Why is it impossible today to convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe?
I have found this to be so at least for the last decade. People’s positions have hardened and most are impervious to reasoned analysis. Even being shown how their arguments are logically flawed, factually incorrect or intellectually unsustainable makes absolutely no headway. Providing examples of their assumptions being proved dead wrong falls on deaf ears. I have been told by too many people whose views were just incorrect or whose opinions I saw as misguided and subject to adjustment based on facts or the disproof of their assumptions something along the lines of: “You are a good debater. I can’t debate you. But this is my opinion and I am sticking to it.” Whether or not words like this are uttered to you, this sentiment is widely held and happens more than we care to admit. It seems as if people would rather donate a vital organ than change their mind about something.
It doesn’t even matter if the subject at hand is politics, science, history, sports, religion or some other weighty topic. People would rather disengage from a dialogue in which their beliefs might be challenged or refuted than actually confront them, defend them or change them. How did we arrive at such a stage, in which minds are so made up that true dialogue is dead?
One answer often suggested, and it strikes a chord, is the lack of mutual respect accorded to contrary viewpoints. The oft-repeated trope is that many people on the left perceive people on the right as not just wrong but evil, whereas many people on the right perceive people on the left as fools. It is hard to have a rational conversation with people for whom you have such disdain, although, in truth, it is always tempting to try to educate the fool; that is why people on the right have become the great defenders of free speech. It is distasteful, even morally repugnant, to try to educate people whom you believe are irredeemably evil; hence the contempt on the left for the Western norms of free speech. If people on the right can only articulate “hate speech” (defined as anything with which the left disagrees) then such “hate speech” must be banned. It certainly should not be confronted in any type of discourse, public or private.
But I think the problem is even deeper than that.
Leo Tolstoy wrote (The Kingdom of God Is Within You) that “the most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”
Too many people don’t know what they don’t know, and what they think they know is often wrong but so entrenched in their personalities and value systems that a refutation of those notions followed by a transformation in their thinking would be unbearable. They are thus subject to confirmation bias, assimilating only those points, vignettes, anecdotes or studies that validate their thinking and rejecting (sometimes not even hearing or even entertaining) all others.
Part of the problem is the existence of “alternate facts,” a phrase unwittingly coined by Kellyanne Conway and mocked by the left-wing media but something, properly understood, that has a ring of truth to it. This is what she meant: people only internalize the “facts” that support their positions and do not recognize the flaws, weaknesses or questionability of those facts. For example, much has been made about the imperative of following the “science.” But what if the science is in dispute? Many scientists tout the effectiveness of mask-wearing during the current pandemic, but others argue and say its effects are positive but limited. Non-transmission requires other factors beyond, and more important, than mask-wearing.
Scientists differ on whether or not people with antibodies can be re-infected. Scientists differ on the effectiveness of the hydroxychloriquine protocol, with formal studies bashing it and case studies (I personally know people whose lives were saved by it) endorsing it. Obviously, one’s opinion about these “facts” is influenced by the politics of the matter.
“Alternate facts” are also fueled by the rise of the self-appointed expert class who presumably know more than the rest of us. Their errors, though, are doozies. In late February, one well known expert, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a top Obama/Biden aide, decried the “overreaction” to the Corona virus and predicted the “warm weather” of summer would end it anyway. He is still advising, opining, and dictating. Not to pick on him, but he is typical of the expertocracy that are as wrong as often as they are right and almost never held accountable for their mistakes. But their mere existence provides the argument that their acolytes are seeking and precludes any dialogue. After all, the science has spoken.
In another and less polemical or sensitive realm, social science studies that are endlessly circulated by a lazy media have been routinely exposed as bogus. In the language of the trade, it is called the “replication crisis,” because as many as 70% cannot be independently duplicated. They make a big splash upon release, shape people’s attitudes and even values, and turn out to be based on gossamer. Thus, “people who are more analytical are less likely to hold religious beliefs.” Bogus. Or, “students exposed to a text that undermined their belief in free will were more likely to engage in cheating behavior.” Bogus. Add to this list the studies that “prove” that coffee is harmful or not harmful, that low-fat, high-fat, low- carb, high-carb diets are good or not good.
