Has Slugger O’Toole ever changed your mind?

How can you test your open-mindedness?

A common theme characterizing responses to Turgon’s interesting question on how we might respond to monstrous and dangerous beliefs and believers like Anders Breivik got me thinking about this. Several commentors focused on Breivik’s ideas and how these might be challenged and exposed as weak. This focus assumes that the challenge with limiting the potency of extreme ideologies is essentially an intellectual one: Extreme actions are rooted in extreme beliefs; ergo, we should engage and expose (or isolate) dangerous ideas.

The problem with this approach is its faith in the role that thinking plays how we form our beliefs. In reality, never mind extremists like Breivik, none of us invest much time and effort in thinking – at least not deliberative, reasoned thinking.

Consider yourself: Are you generally a biased and close-minded person or a broadly open-minded person?

Wrong answer, I’m afraid. Think again – assuming you even tried thinking the first time.

Cognitive research suggests we don’t ‘think’ very often at all, if by thinking we mean carefully considering the merits of a proposition based on facts and evidence. Instead of processing information by thinking, in that sense, we tend to process information through peripheral pathways or ‘unthinking’ shortcuts. While its comforting to assume we carefully evaluate facts and opinions (especially relative to “most people”), we generally come to believe or act not through careful ‘thoughtful’ consideration –“central processing” –  but via, instead, “peripheral processing“; “triggers” or “cues” that appeal our biases. Unsurprisingly, these cues can be associated with the messenger as much as the message. Real ‘thinking’ is pretty rare –and pretty tiring.

Turgon poses an important question because if we’re all much less open to unwelcome, challenging opinions and even facts than we’d care to believe, how then should we deal with ‘extremists’ and ‘extreme ideas’ that pose great harm on others?

Take yourself and your SluggerO’Toole experience as an (unscientific) case study in point.

Is the whole Slugger site evidence that people generally don’t change their positions with criticism, however solid; rather, more often, they “dig in” with ever-increasing hostility and/or they disengage?

Let’s try an unscientific test (feedback very welcome). How many of us can point to a single issue that, thanks to access to contrary evidence or challenging opinion on Slugger, we’ve changed our own original positions? And I mean really changed, not just made a tactical adjustment.

Anyone?  Even one?

(For my own part, though relatively new to this parish, the only example I can think of, possibly, is marching. The more I read the arguments for curtailment, the less I think the price of limiting freedom of speech is worth it. But that’s just a starting point, not a position. And note to trolls: This is not a thread about marching; it’s a thread about the dynamics of persuasion and what motivates intransigence.)

Any personal examples that refute this ‘thesis’ that we’re generally (and not just on Slugger) closed-minded un-thinkers seeking affirmation rather than enlightenment are greatly appreciated.

If you can’t think of any, don’t become too depressed – you’re not a bigot necessarily, just a weak and lazy thinker sharing company with most everyone else, not least those who make decisions that will affect us all.

Here’s a wee illustration of the closed-minded (‘unthinking’) dynamics that operate at the highest levels of government. Ever wonder how Richard Nixon’s gang managed to make the unbelievably ill-thought-through calculation that breaking into the Watergate hotel in search of a few files and documents was worth the risk?

There were, as I recall, around a dozen conspirators who voted amen to the Watergate plan. Only one guy thought it was bonkers.

So, who was this dissenter and why did he think differently?

Our objector was the only guy who had not been in the room when even crazier plans were proposed, plans that allegedly involved kidnapping and utterly Don Mafioso stuff. This guy, therefore, was literally thinking, i.e. processing differently; he came to his decision with a different frame of reference. The only no-man among them was the only person thinking about the Watergate plan relatively clearly, i.e. objectively rather than by comparing the relatively mild crime of burglarizing Watergate with the really rough and dastardly stuff.

(I’ve since shuddered upon wondering whether the decisions that lead to some our own worst atrocities, both the calamitous blunders and the unequivocally evil, derived from macabre discussions where even worse alternatives were tabled and thereby lead to people unthinkingly ‘settling’ for the otherwise unconscionable.)

We rarely think clearly. We search for ‘reasons’ to do or believe whatever affirms our self-image, our values and our preferences. Having said that, maybe Slugger, rather than providing a tribal “fix”, is one vehicle and forum that bucks these natural instincts, at least occasionally?

PS: For a superb read on how our thinking – or lack thereof – is ripe for manipulation, enjoy George Lakoff’s, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!”.

Strategic Communications Consultant, located Washington DC