Changing Hearts and Minds

People who genuinely change their minds fascinate me partly because they seem so rare. Bribing politicians to switch their votes or coercing group members to conform are much more the rule, undermining the real thing through fear and selfish interest.

No, I'm talking about the exceptions -- those whose honest grappling with ideas and evidence causes them to adopt views they once rejected in whole or in part. That can require both courage and ego deflation.

The Boston Globe this week carried a piece by Joe Keohane( that looks like bad news for journalists: factual, in-depth reporting doesn't change minds. Those who are prone to agree with certain news accounts srenghthen their convictions; those who are inclined to disagree are likely to further harden their positions. There is little willingness to consider new evidence by either side.

Keohane bases these conclusions on university research. The premise that an informed public yields conscientious citizens is laid waste. The "true facts" as Jimmy Breslin says don't make much difference. Liberals are as stubborn as conservatives. So is authentic news gathering, already beleaguered, a hopeless enterprise?

I don't think so for the following reasons.

While individuals do cling to a preferred set of assumptions, collective awareness does shift in the face of continuous presentation of issues and problems. We're far from being a nation free of racism, for example, but the ground has shifted considerably with regard to how race is viewed, and that's partly due to the media.

Freud told us that we are more irrational than rational by nature, driven by unconscious forces we barely understand, and recent studies support that view. St. Paul reminds us that we do what we don't want to do and don't do what we intend. But even that inclination to see things differently is a sign that change may be looking for an opening.

Religion uses the term "conversion" to designate a radical shift in outlook: that same St. Paul beating up Christians suddenly becomes one. It is an intriguing pheonomenon that begs the word "mystery" and indicates that persistent expsure to a wholly different, even inimical, way of thinking that suddenly engulfs the whole person for no obvious reason.

It was ever thus, I suppose. We're a hard-headed lot who generally resist admitting we're wrong with every fiber of our being. Even going part way toward compromise can be torture. But then there is the "still small voice." The impulse for real news hounds to throw in the towel may be strong at times, but the cause remains worthy. If the drum beat of good, solid journalism fades away, we will be left entirely to the chaos of rumor and subjective passion. A free press with integrity may produce few obvious conversions, but the beat of its drum over time can set some feet in motion and presage a change in how we as a people look at things. It's the best hope we have.

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