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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Change


On this first post of the new year, I wanted to write about a topic that we are all familiar with, though may not practice often; changing our minds. Psychologists and social scientists will tell you, and rightly so, that it is one of the most difficult things to do. So much so that even in the face of facts, incontrovertible evidence that sheds new light on something which we believe, we will stubbornly cling to our established position. It really does not matter what side of the political spectrum you happen to be on—or what your views are.

It is hard to accept that our position might be mistaken. I am going to rule out for the sake of the discussion those who are ideologues—that is folks who are blindly partisan. Nothing is going to alter their beliefs. But most of us probably think of ourselves as open minded, at least in theory. Presented with information that does not square with our opinions—we would be willing to alter our beliefs, wouldn’t we?

Again, endless studies have demonstrated that very few of us have such an open mind that we are prepared to change them. Stop and think for a moment why this should be. How did we form the opinions we have and how often do we question ourselves rather than seeking out those who are like minded? You’ve probably heard about the ‘bubbles’ of opinion that tend to act as reinforcement for closely held beliefs. It isn’t just on the Internet.

Recently I have been reading about the political environment early in the formation of our country—when in fact it consisted of less than 18 states. I wish I could say that the political foundations of our nation were forged by like-minded—in fact-open minded people. They were not. Rather they were as contentiously divided on matters as we are today. So, how is it that they were able to create this republic and importantly, the ingenious thoughts that provide our touchstones today?

I would submit that they had a few things going for them that perhaps we might be wise to consider. First, our founders knew at first-hand what it meant to hold views, religious and otherwise, that were not those of their rulers. So important was their respect for the freedom to do so that they built into our Constitution the guarantee of that right, knowing that it is only through spirited debate and tolerance of opposing thoughts that democracies can thrive. Look around the world today, at countries which do not enjoy such freedom, and you will see ordinary people rising up in protest, willing to give themselves—and if necessary, their lives to purchase this precious right. We, on the other hand, seem intent on silencing those who think differently than we do, or at least labeling them in demeaning ways.

As the 19th century dawned, our country was impoverished by the war, but wealthy in resources—in fact our resources were boundless. Wealth—or at least an honest income could be created with those resources provided one was willing and able to work—and work hard, under conditions that I doubt many would be willing to undertake today. They were much not very different from what they are in third world nations today. But our forebears were not only willing, they were excited by the prospect of making their way in the world. While that dream still exists for some today -our respect for work is different. We are often intent on looking at what our neighbor has in his bowl compared to ourselves—not so that we might extend our help if his is empty, but so that we can assure that we are getting our ‘rightful’ share.

Perhaps the most-stark comparison between the character of our fledgling nation and today had to do with leadership. It was by no means perfect. You might be surprised to learn that early in our country’s history there were a handful of people who were by any reasonable definition of the term, traitors. People who willingly conspired to betray their country and in a few cases their office. But the overwhelming majority of leaders, at the very most local level, and those who served in Congress and in the highest offices were people who served with fear in their heart that they were not worthy in the face of the tasks before them. It was not false humility—the tasks were indeed monumental, and these men placed their reputations, character, and values above all else.

To be sure there were political parties and soul wrenching decisions ahead for our country on which there were bitter disagreements. I do not wish to paint an idyllic picture except in one dimension—and that is the degree to which our leadership understood the fallibility of human beings, understood the need to preserve our republic even in the midst of issues that they knew would one day bring us to near dissolution. They crafted tools in the Constitution and Bill of Rights to ensure to the greatest degree possible we might correct what deficiencies we encountered in the future through a process that accepted change. But wisely, they did not make it easy. They built in protections and steps to ensure that we would not subvert the fundamental rights and freedoms they fought to establish.

They knew then that we were hard to persuade—that once of a mind we would not lightly abandon our perspectives. But they also knew that a time might come when we had forgotten the price we pay for our freedoms, when we no longer believed in the very process they conceived of. The question for today is: are we willing to cede our responsibilities to be invested in the governance of our lives? Will we tolerate abandonment of the principles designed to ensure equality of justice, freedom of belief and speech, and fundamental human rights? Perhaps it is time for a change of minds.


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