I need something to change your mind

Published online 26 February 2009.

This will be a historical look at the art of mind-changing.  The political reality of the day requires that a lot of people change their minds about political realities, and especially about what is and what isn’t “on the table” in terms of permitted political action.

So, what we need to do is understand what it takes to change people’s minds; then, when we’ve figured that out, it’s time to change some minds, and change the world.  This essay will examine a number of historical figures who are relevant on the topic of mind-changing; and then it will surface for air by discussing the political platform it set up at the beginning and asking its reading audience: “what would change your mind?”

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Today, the urgency of some good persuasion couldn’t be clearer.  America has a new President, replacing the Fortunate Son at last; now it needs a new agenda, an agenda in which the reality left behind by Fortunate Son is confronted squarely and with an eye toward an improvement in the general welfare.

Now, to tell the truth, I don’t see how this new agenda can actually be brought into being without changing some minds in some rather potent ways.  The Obama administration, to be sure, has a new agenda, much of it being given its opening salvo in Tuesday’s address to Congress, which at least set the table for a positive agenda.  However, to this date the impetus for change hasn’t gone far enough.  Indeed, change will take time — but it is our responsibility, and not the President’s, to push things ahead.  The real problem that I see is that too much action on too many fronts is required, and that much of the action that is required is still politically “off the table.”  Here’s a short list:

  1. America needs a single-payer health care system to reduce the bureaucratic snafu, enormous money sinkhole, and mass denial of coverage that the private, for-profit system has gotten us.
  1. America needs to end recreational drug Prohibition across the board to reduce its expenditures on incarceration and prison-building at a time when the money spent on such things is desperately needed by the states for other purposes
  1. America needs a meaningful strategy to cope with abrupt climate change.  This, essentially, means some sort of infrastructural makeover to adapt to the changes which are already in the making, an international agreement to abandon the oil wells and coal mines (in place of frivolous lip-service to “reducing dependence on foreign oil”), and some sort of effort, technological or biotic, to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere after it’s already been put there.
  1. America needs to vastly reduce its vast military and commercial extension so as to redirect world priorities toward implementation of the basic tenets of the conserver society — rather than enormous complexs defending property and the consumer society, priorities need to be directed toward simplicity and a right to survival.

(feel free to lengthen this list at your convenience)

All of these, of course, are “off the table” politically — nobody dares discuss them outside of outcasts such as Dennis Kucinich, and then only in the most general of terms.  So what we need is some kind of multiple “mind-change,” so that everything on this list goes “on the table” in the minds of those whose talking points set the agendas.  Once these sort of proposals go “on the table,” they will have a chance.  But, before then, well…

“I need something to change your mind.” — David Byrne

Now, many of the readers of this diary doubtless know that Talking Heads lyrics are nonsensical; yet there are times when the writing of David Byrne hit home — especially Byrne’s early stuff.  For here we are, scribbling away diaries in front of an audience of zillions, and for all we know, we aren’t really persuading much of anything to anyone. We don’t have what it takes to change people’s minds, and so diaries such as this one are for the most part read by people who already agree with most of their premises.

And, well, since I don’t have whatever it is I need to change your mind, it’s high time I look at my mind-changing resources.  Here we’re going to dive into history, and look briefly at the history of mind-changing.


Let’s start from the beginning, with that art of mind-changing made famous by the ancient Greeks: rhetoric.

Now rhetoric, for those of you who were taught to remember this definition, was according to Aristotle the “art of persuasion.’  And, by persuasion, the ancient Greeks (of which Aristotle was one) meant public speaking, in which a speaker addressed a crowd and persuaded it to do whatever that speaker wanted done.

Aristotle argued that there were three essential appeals that needed to be addressed in such situations: Ethos, by which he meant the appeal to character, pathos, by which he meant the appeal to emotion, and logos, by which he meant the appeal to logic.  Now, that would be fine, except that none of these things seem to be working in the “off the table” cases I’ve suggested above.  I have logic, emotion, and character on my side — but not political traction.  Perhaps, though, I could use a bit more ethos — perhaps the efforts of more prominent political figures coming out in favor of marijuana legalization, or for the conserver society.  That is, if any of them have the courage to come out on my side.

