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Opinion

Do opinion pieces ever change your opinion?

Given the fixity of our partisan beliefs, it's a rare occurrence. Yet history shows that reason and rhetoric can win converts.

By / January 13, 2009



New York

Right on, Professor Zimmerman! Keep up the great work!

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Wrong again, Professor Zimmerman! Get a real job!

Welcome to the wacky and wonderful world of op-ed writing. For the past decade, I've published two opinion pieces a month in newspapers around the country. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, meanwhile, I've received thousands of e-mail responses from my readers. And here's what I've learned: Opinion pieces rarely change opinions.

If this column confirms what you believed before, you'll praise it. But if it contradicts your preconceived ideas, you'll condemn it. By the end of the column, you'll have pretty much the same viewpoints as you did at the start.

How do I know that? It's not just the unrelenting partisanship of my e-mail correspondents, who almost never admit to a flaw – or a change – in their own ideas.

It's also the conclusion of Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist who conducts brain scans of Democrats and Republicans. No matter what your party, Westen has shown, your brain doesn't let mere facts get in the way of opinions.

When you are confronted with evidence that contradicts your point of view, the parts of your brain that regulate emotion – not reason – light up. And instead of changing your former opinions, you actually experience a happy sensation by rejecting the information that doesn't fit them.

Mr. Westen's research reminds us how little of our political behavior reflects conscious thought, judgment, or deliberation. And he brings us back to the granddaddy of American political commentators, Walter Lippmann, who anticipated Westen's findings nearly a century ago.

As America grew in size and complexity, Lippmann wrote, the average citizen lacked the time, inclination, and ability to understand important public questions.

Specifically, Lippmann urged, Americans must abandon "the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs." Most people made political judgments on a whim, without real information or consideration. Better to cede complex issues to a "specialized class" of experts, Lippmann argued.

Of course, this solution spawned questions of its own. Who would select and certify these experts? Wouldn't the experts possess their own biases and blinders? And what would happen when they disagreed with one another?

Most important of all, wasn't his proposal deeply antidemocratic? How could Lippmann's "specialized class" govern without proper checks and controls from an informed, engaged citizenry?

It was impossible, as even the hardboiled Lippmann was forced to admit.

That's why he concluded his magnum opus, "Public Opinion," with a paean to the same common man that the book had disparaged.

"It is necessary to live as if good will would work," Lippmann wrote.

It was a lukewarm endorsement of average citizens, to be sure. But Lippmann could not live without them.

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Has an opinion piece ever changed your mind about an issue? If so, send an email to letters@csmonitor.com.

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