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

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

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.

Neither can I. Like Blaise Pascal, who believed in God because the dangers of disbelief were greater, I place my faith in the wisdom of the American people. And I try to do my own small part in enhancing that wisdom, by writing op-eds that challenge readers to look anew at what they see.

Does it work? Now and again, I do receive messages from readers who tell me that my piece changed the way they think.

The majority of respondents remain squarely in the "Right On" or (more commonly) the "Wrong Again" zone, writing to confirm what they believed all along. But maybe they, too, are doing more thinking – and more changing – than their e-mails let on.

After all, our history is replete with examples of collective moral progress. And pamphleteers – the op-ed writers of their day – helped speed it along, with the logic and power of their prose.

Start with Thomas Paine, who helped persuade Americans that their problem lay not just with the particulars of British rule; it lay in monarchy itself, which was inimical to human decency and dignity.

Or consider Frederick Douglass, whose broadsides and speeches reminded Americans that slavery violated their founding credo: All men are created equal. "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?" Douglass asked, in his famous Fourth of July address in 1852. "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"

And then there was Susan B. Anthony, who indicted American men – including antislavery campaigners – for their oppression of women. "Many Abolitionists have yet to learn the ABC of woman's rights," Anthony wrote.

Consider Abraham Lincoln, Eugene V. Debs, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In different ways, every great American freedom fighter urged us to heed what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" – especially our ability to reason. Only when all citizens thought for themselves – unencumbered by cant, prejudice, and propaganda – would Americans become truly free.

In my op-eds, then, I try to scrutinize my own views. As a lifelong Democrat, I incline toward the left-liberal side of most political issues. So I try to criticize liberals, whenever I can, subjecting my own biases to the same type of rigorous examination that I'd like others to adopt.

In my heart, I believe in the ability of everyday citizens to deliberate public questions with reason, fairness, and intelligence.

And if you disagree, send me an e-mail. We'll talk.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His next book, "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," will be published in June.

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