Congratulations, you changed your mind!

It seems to me that changing your mind gets an unfairly bad rap.

Over a decade ago now, in his 2004 US presidential campaign, John Kerry took a lot of flak for being a “flip-flopper.” Remember how he tried to defend himself by explaining, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [appropriations bill] before I voted against it”? That wasn’t a great sound bite, but the fuller story was entirely reasonable; Kerry supported an earlier version of the legislation which reduced the Bush tax cuts in order to cover military spending, but when the final version of the bill wasn’t satisfactory to him, he voted against it. That’s what we want our legislators to do: to consider and debate the details of policy implementation, to pay attention to amendments and riders, to cast their ultimate vote based on more than a bill’s title and PR spin.

Hillary Clinton caught some heat in the 2016 campaign season for having changed her views on same-sex marriage. In 2000 she’d said that marriage was “between a man and a woman,” and later endorsed “civil unions with full equality of benefits, rights, and privileges,” but didn’t openly favor marriage for same-sex couples until 2013. Some people thought this reflected some kind of dishonest cynicism about how to win votes … although I somehow doubt those same people would have really preferred Clinton stuck with her 2000 stance just for consistency’s sake. They wanted someone ideologically pure, someone who had never held a “wrong” opinion in the past.

Of course, we want our elected officials to represent the opinions of their constituents — that’s why we call their offices and mail them letters and show up to town hall meetings. So even if Clinton changed her official stance because she noticed that public sentiment had shifted, I don’t see anything wrong with that per se. But it seems equally likely, if not more so, that her views shifted along with those of so many other straight Americans, and probably for some of the same reasons: more empathy and understanding, greater familiarity with constitutional arguments, and seeing states that had legalized gay marriage not descend into some gay dystopia. Whatever the bouquet of reasons that changed each mind, I’m certainly happy that as a country we’re moving in the right direction.

Changing one’s mind in the face of new evidence or new circumstances is exactly what rational, thinking people ought to be doing. Holding on to obsolete opinions is harmful. But that doesn’t mean changing your mind is easy. Confirmation bias is incredibly powerful, not to mention our tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance in the wrong direction. (Consider the new pledge who’s even more proud to be a fraternity brother after his humiliating hazing, instead of walking straight out the door and never looking back.)

As an atheist, plenty of religiously-themed examples come to mind here, but I’ll leave those as exercises for the reader. For now I’d rather stick with my political theme and bring your attention to Trump Regrets, a Twitter account that retweets people saying they’re beginning to wish they hadn’t voted for our current president. Often their reasons are painfully obvious to anyone who’s been following the news for the past year or two, and a lot of the responses to them betray very natural frustration. (Why couldn’t you have gotten fed up with Trump’s lies sometime before November 2016?!) Ditto for the Trumpgrets Tumblr. I share the frustration, and I get it. It’s cathartic to snark at these folks, to lash out. But my own hope is that these are minds ripe for changing, and I want to welcome them, not push them away. Especially when there are far too many supposedly-#NeverTrump Republicans who are now struggling with their cognitive dissonance and losing.

We make it hard enough for ourselves to change our minds. So why do we put other people through the wringer for it, too? Are we worried that if others revise their opinions, we might have to take a closer look at our own beliefs? Or perhaps, if people can change their minds, the world can’t be so neatly divided into good-people-who-agree-with-me and bad-people-who-think-wrong-stuff?

Yes, it’d be better if everyone held the right opinions about everything starting from the first time they formed any thoughts on each issue, but we live in the real world and people — all of us! — are sometimes wrong. Rather than tease and call out mind-changers as hypocrites or flip-floppers, I think we ought to praise them, or at least respect them, for reflecting and genuinely attempting to reach the best answers available. We should all practice the art of examining our beliefs and changing our minds when appropriate.

Comments 1

  • [catching up after returning from vacation last week] Agree 100% with your major premise here: In the political sphere, changing your mind and your position _per se_ is almost always met with criticism (the “flip-flopper” accusation)… and it shouldn’t be, in politics or in life in general. That has always bugged me too. We ought to reward people who can be convinced by evidence that they are wrong, and who admit they were wrong and take a new position that fits reality.

    (I confess I’m pretty cynical about politicians of all stripes, and while I hesitate to say I know what people’s motives are… I suspect that Clinton’s change on same-sex marriage, like Obama’s self-described “evolution” on the issue, was not actually a change in what they believed. The cost of saying it in 2000 was simply too high, and once the tide had clearly turned, then they could change what they were saying to match what they probably believed all along. I admit that’s a guess.)

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