Yesterday I asked my wise and worldly readers who were comfortable doing so to share stories of times they read something that changed their mind about something important.
It did not change my view that I have the best readers ever. Such thoughtful responses!
I promised discretion in revealing who said what, and I’ll keep that promise, so some of these will have to be a bit vague.
A few readers wrote about reading or hearing perspectives from someone of a different race and/or gender that cast old views in a new light. In some cases it was hearing from friends; in others, it was reading something more official.
In a bit of coincidental timing, I’ve seen a series of women economists on Twitter over the last two days speak out (write out? tweet out?) about sexual harassment and sexist dismissiveness they’ve endured from prominent men in their field. A common thread in those stories is a fear of not being believed and/or an experience of not being believed. When a powerful group with blinders on silences everyone else, the damage isn’t only to the people who were silenced. The accuracy of the field itself is compromised because people who would bring different perspectives to the table have been pushed away.
This all rang true to me. I’ve written before that “women’s studies” courses (as they were called then) were some of the most useful classes I ever took. That’s because they examined things I thought I knew from different angles. The effect was like bringing a new lamp into a familiar room: suddenly you see things in corners that you didn’t notice before. That was helpful in getting a more accurate picture, which is great, but it was also helpful in teaching a bit of epistemological humility.
Another wrote of reading a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird that presented it as an example of the white savior. She hadn’t thought of it that way before but saw the truth in it. My own version of that was when the movie Mississippi Burning came out. I was in college at the time, and it got rave reviews. Gene Hackman was good in it, but I remember having a vague sense that making a civil rights movie centered on a couple of white guys didn’t seem quite right. I hadn’t heard the term “white savior” then, but that’s what it was.
A few readers made a distinction between “practical” and “ideological” issues. They suggested variously that practical issues lent themselves to problem-solving dialogue and therefore to learning, but that people’s minds were largely closed on the latter.
As a card-carrying political theorist, this makes me squirm a bit. What counts as “ideology” as opposed to “common sense” often reflects relations of power at the time. (The simpler version of that is “what I believe is common sense, and what you believe is ideology.”) Pragmatically, though, “pick your battles” is often good advice. When certain members of the extended family start holding forth on political views I consider horrific, I’m much more likely to change the subject or find something else to do than engage in combat. Their minds are made up, and they’d likely say the same about mine.
Direct experience can teach. I heard from a reader whose husband had struggled for years to build up a business and get out of debt; he resented the calls for student loan forgiveness on the grounds that nobody forgave his debts. I also heard from people who didn’t like the idea of forgiveness until they realized just how high tuition had gone in the last few decades.
A college librarian wrote to mention that it had long been understood among college librarians that libraries don’t carry textbooks. But as the #RealCollege movement grew and student basic needs became more obvious, their library relented. For a few years, it worked well—until the publishers got wise and started playing games with access codes. But for a few years, some students who otherwise might not have had access did. I wanted to applaud that one.
A former department chair mentioned that difficult experience in the role changed his view of leadership. I’ll just say that it doesn’t stop at that level.
One particularly thoughtful reader shared experience working through bureaucratic hoops to get emergency relief and developing a jaundiced sense of the capability of government. I have the same reaction every time I see a policy with an asterisk.
On the flip side, though, I was heartened when someone named The Deficit Myth, by Stephanie Kelton, as a mind-changer. It had the same effect on me. Modern monetary theory explains a lot about the past 40 years or so that’s otherwise difficult to explain. For example, if government deficits “crowd out” private investment, then why did the explosion of deficits under the Trump administration coincide with record-low interest rates? That’s the precise opposite of crowding out. MMT has an answer. If you have a policy nerd streak, I really can’t recommend the book highly enough.
The common denominator, to the extent there was one, was that when minds changed, it was usually as a result of an entirely new perspective. It didn’t come from a frontal assault in a debate; the effect was more of an “I never thought of that.” In those cases, people’s shields were down, and the new information came less as a threat than as a missing puzzle piece.
I needed that.
Let’s keep those missing pieces coming. Thank you, wise and worldly readers!