The upside to changing your mind (or, why we argue)

I want you to imagine, for a moment, yourself at 16. If that wasn’t very long ago, then imagine yourself, say, five or six years younger than you are now. What are you thinking about? What opinions do you hold about your life and the things in it? What do you think you know about the world?

Okay, now come back and settle into your current skin. Do you wish you were sixteen again? Or, even better, do you wish you were the same age you are now, except with the same knowledge and opinions you had then?

This is the standard to which we hold those people who run our country. One of our highest values in our leaders, as shown in many attack ads, is that they never change their minds. “Flip-flopping,” or “waffling,” we call it. We bring up things they said in an opinion column twenty years ago and, if they claim to have changed their minds since then, we have one of two responses: we don’t believe them, or we crucify them for it.

Do we want to live in a country run by sixteen-year-olds? Do we want leaders who, when they’re confronted with new data and evidence, refuse to make any revision to what they believe? Or whose constituents won’t allow them to? If somebody’s been in office for twenty years and has exactly the same stances he had then on every single issue, I think maybe he missed the point!

I’ve always been wary of the idea of running for office because I hate the culture of suspicion that surrounds learning and refining your beliefs. If I think all the same things in twenty years that I think now, I’m probably not paying very much attention to the world around me, or at least I’ve stopped trying to learn. That’s not a future I want to create.

In current political discourse, we don’t argue to learn from and teach to each other. We argue to be right. And it’s got to stop.

There was a great TED talk about the power of debate and the ways in which the world would be different if we allowed everyone in an argument to win–not because they came out correct, but because they came out having listened and learned something.

The next time you have a gut instinct to believe what you’ve always believed and say what you’ve always said just because it’s what you know, see if you can’t learn something from the person “opposite” you. Try to analyze, not whether you have data to back up your claims, but if you could come to your claims from the data itself. And for the love of all that is holy, listen to other people. Because I really don’t want this country to be run by teenagers.

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