It was during his campaign against Romney and it was a moment of self-realization more than a conscious change of opinion. I remember the hype. It took over an hour to get into the venue. The speech began on Bascom Hill, a steep stretch of grass and ostentatious brick buildings on my campus. The crowd shuffling into the venue rivaled Manhattan’s congestion.
It was real. We were going to see the guy who was changing American politics for the better. We dressed up in American gear, painted our faces. I was dehydrated and a bit delirious when Obama finally took the stage after a two hours of waiting. I distinctly remember laughing at a joke that involved chickens, though the details elude me. It was a rapture of dramatic pauses, microphones, and high fives with strangers. Then it stopped.
He started talking about abortion. I had never really thought about abortion before; my family was a typical suburban family that kept politics out of polite conversation. My parents voted both Democratic and Republican depending on the election, but something about abortion just seemed wrong.
I reviewed his speech in my mind. He hadn’t really said anything, just ambiguous platitudes mixed with humor to cover the shallowness of his speech. I decided in that moment that I wouldn’t vote for Obama and foresaw the struggle that this would create for the next four years of college: professors snapping at me, classmates assuming my motive, and learning to walk away whenever politics came up.
I start with that anecdote to show that every opinion has a history. Since that rally, I have formed a bank of vague impressions, personal experiences, thought patterns established by books I barely remember, and article extracts. If we’re honest with ourselves, anybody with a systematic worldview short of John Locke has a similar jumble backing their political stances.
Rarely are people as logical as they say, relying on story and intuition to frame their beliefs. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns in his book The Righteous Mind that, “if you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.” Be it a past abuse from a loved one, an arrogant insult in a debate, or a bizarre conversion moment at a political rally, we all rely on our experiences as much as our logic to determine opinions. There are two insights to be gleaned from this fact of human nature.
The first is that our political opponents believe in their opinions just as we do. Economics says that people act in their rational self-interest. In politics, people hold views of their own rational good. That does not mean a morally relativistic scenario, but rather that everyone believes they are in the moral right. No one wants school shootings or a failing socialist state. Assume your interlocutor has positive intentions and your discussions will remain far more civil and productive.
The second insight regards persuasion. Ben Shapiro is famous for his quip “facts don’t care about your feelings.” If Haidt is correct, though, feelings don’t care about your facts, no matter how logical people believe themselves to be. People intuit the truth; thus few minds will be changed from cold argumentation and philosophical dialectics. Rather, to change minds people need to be shown how free trade helps the worker in the grocery store or the way the market will benefit a second grader. From point one, leverage an opponent’s positive intentions for social justice to show how single-payer health care hurts a scared family in the emergency room.
In short, Haidt says, “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” In a time when there’s a subset of conservatives bruiting their own logical superiority, it’s pertinent to remind them of human nature.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.