Changing minds

>> Thursday, February 11, 2010

Alan Wolfe has an thought-provoking review of Thomas Sowell's latest book.

I am not in the conversion business, but I have changed my mind more than a few times in the forty or so years that I have been putting my views before the public. Reality can do that to you. You might think, for example, as I once did, that affirmative action is highly suspect because it gives more weight to group membership than individual achievement. But if you teach at a university and see your classes enriched by the diversity that affirmative action brings to them, and if you then hear remarkable stories of the individual achievements made possible through the magic of the college admissions process, you may begin to change your mind. I do not fear a future Tim Russert combing my early books to find words in blatant contradiction to my present ones: good luck in even finding the young out-of-print me. Sure, some of the stuff I once wrote embarrasses me now, even down to my choice of titles. But better that than sentences never exposed to the air of experience.

Writing, in short, is a form of risk-taking. You say what you believe and hope that you are proven right. Oddly for such a passionate defender of the market, Sowell never takes a risk. “Not only have intellectuals been insulated from material consequences,” this secure inhabitant of the right-wing think tank world writes, “they have often enjoyed immunity from even a loss of reputation after having been demonstrably wrong.” This is meant to apply to others, but the description works well also as autobiography. If Sowell were an investment fund, he would be hedged against failure. You can make a bet about what you are likely to find on any page he has ever written and be sure of being right.

Wolfe's point touches on two related but distinct things: intellectual conversion in a total sense, and changing one's mind about specific issues. The former is well-documented, and often features a radical conversion in terms of ideology while leaving the convert's cognitive style completely untouched (radical leftist David Horowitz because radical right-winger David Horowitz but very much remains David Horowitz in terms of binary thinking and a fundamentally Manechian world view. A similar thing can be observed happening in the other direction with Andrew Sullivan).

The latter is less remarked on, because it's subtler and less spectacular, and also in a sense harder to acknowledge. For example, I've stayed somewhere on the liberal-left continuum throughout my adult life (although on different points of that spectrum), but I've gone from thinking that, for instance, the Dworkin-Mackinnon critique of pornography was wildly exaggerated to believing that it is in large part correct. I had a similar experience regarding the belief that being fat was clearly a bad thing, and was largely within the control of individuals.

It wasn't that difficult for me to change my mind about these things without "converting" to a fundamentally different world view, for two reasons: widely varying beliefs on these subjects are tolerated (if sometimes grudgingly) on the left side of the political spectrum, and, more important, I hadn't invested any of my personal or professional identity in my old beliefs, so changing them didn't require any painful confessions or embarrassing backtracking.

To me, the most impressive sort of mind-changing occurs when people don't convert to a whole new tribe -- which after all normally includes the benefits of being welcomed as the prodigal son/daughter who was lost but now is found -- but still renounce intellectual positions in which they've been heavily invested in professional and/or personal terms. That this is so relatively rare indicates how difficult it is to do.


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