Born That Way?

News from the world of science: conservatives (and liberals too, let's be inclusive here) are hard-wired to hold their political beliefs.

According to the research quoted in this article, conservatives have a much higher "negativity bias": stimuli that they find annoying, disgusting, threatening cause them to shrink away. The article speculates on possible evolutionary roots to this tendency, notes that this distaste for the other actually creates happier people who are more content with the status quo, while liberals tend to be more neurotic, and conclude with a plea for liberals and conservatives to stop trying to convert each other and make peace so Congress can go back to getting things done.

My first reaction to these ideas was simply this: Vindication! I've been saying something like this for decades. My experience of butting heads with conservatives long ago taught me that arguments are only persuasive to people who are already sympathetic to the ideas being propounded. Conservatives, who find contentment and security in preserving the way of life that makes them happy, and are physically repulsed by change, begin putting up barricades the moment new information starts to be presented. It's not just skepticism at play here, it's fight-or-flight survivalism: don't you mess with my happy place.

I first encountered this quality in conservatives in college, the place where I began to realize my own inclination is to be intrigued by the very speculations that drive conservatives to cover their ears and scream the ABCs. My group of friends was diverse in many ways--race, ethnicity, religion, politics--and we frequently got into heated discussions of the topics that came up in our classes. While some of us were able to consider ideas contrary to our beliefs without abandoning those beliefs, there was one whose reaction was like the child who flips the game board over when things don't go her way (which she literally did once, during a Risk game): if you're not going to accept my world view, I refuse to play your verbal games at all. She lacked the arsenal to effectively counter our assaults, however, and most of us would simply give up. I could not: I needed to explore why she was so attached to these ideas that were obviously (to me) wrong, so I would worry away at them, trying to convince her to open her mind, until she would furiously storm off.

Once I was in seminary, I encountered conservatives who could hold their own in an argument with me and who were just as dedicated to convincing me of my wrongness as I was of changing their minds--a futile endeavor on both our parts. Where my own eloquence proved inadequate, it seemed to me that our professors were far better armed, and even delighted in vivisecting a conservative student while the rest of us watched. In retrospect, I suspect this really just confirmed that student's belief that academics is the devil's playground.

It was ministry that taught me, finally, to treat conservatives with kid gloves, to give up on my hopes of converting them to my ideas. Granted, my profession was to exhort, to argue at length for justice, generosity, acceptance, and the transformation of this world into a new Eden; but really, I doubt I changed any minds that weren't already of a liberal persuasion. The people in my churches may have been older, may have even been Republicans, but just by dint of being Methodists, were already inclined to be socially progressive. They might (and many probably were) have been skeptical of some of my more leftist causes, but that had more to do with ignorance than personality. Any who radically disagreed with Methodist ideas about tolerance had long since migrated to a church that honored their distaste for social change.

By the time I left ministry, I'd learned my lesson: evangelism is a joke. People are predisposed to be conservative or liberal. Conversions do happen, but they have far more to do with something happening in a person's interior life than with the power of an evangelist's message. That's why I long ago gave up the time-honored theological art of prooftexting: however much a fundamentalist may claim to be a Biblical literalist, and roll out text after text in defense of his or her antiquated ideas, it's never really about the Bible, and no contradictory text, not even the words of Jesus, will change those ideas. And God forbid one suggest that maybe the Bible isn't crystal clear on that topic, that just maybe it should be put in its historical, cultural, and literary context.

So I quit trying. It's not about the ideas, I realized, it's about the person. There's no changing that mind; better to look for common ground: hey, we both have kids. Are yours struggling with being bullied as much as mine? Wow, it must have hurt when you lost your home in the financial crisis that cost me my job. Maybe the corporations aren't our friends, after all.

And this is where I depart from the ideas in this article, because I have seen people change their minds. I've known individuals who were absolutely convinced homosexuality was a perversion, and that homosexuals deserved whatever abuse was heaped upon them, and watched those people's hardened hearts begin to soften, seen them come to realize that gay men and lesbians are also human beings, that they deserve better treatment, basic rights, and finally accept them as neighbors and friends. Conversions like this don't happen overnight--my own took about a decade--but they do happen.

They don't happen from arguments and debates, though. Conservatives change their minds because of personal experiences: one of their children comes out. A Mexican family moves into the neighborhood. A decade of droughts forces them to sell the family farm. The most profound of these experiences come through relationships, from meeting and getting to know people who are different, who are other, and yet share so much common humanity that it's impossible to treat them as dangerous aliens.

This is what makes the university experience so important. Most conservatives grow up, as I did, in monoculture communities, surrounded by people who are just like them. As averse as they are to differences, they are likely to choose colleges that extend that sameness. This is unfortunate, even tragic, because of all the experiences people can have, college is the one that is most likely to begin the opening of their minds. In an independent university, a young person cannot help but meet people from other places, people whose faith, ethnicity, language, and politics are radically different from that which they grew up with. And they don't just meet them: they befriend them. Taking a class together, studying together, eating meals together, and, the most important part of the college experience, having down time together, one cannot help but discover the shared humanity in people one once thought to be aliens.

I first got to know Catholics, African-Americans, Asians, and gays and lesbians at university. And I didn't just meet them. They became my friends. In befriending me, they broke open a conservative shell within me that wanted to stick to my own kind. More than any courses, any professors, this is what changed me into the person I am today.

My bottom line on the personality theory of political persuasion, then, is this: it does make sense at a very superficial level, and my experience of arguing ideas bears it out. Fundamentally, though, I believe it's flawed: we're really not that hard-wired in the long run. Take a soft approach, treat a conservative like a fellow human being, build relationships, share commonalities, and you can lay the seeds for a gradual conversion that will blow your mind.

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