Moreover, Aristotle also understood that, as he says in Book I,

In a political debate the man who is forming a judgement is making a decision about his own vital interests. There is no need, therefore, to prove anything except that the facts are what the supporter of a measure maintains they are.

But just explaining the facts about global warming, for instance, or health care, or drug Prohibition, hardly suffices to persuade people that it is in their own interests to support measures which are not “on the table” politically.  Thus we cannot just appeal to Aristotle, and his rhetoric, to find the sure path to changing people’s minds.  Let us continue onward.


Here let’s skip from the ancient Greeks, with their art of “rhetoric,” to the philosophies of the 18th century Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment is important for my search for “something to change your mind,” because it was the birth-period of the modern concept of democracy and of democratic power, the most appropriate of instruments for my aims.  Three cheers for democracy!

The most direct advocate of my interests among the philosophers of the Enlightenment would have to be the Marquis de Condorcet.  Condorcet, arguably, suggested that a great force for changing minds existed throughout history: progress.  Now, Condorcet believed in technical progress, like we do, but he also believed in social progress, progress toward a global social regime in which three aims would be increasingly achieved: “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.” (173)  Condorcet thought progress was inevitable.  Ignorance may plague human conduct for centuries at a time; but the ability of the human mind to make connections meant, for Condorcet, that the truth would eventually out itself and that human affairs would tend toward the progress of reason with the passage of time.

Condorcet even suggested a means for speeding up progress in this regard; this was what he called the social art, or (in plain English) applied social science.  Most of this social art was to consist of education; and here is his educational program in a nutshell:

Will men approach a condition in which everyone will have the knowledge necessary to conduct himself in the ordinary affairs of life, according to the light of his own reason, to preserve his mind free from prejudice, to understand his rights and to exercise them in accordance with his conscience and his creed; in which everyone will become able, through the development of his faculties, to find the means of providing for his needs; and in which at last misery and folly will be the exception, and n longer the habitual lot of a section of society? (174)

Now, perhaps this is the ultimate end of a good education, that it teach everyone how to do these things.  But this is not what they teach in the schools; what’s taught in the schools is X number of facts related to reading, writing, and arithmetic, to be tested “every year,” as George W. chided Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential debates.

So education can teach people self-sufficiency, good civic habits, and rational thinking, as Condorcet offered; but it can just as well waste the students’ time.  And, after all, our public school education (the private version is not typically that different) is not really oriented toward changing the minds of students.  At its best it preaches to the choir — when students agree to be persuaded by the curriculum, our educational system is judged by its ability to persuade them as such.  Certainly our schools are not the engines through which the world is changed.

And we might have to take Condorcet’s guarantee of “progress” with a grain of salt, in light of what we know of abrupt climate change.  “Progress” could just as well mean an ever-hotter world, careening toward climate disaster.  So our faith in progress, and in education, will not change minds.


Perhaps the most famous of modern advocates of educational “mind-changing” was Paulo Freire.    Freire (1921-1997) was the most famous advocate of a form of education encompassed by the term of “critical pedagogy,” which suggested a form of liberatory learning which he called “conscientizao,” (or “conscientization,” Anglicized).  “Conscientizao” implied that when one learned to “read the word” one could also learn to “read the world,” and in doing so, groups of learners figured how to look out for their own interests in the world after a particularly activist fashion.  “Critical pedagogy” thus changed people’s minds, from powerlessness to empowerment.

Freire got his start in “critical pedagogy” teaching Brazilian peasants how to read and write, with such amazing success that when Brazil was taken over by a military junta in 1964 Freire was quickly exiled after a short prison term.  The techniques of “Freirean-based pedagogy” are described in great detail in an ethnographic study called Now We Read, We See, We Speak; Freire’s philosophy is outlined in a book titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

The forms of education which run under the term “critical pedagogy” have, however, been rather susceptible to the context in which teachers and learners explore the world together.  In many nations in which Marxist governments have adopted critical pedagogy (e.g. Guinea-Bissau: see Freire’s book Pedagogy in Process for greater detail), a certain type of “socialist” education comes about in which students are hurried along to serve the ends pursued by the nation-state.  In nations such as the United States, Freire’s “critical pedagogy” is susceptible to being depoliticized, and brought into the path of the credentials game which much American education has today become.  Freirean “critical pedagogy” might change people’s minds, if the conditions were right.


