The Process of Changing National Thinking
Substantial change probably begins with a particular group of people who are susceptible to changing their viewpoint. These could be called undecided or independent or just temporarily conflicted about the information flooding at them. Their conviction about a viewpoint has ceased for a time to be driven by ideology or special interest, and they realize that their personal needs may not be the best foundation for determining what to do. Their numbers certainly are large enough to sway nearly any contested election. Among even the small number of people who vote consistently, they may be only a tenth of the total but are a powerful lever for change. Because they’re aware of being undecided, they’re more open to weighing evidence thoughtfully.
Our organizing task then is to reach such people with the information they need, and to supply the conditions under which they can exercise their best judgment. What might those conditions be?
1. Face to face conversation is more powerful than impersonal advertising. A conversation can follow up the implications of evidence, and weigh an objection or a personal value in ways impossible with a flyer or media spot. If we want to change people’s thinking, our open door is in conversation with them.
2. Everyone is alert to a call to focus on what they personally consider urgent. In a conversation, it’s respectful to which issues people find most urgent. Identifying an issue and acknowledging that they’re undecided about it, they find it reasonable to consider evidence.
3. Different aspects of evidence appeal to different people. They may prefer reading, seeing, hearing; they may prefer historical evidence or general values or ideological code words. They may want to put pieces together themselves or find them already assembled and ready to apply. They may be drawn to subtle analysis, concrete facts, public proclamations, or articles in depth. The many modes of receptivity suggest an approach that considers people’s needs one at a time. Often others tell us outright how they want their evidence to arrive, or those who know them can identify it. A group task then is to prepare evidence in all the forms needed.
4. Even people with whom we substantially disagree may be vitally concerned about an aspect of an issue we can discuss. We can talk with them harmoniously, despite wide-ranging disagreement, if we confine ourselves to helping them solve the problem as they perceive it. Instead of presenting them with a field of view different from theirs and asking them to adopt it, we enter their field as it stands and focus on the portion for which they welcome a problem-solver. Apparent disagreement need not deter us from seeking agreement in other areas. Often people vote for candidates and support stands that are even substantially against their interests. Those in economic distress vote for candidates who drive wealth toward the rich, religiously inclined individuals support candidates prone to capital punishment and military action, individuals who value personal freedoms support those who invade privacy, people valuing economic independence support corporate interests that manipulate public opinion, or fishermen support candidates who permit pollution that kills their fish. Such discrepancies persist because not brought into clear contrast in people’s mind. A good listener draws out their views and the related implications.
5. To increase people’s receptivity to our ideas, two steps are important. First we listen to them in depth and summarize back to them accurately, “So you see it this way. “ We need to do about five times as much listening as talking in order to assess carefully what words from us can make a difference, and to increase their investment in the conversation. They’re more likely to want to resume it if they can express themselves and be accurately understood. Secondly, after we’ve listened to them in depth and settled on what we believe is a worthy response, we explicitly ask their permission to present an alternate viewpoint. We stop talking the moment they appear, by facial expression or interruption, to withdraw that permission, and return to thorough listening.
6. When we are invited to offer a viewpoint, it must contain high quality thinking. Countless world catastrophes have happened just because of short-sighted, narrow thinking at a critical juncture. This implies that we ally ourselves with others committed to the best thinking possible, who recognize that comprehensive evidence must join with careful logic and balanced emotion to produce constructive direction. Mainstream change may depend on increasing numbers of small groups that discipline themselves to better thinking.
7. Probably most of us would prefer to be changed because of objective information than because of influence from another person, yet others’ feelings, values, and actions are a critical validator of the information. A way to combine these is by viewing ourselves as passing on what interests us and inquiring about the other’s response to it. We prepare to examine current issues just by exploring different ways of viewing past events. If we can experience a process of aligning our mutual thinking about past events, we can use the process later for more current information. If we find fascinating evidence we expect will be relevant in the coming year, we can give it to others and say, “Read this and tell me what you think.“ We focus especially on information that has implication for how people think. Examples:
- Historian Howard Zinn laid out shocking evidence that dropping the atom bombs on Japan was not needed to end the war, that the Japanese were already suing for peace. It made clear the hard-heartedness of President Truman and others who willingly condemned tens of thousands of people to a horrifying death. Similar information is available about the impact on American Indians from the policy of Manifest Destiny. Why do we willingly inflict pain on those we regard as opponents?
- The anti-democratic structure of the Presidential electoral system bears re-thinking. Why do we continue to distrust the judgment of the ordinary citizen?
- Timely articles appear constantly in newspapers and journals about the condition of US prisons, wealth distribution, pollution, climate change, fresh water, energy, and so on, that provide many openings for conversation. Do we expend the effort to mesh our personal needs with solutions that can only be systemic?