Friday, May 05, 2017

Remembering the I Before I Changed My Mind

Sometimes, I change my mind about things.

That's normal, indeed, healthy. We should change our minds, sometimes. When we get new information, or circumstances change, or we ponder an issue more deeply, we will sometimes conclude that our prior thoughts on a given matter were wrong, and new, different thoughts are better. That's how it should be.

For example, when I was a Junior in high school, I was truly, deeply opposed to affirmative action. I wrote an entire "persuasive essay" on the matter for an assignment. As a debater, I was good at persuasion, and I poured a lot into that essay.

By the time I was a first-year in college, I had changed my mind. I had read more and thought more, and concluded that my prior views were wrong. I've remained a strong supporter of affirmative action ever since.

But whenever I change my mind, I always try to remember the person I was before I changed my mind. That person, I remind myself, was not avaricious or cruel. He was not mean-spirited or willfully obtuse. Of course, one thing he was was wrong -- if  I thought he was right, I wouldn't have changed my mind. But he was (obviously) persuadable, since something did in fact end up persuading him. And so I try to remember what was motivating him -- what were his fears, his concerns, his worries, his ambitions, his interlocking beliefs? Even when I am now quite convinced that past-me was just plain wrong -- I'm confident that my new positon is right and my old position is incorrect -- I keep in mind that I didn't generally arrive at my wrong-prior-position through either pure malice or abject stupidity.

And so when I meet other people who believe things I used to believe, I try to presume -- absent evidence to the contrary -- they were like me. They have reasons for thinking what they do -- not necessarily good reasons, but reasons that need to be responded to. They have concerns motivating their rejection of alternatives -- not necessarily overriding concerns, but concerns that need to be addressed. A project of persuasion, if it is to be effective, should remember the "I" that had not yet been persuaded -- if only as a roadmap to get from A to B.

Of course, since I have not most likely changed my mind for the last time, I also remember that it's possible that current-me is wrong, and I should be open to the types of discourse and challenges which have historically helped move me from worse opinions to better ones. Things like being open to others' views, reading widely, and interpreting charitably all have served me well in my desire to think better thoughts than I used to, and so they are virtues I try to consistently live out.

But even from the vantage point of believing my current beliefs are correct (and of course that is what I think -- if I thought my current beliefs were wrong, I'd change them to something else), my mantra is to remember that others have the same capacity and deserve the same opportunity I did to change their minds and come to better conclusions than the ones they hold now. It's not exactly the most groundbreaking thought. But keeping it at the forefront of my mind has made me more empathic, more respectful, and more persuasive.

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