People who write fiction are often asked, "How do you get your ideas?" It's a good question that should be expanded and contemplated by every American in this form: How do you construct opinions about issues affecting our society and what factors, if any, cause your opinions to change?
Think about this every time you read a newspaper or watch a panel discussion on TV. I don't believe it's inaccurate to say that in much of the media these days, polemics is crowding out persuasion. Personally, I am waiting for the day when a guest on one of the Sunday interview programs slaps his or her forehead and exclaims, "Oh my gosh! This discussion has enlightened me! I'm going to change my position on this subject immediately!"
This is not meant to imply the flash-of-insight effect is a myth, but from my own observations it seems that most changes of opinion occur slowly and often reluctantly. And for some people, the idea of changing opinions can spark considerable controversy.
The spark that still flickers brightly in my mind was set off last October. That's when President Bush, in an effort to defend his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, said their views on important issues were in full agreement and, "Her philosophy won't change."
In trolling through numerous blogs related to the Miers nomination, it's amazing to see the sheer volume of words and intensity of feelings that were focused on her perceived political orientation and how it might or might not remain rock solid once she was elevated to the high court. As columnists and talk-show hosts weighed in, many of them criticized one another for various philosophical shortcomings. Terms such as "well-developed opinions" and "intellectual drift" were lobbed back and forth like verbal grenades.
For me, the debate itself became more compelling than the person who started it. How, I wondered, did all those vehement critics and backers of Ms. Miers get their ideas? And in the 21st century, with political and economic connections linking much of the globe, how far can anyone push the envelope when it comes to the notion of never changing your personal philosophy?
In Iraq, the Bush administration is urging compromise among the various factions trying to set up a government. The Iraqis are being told they must "put aside differences" and form a government of national unity. I'm a big fan of compromise, but here in the USA it's been getting a bad name lately. Some political operatives in both parties like to say compromise a euphemism for "spineless."
I'm also a believer in constantly reassessing my own attitudes. If someone can show me a better way of thinking about a particular issue, bring it on. Sometimes I even change my mind, which is also risky these days because it could get me labeled as "inconsistent" or, worst of all, a "flip-flopper."
Do you disagree with everything I've said? If so, I hope you have a persuasive set of counter-ideas and notjust a list of insults. In America, anyone who can start an intelligent, well-reasoned debate should always feel free to speak up. And that is something that must absolutely, positively never change.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.