For one thing, it’s hard for any individual to recognize his or her own presuppositions; they’re often unconscious. And the older and more respected among us are least likely to be able even to see those unconscious presuppositions. Even birth order plays a role: First-borns are less able to embrace revolutionary tenets than their later-born sibs who lived from day one with the forced flexibility of sibling rivalry.

One who ultimately becomes a fundamentalist simply decides he will no longer change his mind in any significant way. As a community, fundamentalists pour all their resources into shoring up the beliefs they share and rejecting alien doctrines. Once that position is stated publicly, it’s even more difficult to swerve in the slightest way, even when a pet theory has been discredited. [Climate science comes to mind, eh?]

But we’re in the business of changing minds, aren’t we? So we can take ten lessons from Gardner, if we’re determined to pursue our task:

  1. Willingness to invest time in the effort is critical. In most cases, mind-changing requires much time, practice, and considerable backsliding.
  2. Put less time and effort into trying to convince the opponent, and spend more time trying to understand her. That neutralizes the resistance.
  3. Appeal first to the individual’s intelligence whenever possible.
  4. Be prepared to present this “new” position in several different ways, as that is how learning best occurs. (And, of course, since we’re taking our advice from the master of “multiple intelligences,” present each different version so that it appeals to a different intelligence.)
  5. Search for resonance and stamp out resistance. (Before you even try this, ensure you have, within yourself, an accurate mental model of your own mind.)
  6. Ask questions, listen carefully, and follow up appropriately.
  7. Avoid egocentrism; don’t get caught up in your own position.
  8. HUGELY IMPORTANT: The purpose of a mind-changing encounter is not to articulate your own point of view but rather to engage the psyche of the other person.
  9. Two important tools allow for effective mind-changing: storytelling and living the message. The most compelling stories are familiar enough so as not to be immediately rejected, but distinctive enough to engage curiosity and interest.
  10. One is often primed for a change of mind by feeling he has “hit a dead end.” Attempting the new behavior for the first time is a decisive step forward.

Well, as I said, you can read my full article – or you can read Gardner’s book (even better). Neither one is a walk in the park. According to Howard Gardner, we’re in for a long slog if we intend to change minds (but I think we have to!). The author does remind us that behaviorists teach that the most powerful incentives for changing behavior are reward and punishment. He suggests that one might be more likely to change one’s mind when embraced by a new, powerful, and resource-rich constituency that shares the new perspective. But, alas, he goes on to say that “few goals are more challenging to achieve than significant, lasting change in adult human beings.”

Ever the optimist, I continue to search for a guru who can teach me how to do my part to reduce the polarity that threatens our democracy. Until then, perhaps I will settle for the temporary commitment of an informal “think tank” that will join together to learn Gardner’s principles for changing minds and struggle together to apply them as best we can. Any takers?