Part of the problem is small sample size, another is the need to be published (which gets the author fame and more money for grants) but the biggest problem is that the researchers are “searching” for the answer they want, and they almost always find it even if they have to fabricate the conclusions.
And then, many of the easily replicable studies are replicable because they are so obvious, to the point of being frivolous. Take the recent study that offered the stunning revelation that “children of intermarried Jews grow up with a very weak Jewish identity.” Gee, who would’ve thought that?! I could have saved the sponsors of the study a lot of money. This notion too has been confirmed by a study published this past August: “Laypeople Can Predict Which Social-Science Studies Will Be Replicated Successfully.” You can’t make this up… or maybe you could. Who knows if that study is accurate!
The idea of “alternate facts” exists in the Torah world as well. The citation of an opinion, no matter how obscure, is accepted on the religious left when it justifies their predetermined conclusion. “I follow Rabbenu Simcha – but only on this!” The recent travesty of the media trumpeting “Orthodox” rabbis performing same-sex marriages is a perfect example. No “Orthodox” rabbi would do that, any more than he would officiate at an intermarriage, endorse the consumption of pork on Yom Kippur or embrace the Trinity as Jewish doctrine.
When each side to a debate possesses “alternate facts,” reasoned dialogue becomes impossible. And when the “alternate facts” are based on personal stories of hardship and struggle, often very compelling stories but not objective facts at all, then it becomes impossible even to relate to the other side, much less convince or be convinced by them.
The existence of “alternate facts” has also played a role in the rejection of the concept of objective truth. Each person can possess his or her own truth if there really is no truth – and then go try to persuade them that there is. It is a dialogue of the deaf. Additionally, there was a time not long ago that reasonable people could disagree on issues without making their dispute personal and therefore irreconcilable. It was not just the matter of disagreeing without being disagreeable but mostly that there was a distinction between what is considered “business” and what is “personal.” I certainly had that in the rabbinate for many decades and was blessed with it in Teaneck (we didn’t always agree but it was never personal). Those lines have been blurred, partly because of the determination that some Torah ideas are intrinsically immoral, G-d forbid, and those who express them are beyond the pale. One who holds the “wrong” views on women’s issues, for example, can easily be castigated as benighted, unworthy or worse.
Finally, minds are made up because, for all intents and purposes, we all live today in an echo chamber of our own creation. (Not me! I’m happy to say that I’ve changed my mind on a couple of things. Like the old saw goes, you should have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.) In the United States it is certainly true. The political division reflects a physical division in the country. Most people live in states that, for example, voted overwhelmingly for Trump or Biden. People now live among their own (certainly in the Jewish world it is like that also), thinking and acting in similar ways, and sharing values and religious beliefs. The coasts tend to be secular and progressive, and the heartland is called the “Bible Belt” for a reason. In New York and California, the free expression of religious ideas is under attack and religious worship is not fully valued by the state.
The explosion of media has allowed people to get their news from the source that bolsters, but never challenges, their opinions. The “other side” is not presented, as much as it is ridiculed – and, I will say it, the exception being the news programs on Fox News. (The other networks generally offered a Democrat who hates Trump, and for balance, a Republican who hates Trump.) In the prevailing environment, most people therefore simply do not know what they do not know, few have an interest in finding out, and they will never discover that what they “know” just might not be so. Minds can never change as they do not have access to other information that might cause them to change.
There is a handy solution, which is not to say that it is simple. Seek the truth rather than an intellectual triumph over the other person. Be prepared to act on that truth, for that is intellectual and moral honesty. Be open and intellectually curious. “Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Avot 4:1). You cannot learn anything while talking to people with whom you agree. So seek out people with whom you disagree, engage them, do not demonize them or their views, and the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions will be refreshing. Focus on facts more than feelings, and rather than refer to numerous studies that prove nothing, can’t be replicated and are often just tendentious, search for moral clarity in the Torah and the Talmud.
It is there. It is real. “Uncover my eyes so that I may behold the wonders from Your Torah” (Tehillim 119:18). And remember that we are “all presumed blind until G-d enlightens us” (Midrash Breisheet Raba 53:14). We might surprise ourselves and even better our world.