Saturday, 20 January 2018

Writing about ideas makes it possible for folk to change their minds

The inestimable Graeme Archer proclaimed yesterday - on Twitter, which is the modern equivalent of what my late colleague David Emmott called 'just pub talk' - that nobody changed their minds reading stuff so it was pointless writing it (I write this from memory as I can't find the Tweet). And that's cool - if you write opinion, you have to believe there's a fighting chance of what you read actually changing somebody's mind. What's the point otherwise?

The thing here is that Graeme's right. We really don't change our minds about things very often and almost never as a result of reading something in a blogpost or hearing something at a lecture. This isn't to say that we don't learn things from these places or, indeed, hear things that make us go wow! I remember being at a lecture about the boundaries of maths where the lecturer (my apologies, I forget her name) said something along the lines of "just because the universe is infinite that doesn't mean it hasn't got an edge". Every day I read things that are fascinating - Josiah Wedgwood created thousands of innovations and refused to patent any of them, the Daddy of Open Source! Our minds aren't changed but they are bigger and we are wiser.

Thing is, we don't change our minds very often about big important matters of ideology, about the faith that's core to the way we see the world. And, when we do change - stop being a socialists, reject belief in God - it's the conclusion of a process not a Damascene conversion brought on by reading an individual article or hearing a solitary lecture. For sure, we do change our minds about mundane stuff - whether we prefer rice or naan with a curry, our favourite singer or how we'd like our hair cut. But on other stuff this doesn't happen often, if at all.

I remember a friend who was a Bradford City season ticket holder, a real enthusiast. In one, possibly drink-fuelled moment, he whispered that the result he looks for first isn't City but Arsenal, the team of his childhood. If it's that damned hard to switch allegiance from a team 200 miles away to the team where you live, what chance is there of Graeme or I writing an article and having you change your view about politics, society or the economy? And, just so y'all don't think it's because Graeme and I can't muster an argument, the same goes for even the wisest, wittiest and best-informed. I'm sure there were ancient Greeks meandering back from the agora after another afternoon of Socrates asking difficult questions, who would say 'dunno what he's on about, it's rubbish and I'm sticking with The Gods, you know where you are with The Gods.'

But we know that people do change their ideological minds - non-believers become believers, redemption and true-seeing are real, they're just not pinged by just one article. This realisation might, as Graeme remarked, suggest that writing opinion and ideas is fruitless, purposeless. But perhaps it's not, perhaps the little seeds we plant in the minds of others allow them to think more broadly about their faith, their ideology. As a conservative, doubt is central to my philosophy - everything is to be challenged, questioned and change only follows this process - and for doubt to work as analysis it has to be informed, it needs fuel. And that fuel is the words of people like Graeme Archer and a thousand others, the lumps of coal that come from writers, poets, singers, those speaking in the public square.

So our words, however small the splash they make in the ocean of ideas, matter and we should not be afraid to speak them. Nor should we fear the words of others, the questions and challenges that latter-day would-be Socrates ask in our 21st century town square. No, say those things, put them out into that world of ideas because who are we to know that, for some person out there, those words are an affirmation of belief, a final jigsaw piece in revelation's puzzle, the spark that lights a fire in that person's heart. We don't change our minds very often but, I'm absolutely sure that, were there fewer words from the likes of Graeme that process of change would be more sclerotic and the world would be poorer.


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