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Stefan Mai

Spends too much time on the internet.

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Changing minds

Everyone reacts to inflammatory opinions on the internet. Never before in society has the invisible battleground of ideas been so visible. And what’s not to love about the invigorating, almost tribal feelings behind stepping up to correct the “errors” of all who disagree with your group — rising to displace their slander with your facts. And we think we’ve come such a long way from the times where groups didn’t need reasons to be at odds with one each other, they just did. Now we spar in ideaspace with weapons of logic and reason, right? And you’re Ironman out there, pushing it all forward.

Well, I don’t think so (when I’m reasonable). I think the moral progress from pissing contests among alpha-males to organized debates of orators is negligible.  At best we’re just cheering on the representative of our group as they lay down the tracks back from the conclusion they’ve already reached, applauding louder the better they do. At worst we’re getting in the way of finding some truth, of growing and learning how we all fit together. Because people are wealthy with words these days, they are impoverished in understanding. Why look elsewhere when rationales for your current position are so easy to collect?

It’s really hard to understand how people change their minds about something big without having done it yourself. And you need to go all the way. The only opinions that are worth changing are the ones that you must sacrifice some commitment to break free of. Everything else is just a diversion. Part of that is tying it to your identity, then using it as a filter through which you view reality. Or committing yourself to this idea with time, money, and energy. Then calling it all for not, abandoning ship, and starting over. That is the trip.

But if you immediately cling to the opposing view, switching sides with elastic force then you’ll miss the golden opportunity: to find the middle and to see both sides with clarity. There’s no credit to be had in whoring yourself out to every cause in vogue, dabbling in every religion, rooting for every politician, or cheering for every team. You’re easy and your commitment is shallow. But finding a way to cross through the vulnerable middle opens you up to all the axes that you need to explore. The perspective on your position is made complete.

The thing I’ve come to understand (and I believe it’s backed up by modern research, ancient wisdom, and sales books everywhere) is that people don’t change their mind by argument, they change it by emotion. You can’t roar into a conversation, violating all of your audience’s triggers, and expect them to be open to you. And you can’t reasonably know those triggers without quite a lot of experiential information.

Of course there are subversive ways to manipulate emotions to reach a goal, but the real way to change someone’s mind is to completely understand their perspective and approach it strategically like a general on home turf. But here’s the paradox: you can’t completely understand their perspective until you’re in it, and once you’re in it you probably aren’t even considering changing your mind. The better equipped you are to do the work, the less motivated you are to do it.

And that’s why I think some people are quiet. They understand the beautiful complexity of the issues of mankind and care deeply about them, but know that no one is going to run forward with a magic slogan that flips everyone’s switch. And it makes me irritated (and mad at myself) when we are obstinately loud in asserting the stupidity of the world at large. Not because I think the point is wrong, but I think it’s careless and lazy. We’re opting for the low-effort, low-effect means of working towards our goal rather than mastering the proper route of persuasion: listening and speaking softly.

Make your words count.