The Minds, They Aren’t a-Changin’

Changing minds. Have you ever tried to? It’s fearsomely difficult. Harder than getting tickets to The Book of Mormon, or consistently standing up straight, or not yelling GINGER out of car windows at handsome bearded redheads (apparently that’s hard to resist). Have you ever tried to convince someone to support a different football team? Say, Collingwood instead of Hawthorn, or Tottenham instead of Arsenal? To drink decaf instead of coffee? To love you when they love someone else? Alas, they’re all basically impossible.

I hear you cry: But hold on, you straw-man-building hack, those aren’t examples of changing minds but of changing hearts. You’re talking about emotions. (Putting words in your mouth is one of the best perks of poetic licence). Happily, I concede. Moreover, I agree, and thank you for making the point I’ve made you make. That is what I am talking about, and as demonstrated by the recent Brexit vote, or the rise of Trump, the politics of emotion have conclusively ascended to primacy in the battle for our hearts and minds.

This is no thrilling observation on my part of course, it is plain for us all to see. Climate change, asylum seeker policy, negative gearing, carbon taxation etc. etc. and on and on, the issues of the day are fought and discussed on this unruly field of emotion. Facts hold no sway, expert opinion is of minimal significance and truth is relative. A Leftist insistence that all opinions are equally valid meets a Rightist celebration of the individual. Add in the Internet and its ability to bestow a soapbox to all (guilty as charged) and we can all be experts in our own domain. The discourse becomes so muddied that when contending with doubts about the veracity of someone’s claims, or when exhausted by attempts to uncover the vested interest of a particular viewpoint, the comfort of how one feels is irresistible. As someone famous must have said more eloquently, thinking is hard.

So we resist it, especially when what we are being asked to think about might be challenging a long-held, emotion-governed position. Witness a vociferous debate between a freshly Hitch-ified atheist and a devout believer, or a climate change denier and an environmentalist, or any two positions of a similarly oppositional character, and you will notice that no one engaged in that conversation has any intention or openness to have their mind changed. Both parties are equally convinced of the superiority of their position and of the inferior views and capacity of their opposite.

Why am I writing about this? I am not a politician or an academic; not well educated on political philosophy; nor am I in a position of power or capable of exerting much influence. I try to teach children to play the cello but judging by my efforts to get them to practice, my influence only goes as far as my budget for chocolate bribes will allow. And why am I falling into the trap of presenting issues as if they possess only two opposing positions? Even for a non-intellectual, that must be intellectually lazy.

Of course it is, and I do agree that a sprinkling of nuance would add a great deal to our political and ideological discourse. But it is here that we get into exactly the kind of difficulty that I’ve just been discussing, for there are some issues that, in “my opinion”, couldn’t be more black and white. Do I think these positions, or feel them? Let me take the example that is most relevant to my life, veganism, and which by bringing up right now, I hope to have not lost you in the blink of an eye-roll and the click of an unfollow.

For 29 years, I was not a vegan; in fact I could scarcely have been less of one. I was a long-term smart-arse with an obnoxious disregard for those who didn’t share my belief that spaghetti Bolognese or a slow-cooked beef casserole were the ultimate in comfort foods. I gleefully gobbled down cheese-bestrewn salami pizza, pulled barbecue chickens apart with grease-coated fingers, and generally didn’t give much thought to what I put in my mouth. All the while, I knew intellectually that factory farming was cruel, could nod in thought-agreement that foie gras was a horrendous product, and would’ve chosen free-range eggs over caged hen eggs, when presented with the choice.

At the same time, there were many attitudes to eating animals which I didn’t think about, but which I just felt. I happily ate that delicious barbecue chicken breast or drumstick or thigh, but that dark meat from underneath? Ew, no thanks. Slices of ham in a packet that were a bit slimy? Gross, throw it out. Even microwaving a hot chocolate, whereby it gets that skin on top of the milk? Revolting. In light of my other carnivorous behaviour, these reactions don’t make any sense. They were emotional responses that were never scrutinised with any intellectual rigour, because why should they have been? Where did they come from? Why will people happily eat a can of tuna as long as there is no dolphin in it too, or be horrified by the Yulin dog meat festival or by the thought that there might be some horse meat in their cow burgers? Why can’t we see the inconsistencies of these positions?

The truth is, for most people, we can see it. We can think it, and acknowledge it. But that is not enough to change how we feel. As a former smoker, I can thoroughly attest to the existence of this behavioural process. And just as with the risks of smoking, we can also be told a hundred statistics about how animal agriculture is destroying the environment or leading to a post-antibiotic world, how processed meats are a known cause of some types of cancer or how a wholefood plant-based diet can improve and even heal many chronic conditions, and yet feel no resonance in our core, and certainly no desire to change our feelings about eating flesh.

So how do people change their fundamental positions on major issues? Can you think of a stance you held five, ten, fifteen years ago that has now altered, perhaps wildly? How did that happen? What happened to you to allow that process? My path to veganism was by no means an overnight epiphany. It was a gradual process of thinking anew about things, and then again, and again, until those thoughts influenced my behaviour, and in turn became convictions. And the real spark of it? I became very fond of someone whose opinion of me mattered a great deal, and this was enough of an emotional incentive to open my mind to a new way of thinking.

Ok, enough with the italics for emphasis, you bore. Oh hi, good to hear you’re still there. I know, I’ve overdone it a bit, but it is hard to rein it in when you have an infinite number of pages and your audience is an imaginary reader created by your own narcissism. It is not my aim to convert anyone to veganism through this post, because for all the reasons mentioned above, I don’t believe it’s possible to change the heart of someone simply with a one-off barrage of words. I’m even hopeful that this hasn’t seemed overly proselytising. Perhaps you might take a moment to consider another fundamental position you hold on a hot-button issue and attempt to understand it on an intellectual basis, knowing that our feelings can’t always be trusted, prone as they are to manipulation. Perhaps you will think actually, when I really acknowledge what’s in that sausage, I don’t want to eat it, and you will pull on that thread a little and become curious about why some meat is ok to you and not others. Perhaps you’ll think a bit of skim milk in my tea is nice, but milk straight from the cow is smelly and makes me gag and wonder, what’s going on there? Perhaps you are someone who would say you know, I could be vegan, but I just really love cheese. To which I say, ok, that’s great! Try that, be vegan apart from cheese, see how you go. You can always go back, you won’t have lost anything, other than the time you’ve given to reading this (can’t get that back, my apologies).

Or perhaps you’ll just think about the minds of those in your life that you wish you could’ve changed, or influenced in some way, and how despite all the facts and intellectual arguments you made, you could never quite get at how they felt. It’s really hard to do. So maybe let’s just meet at The Book of Mormon. Someone will be yelling at me from a car, but I’ll be standing up very straight.

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