Thursday, December 20, 2007

Changing Minds About Abortion and Other Issues

RH Reality Check has a very personal essay by Anna Clark about her switch from calling herself pro-life to pro-choice.

What if I told you that I used to call myself pro-life?

What if I said that I once believed abortion was murder, or that I suspected women used the procedure to bypass the consequences of sex?

If I told you, would I lose your respect? Would you be suspicious when I say that today I'm committed to the right to reproductive health, access, and choice?

If so, you wouldn't be the first.

I'm a person who changed her mind. And no, it didn't happen with cymbal-crashing drama -- no unexpected pregnancy of my own or anyone I'm close to (that I know of). It didn't happen with abrupt college-age fervor; though I entered the University of Michigan as a progressive, I held onto my belief that abortion was wrong (though I got quieter about it).
Although it's a personal story in a way I wish it was a bit more personal. I wish she had described a bit more of the kinds of incidents that changed her thinking about the issue.

I'm always fascinated by stories of how people flipped on issues and even entire identities. There's typically not "one moment" of realization. It's a series of moments of having mental discordance between your stated beliefs (ie "I am pro-life/Republican/Mormon/straight/for the Iraq War") and your niggling doubt about your actual beliefs.

I went to grad school specifically to learn how to do you move people's beliefs. I'm no longer convinced that it's about adding to their knowledge. In some cases, perhaps. But if someone feels they are reasonably well-informed about a subject, "new" information that does not mesh with their beliefs will often be rejected.

But I will add a caveat. While initial "rejections" might happen I do think that over time "new" information can sink in. The best example I have is my own change of mind about Israel.

Being an American Jew (and one who was kicked out of Hebrew School at age 11) I had a very typical uninformed "position" about Israel. And the position was something like Israelis are the good guys and Palestinians are always unreasonable and any news that I heard about Israel was filtered through that viewpoint. I didn't have any particular basis for this other than some early Hebrew schooling that taught me how the Jews were the Chosen people and Israel was given to us by God. (How many American Jews, even agnostics, still somehow think that Israel "belongs" to Jews. And I mean not that it belongs specifically to Israelis, but to Jews. Like somehow their American-born asses have some kind of ancestral claim on the land even if they outwardly reject the religion in all other cases?)

In all of the stories I heard from my rabbi and my Jewish summer camp growing up, Jews are victims and righteous. It's not a little unlike how a child learns American history thinking that all of our history shows that we're some kind of unique country of perfect values, the best of the best of the best that ever existed.

Then, about a year ago, I started working in a small office with an American-raised, half-Israeli coworker. He was younger than me, but sometime in his teens he went to Israel, in his words, "looking for answers." Instead he said he came back having more doubts. He eventually went to Cairo to learn Arabic, partially to understand more of what he experienced in Israel from the Palestinians’ viewpoint.

Since I worked for an organization that dealt in politics, it wasn't long before we started having heated discussions about Israel. And very quickly I was in my fallback position which was something along the lines of "sure Israelis sometimes aren't perfect but the Palestinians are even worse." (Meaning I guess it justifies all of Israel's actions.) But the problem was that I didn't know shit about Israel. And it took me a while to figure out that I actually didn't know what I was talking about.

Now part of the reason that my coworker's arguments sunk in over time was that I had a lot of respect for him personally. I might have thought he was mistaken about his interpretation, but I trusted his "facts" in the sense that I believed he saw what he saw and experienced what he experienced. It was when I realized that I had no equally compelling "facts" to counter him (because I was not an expert about Israel) that I started to realize that my understanding of the situation might be wrong.

It didn't happen after our first argument. Or after our third. And the reality is I can't remember when I had my moment of clarity. But I do recall us debating some other issue and I abruptly told him he's "won" over the issue of Israel. That I had come to see things more his way than mine. I remember how shocked he was.

The thing is, had I been locked up with another person, even his own brother (who had radically different beliefs) maybe this would have been a story about how working with someone firmed up beliefs I was primed to accept. But I did realize that despite the fact that I initially rejected the "new" information I was presented with, by constantly having my beliefs "tested" it helped me realize the weaknesses I had with them.

So, to that end, maybe dialogues are helpful, even if on the surface they seem to come to an impass. In this situation, I was willing to accept a new understanding because I acknowledged my original understanding was based on limited information.

But on more esoteric issues (such as abortion) I'm not sure that "information" is what changes mind so much as experience. That's why I wish Anna Clark has talked more about her experiences that made her reconsider her position. Because it wasn't necessarily someone telling her something she didn't know that changed her mind. It was experiencing realities that clashed with her beliefs.


Anonymous said...

Testing one's beliefs is always a good idea. I myself have gone back and forth on capital punishment and gun control.

I hope you are wrong, though, about experiences changing one's views. Experiences are important, and to be sure, I agree they are strong catalysts. But principle trumps experiences. Often, we have to struggle to not allow our personal experiences to change our views. Even to the atheist, there is always a greater power outside than inside ourselves. It is always easier to choose the side that affects us more--that doesn't mean that is the right side.

I think dialogue is very important. I think when we exchanged our views on abortion, I never imagined either of us changing each other's minds, but thought perhaps someone reading it might consider a point you or I made as valid and worthy of some thought. I don't think your friend "won" the Israeli debate, I think it forced you to learn more about it, and I suspect your views will further evolve over time.

Jim in Cleveland

Anonymous said...

I like the idea that dialogues can have an impact beyond the immediately observable. Its quite encouraging.

Anonymous said...

see, and right now in my life I'm thinking "what's the point of debate?"