The Cost of Changing a Mind

By Tim Winterstein

How do minds change? We tend to assume that if only we can present our opinions in the right way, and if the other person would simply be reasonable, then our rational opinions would surely change their rational minds. Those assumptions lead us to the conclusion that if I present my opinion and the other person doesn’t change his or her mind, then that person must be unreasonable or something worse. Who wouldn’t be willing to change his or her mind when confronted with the excellent and reasonable arguments I present, about which I am already convinced? So, disagreement has become not a sign of a rational, contingent opinion held in good faith, but a sign of a disease or poison that must be eradicated in order for reason and justice to prevail. That’s not a good recipe for civil discussion.

On the other hand, maybe changing one’s mind—about anything—is more of a miracle than we usually take it to be. Think about it: You see some particular issue one way. The way you see that issue, with your assumptions and conclusions, determines not only how you see but what you see. What do you count as evidence for your way of thinking? You count certain things as evidence because of the way you see while, at the same time, you see things in that way because of what you consider evidence for your point of view. In a place and time where very little is shared in the way of bedrock assumptions, we should be clear just how little is simply “there” for “rational people” to see and understand.

Stanley Fish’s book Doing What Comes Naturally first started these thoughts, but they were reignited by two recent films, Keep Quiet and Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America (both of which are on Netflix). Both films are about changing minds, but from essentially opposite perspectives. Keep Quiet tells the story of Csanad Szegedi, who essentially started the Hungarian nationalist political party, Jobbik. Not only is the party nationalistic, but it contains barely concealed violent, racist, and anti-Semitic elements among its top leadership, including Szegedi.

The pivot comes when someone begins to spread the rumor that Szegedi himself is actually Jewish. Of course, he doubts it at first, but discovers that the rumor is true when he asks his maternal grandmother about it and finds out she spent time in Auschwitz. His grandmother had hidden from him the tell-tale tattoo.

Szegedi is forced out of the party he started and begins a search for identity in the local synagogue—a visit which takes place as suddenly in the film as it does in the minds of those who aren’t at all certain whether he is sincere in his renunciations of his past. And that’s the question posed in the second part of the film: How quickly and completely can someone change his mind? Perhaps he is just as likely to change it back. There’s a certain Saul-of-Tarsus quality to the conversations Szegedi has with Jews at his presentations: How do we know you are who you say you are?

Can people with certain views really change their minds? That question is introduced in Accidental Courtesy when Daryl Davis, a black man known for his conversations with members of the Ku Klux Klan, sits down to talk with two leaders of the Maryland Black Lives Matter movement, Tariq Touré and Kwame Rose. When Davis says that he has 25 or 26 Klan robes that have been given to him by men who left the Klan, Touré and Rose basically say, “That’s it?” They want Davis to do more for “his people” rather than have friendly conversations with Klansmen. Davis, on the other hand, sees common ways of thinking running under the BLM dismissal of him and the hatred of Klansmen who view those who leave the Klan as “race traitors.” It’s Rose who says that white supremacists can’t really change their minds. Both Rose and Touré seem to be asking for racial separatism along the lines of some of the more “moderate” Klan leaders.

So, is it just white liberals who applaud Daryl Davis, because it makes them feel good? BLM and the conversations that Davis has with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center—which sees itself as continuing the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.—complicate the usual progressive loyalties. Is Daryl Davis fighting the good fight or is he betraying it?

The striking thing about Accidental Courtesy is, first, Davis’ question: How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? And second, Davis is actually respectful toward the Klan members with whom he talks. He is convinced that he will get further with them if he allows them to speak their minds than if he simply yells slogans at their marches. The amount of Klan paraphernalia that Davis has collected from former Klan members (which he intends someday to be housed in a KKK museum) seems to support his approach.

But Davis has no intention of stopping at mere understanding through his dialogue. He definitely wants to change minds. His motivation comes not from some simplistic view of the power of talking but finally from a deep love for America. Having traveled extensively in his childhood, having played with some of the greatest names in American music, he sincerely believes that it matters how we talk to each other in a country as diverse as the United States. His final words in the film are that President Trump may push us to do this, whether he intends it or not.

I’m not as optimistic about the country as a whole or about the openness of Americans who discuss divisive issues over social media, but Davis has an undeniable point: It’s much harder to hate or even dismiss someone you’ve met or know well. So, he engages in these conversations primarily face-to-face rather than over e-mail or Facebook. He says they can’t really know him, and he can’t know them, through those media.

Has Csanad Szegedi really changed his mind, or is he simply looking for belonging wherever he can find it? Is he sincere or simply exercising his opportunistic political prowess in another way? Can white supremacists and neo-Nazis really change their minds? And what creates more cultural change? Disturbing the peace and disrupting corrupt institutions and systems? Antagonizing and separating? Sitting down with those with whom you disagree—people who may actually hate you—and beginning a relationship that requires slow work and listening? How do we change our minds about political positions, social issues, or religious beliefs? How does it happen that we begin to see things we never saw before in ways we never could have seen them?

Both of these documentaries should give us pause before we assume that a person’s opinion or deeply held conviction is per se irrational. Daryl Davis especially reminds us why we celebrate free speech in this country—not because all opinions are moral, respectable, or good, but because those who hold such opinions are people. Now, maybe Davis really is naive. Maybe Touré and Rose are correct that he’s not really “doing” anything worthwhile. Maybe he’s the ignorant one rather than either them or the Klan. Or maybe we can relearn that the changing of a mind, whether politically, socially, or religiously (which, in Christianity, we call repentance) happens only individually, slowly and in the context of real, face-to-face interactions defined by respect and even love.

As far as Christians are concerned, we also can learn that conversion is not convincing through just the right Bible verse or arguing that we’ve found Noah’s Ark, which, in turn, must prove that Jesus is our Savior. Christian conversion is an even more radical change than from racism to love. It’s even more a miracle because it’s worked by the uncontrollable Spirit through His own means and in His own time. Even so, it very often takes place within the context of a long and sincere friendship—or even a short and sincere friendship.

There are no magic words. There are only people whom we believe need Jesus’ life even more than the KKK needs civic and racial repentance. Neither corrupt structures occupied by corrupt people nor tearing down those structures and building new ones can deliver what people claim to want. As the rapper Propaganda (no stranger to controversial social issues) put it: “It’s a frightening indictment/That even if all these world problems are solved/It still wouldn’t resolve what you are actually looking for/And it’s not like these problems, they don’t need to be addressed/But fixing systemic issues, it ain’t the source of your rest.” And then, “Hoping in a broken system to fix what’s broken in us/It’s not working, is it?” (“It’s Not Working [The Truth]”). The systemic problems are far deeper even than those who see systemic problems know.

Perhaps the first question isn’t how minds change but whether we actually want other people to change their minds. Maybe the work is simply too difficult, and so we’ve reached the point where we’re content to yell at each other over picket lines, whether real or digital. But maybe Daryl Davis can change our minds even on that point.