Can I Change Your Mind? - Issue #29

Is the art of persuasion about drinking the Kool-Aid or eating Soylent Green?

I am generally fascinated by the question of how one changes one’s mind, or, perhaps more accurately, how one’s mind is changed. And I’m not just talking about the little things—I used to not like coffee, but now I drink it every day. I’m talking about the large-scale paradigm shifts—I used to be conservative, but now I’m liberal. I wonder about this for personal reasons, which I’ll get into in a minute, but also for professional reasons. 

As the spring semester wraps up, I’m concluding my third time teaching a course called “Rhetoric: The Art of Written Communication.” Of course, for over 15 years I’ve taught (and taken) similar courses built around persuasive writing, but I’m feeling particularly good about this course as it has really settled into a groove. Students learn, first, that all writing is part of a larger conversation. Then, they learn how to read for the conversation and to synthesize the major ideas, before making their own contribution, their own argument. 

What I particularly like about this version of the course, though, is that I’m not explicitly teaching the students how to change anyone’s mind. That is how I used to think about rhetoric, about persuasive writing. The end goal was to persuade; it’s right there in the name. But this was a perpetually frustrating goal to set for myself, let alone for my students, because persuasion doesn’t actually work that way. No one reads one essay and changes their mind.

And yet, minds do change. My mind changed, and the key to how this happens, I realized, is right there in my story. I began high school as a very conservative Christian. How could I not be? Up to that point, our little charismatic, non-denominational church was my whole life. I went to school at the church and was generally there late into the afternoon except on the days when we had a church-related event in the evening; on those days we just stayed right through. By the time I got to high school I was very involved in the youth group, which added another couple of nights of church time. The church was my world. 

So when I arrived at Malden Catholic High School—the first non-evangelical school I ever attended—I saw it as a battlefield. I knew enough Catholics to know that they weren’t Christian like we were Christian. I went in with shields up. But, over the next four years, my mind began to change, beginning with the person who I associate most with my awakening, Ms. Grondin, a religion teacher unlike any I’d met. Today, I worry about teaching students how to change a mind over the course of a 1000-word essay, but, if I’m honest, my transformation began with just six words, a bumper sticker on Ms. Grondin’s car, “Trust in God. She will provide.” 

From there, my fate was all but sealed. Four years of encountering literature and art for the first time. Learning about Catholic Social Teaching and the deep Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Volunteering at a soup kitchen for my final semester of senior year as part of my “Christian Service.” I was still attending youth group weekly and still very much involved in evangelical church culture—hence the decision to attend an evangelical college—but by the time I hit Gordon College, I was mid-evolution, primed for more change. 

And change I did. I graduated college as an almost entirely different person than when I went in.  My mind was changed. Minds do change. It just takes a very long time.

I thought of all of this recently as I started listening to the New York Times podcast “Rabbit Hole” (thanks, Josh, for the recommendation). The show traces the story of Caleb Cain, a young West Virginia man who apparently spends most of his life watching YouTube, and he’s been doing it for years. At one point in his life, he takes a warehouse job where he’s allowed to wear earphones and he literally spends his whole shift listening to YouTube while he works. Then, he watches more at home. When he goes to bed, he puts his phone next to his head and runs YouTube all night. In 2016 alone, he watched 4,000 videos.

At first, Cain watches videos created by alt-right media figures, people like Stefan Molyneux, Steven Crowder, and Lauren Southern. Apparently, these people are hugely popular, and yet I’d never heard of any of them. And that’s basically the point of the podcast. There is this alternative universe of information on YouTube that the site’s algorithm is designed to help you find and then keep watching. Cain’s experience tells the story; he stumbles upon a video by Molyneux that is more inspirational than political, but over time, as Molyneux becomes more radicalized, so does his channel and, apparently, so do his viewers, like Cain. Then—and we’ve all been on YouTube, we all know how this works—YouTube keeps suggesting other videos that Cain might like. He goes down the rabbit hole.

What is fascinating is that Cain, a person who in high school wasn’t very political and said he liked Obama, gets deep into the alt-right, like neo-Nazi stuff. He drinks the Kool-Aid. But then, via a Twitch streamer (that’s a site where people watch other people play video games for hours) called Destiny, who is liberal and edgy in a “performative way,” Cain starts to see things from the other side. Destiny has guests come on his channel and they debate while he plays video games (I know). When Destiny has Lauren Southern, who Cain had been a big fan of, on the show, Destiny basically destroys her in a debate. This becomes a turning point for Cain. He watches the video over and over and soon his viewing habits begin to change. More and more of Destiny’s videos were suggested to Cain and that led him down an entirely different rabbit hole—this time the videos were all made by liberals. 

“Rabbit Hole,” the podcast, shows Cain changing his mind—not once, but twice. And all it took was thousands upon thousands of hours of YouTube.

This got me thinking that maybe there’s an analog here to Malcolm Gladwell’s largely debunked “10,000-Hour Rule.” Like, is there a certain point at which exposure to a particular set of ideas will eventually win one over? Rather than teaching my students to write well in order to be persuasive, should I just be telling them to write more? 

Probably not. I think it might be something else entirely—something embedded in my personal experience, but also in good writing and well-produced YouTube videos.

Maybe it’s not ideas that change people’s minds at all; rather, it is people. 

Last night, Steph and I finished watching all six seasons of the brilliant “Schitt’s Creek” (thanks, again, to Josh). Then, immediately after the last episode, because this is just what I would do, I watched a short documentary feature about the making of the last season. A significant portion of the documentary is about how the show has attracted such a large and loyal following in the LGBTQ community—not surprising given that Dan Levy, the show’s co-creator and star is gay and plays a pansexual character on the show—“I like the wine and not the label” has become one of the most famous quotes from the show. 

In the documentary, each of the cast members interviewed acknowledges the impact that “Schitt’s Creek” has had in the LGBTQ community, and they all agree that it is because the show didn’t try to persuade—it doesn’t proffer an explicit message and it doesn’t even try to highlight the struggle that many people in the community face. Rather, “Schitt’s Creek” shows a world in which the characters’ sexuality just is. It presents a version of reality as it could be. And it’s so sincere and sweet and over the top, and, most importantly, so incredibly funny.

So maybe this is how minds change. Not necessarily by sermons or bumper stickers or persuasive essays or YouTube videos. Maybe, in this case, the medium is not the message. The message is the message. Maybe persuasion is less like Kool-Aid and more like Soylent Green. It turns out, it’s people!