In the 19th century, Condorcet’s picture of the progress of reason was complicated further by the later philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Marx argued that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”  Thus, Marx suggests that if you really want to change people’s minds, you need to change their “social being,” i.e. you need to provoke some kind of revolutionary change in the societies in which they live.  Marx’s formulation of consciousness presents us with a sort of chicken-and-egg problem; if we need to change society’s consciousness in order to provoke a revolution, and if we need to have a revolution in order to change society’s consciousness, then how do we get any traction at all?

Immanuel Wallerstein’s Utopistics, published in 1998, reinforces and updates Marx’s point about how revolutions can change social consciousness.  Wallerstein (1930-) was one of the main advocates of an academic school of thought known as “world-systems theory.”  World-systems theory hoped to understand how politics and economics worked by understanding how the entire world society worked as a single system.

In the book mentioned above, Wallerstein argues against the simple notion that most revolutions “fail” — certainly if we judge the French or Russian Revolutions by the ideals set forth by their proponents, they can be said to “fail,” yet revolutions typically achieve something, even if they do not achieve all that they set out to achieve.  Revolutions are, moreover, not pure in origin — they are generally “the seizing of opportunity — at least initially — by particular groups in moments of breakdown of state order.”  (6)

Wallerstein’s point was that, in his words:

What revolutionary upheavals offer the populations they claim to represent and whose moral and political support they seek is a disruption of social expectation, the sudden intrusion of hope (even great hope) that all (or at least much) can really be transformed, and transformed quickly, in the direction of greater human equality and democratization.  (7)

Thus, even if the revolutionary upheavals of their history do not succeed,  Wallerstein is telling us, their effect upon the world can be measured in terms of the new hopes they bring to the world, and of the possibilities these new hopes place “on the table” for each period of history.  The French Revolution, for instance, for all of the disasters it spawned in the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, put the concept of “democracy” on the table for much of Europe.  Here’s how Wallerstein expresses it>

For between 1815 and 1848, the basic concepts of the French Revolution continued to make their way into the category of widespread assumptions of what is accepted as the legitimate premises of political action.  There were really three such concepts that gained this kind of legitimacy.  The first was that political change was continuous and normal rather than exceptional and essentially illegitimate.  The second was that sovereignty resides in the people rather than in the ruler or in a corporate aristocratic body.  The third was that the people residing in a state constitute a nation, of which they are citizens.  (15)

Thus, also, the upheavals of 1848 put socialism and anarchism “on the table,” the upheaval of 1917 (Russia) put revolution on the table in the poorer countries, and the upheavals of 1968 (globally) broadened the concept of “liberation” beyond crude ideas of economic ownership.  Wallerstein here seems to present the idea of revolutionary hope as a force which can change people’s minds.

And this, my dear readers should note, is how Wallerstein gets around Marx’s chicken-and-egg problem.  A revolution may start out as something stupid.  But, if it’s a widespread revolution, it spreads hope among the people, and that hope can itself put good social ideas “on the table,” thus changing people’s minds.

Of course, how we’re going to start a revolutionary upheaval at this time in history is anyone’s guess.  I guess if it’s happening in Europe it could spread here.


The behavioral psychologist B. F. (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner (1904-1990) suggested that we could get what we wanted out of people through a simple behavioral principle; conditioning.  The psychological principle behind behaviorism is that people, like other animals, are creatures of their environments; change their environments, and you will change their behaviors.  In the crude, cognitive language (which Skinner disliked) we’re using here, that would mean that you’d change their minds.

 Skinner suggested that the best way of doing this, of achieving what he called “behavioral engineering” with people, would be to create a utopian commune.  He wrote a deathly boring book about this called Walden Two — but in the commune described in the book, the residents learn how to become robust individuals who can deal rationally with material deprivation and who are capable of creating great works of art, delicious meals, meaningful works of literature, prodigious achievements in science, and enjoyable musical performances.  So, just to be sure, Skinner isn’t looking to manipulate people into being stupid — rather, he’d like to manipulate them into being great human beings.

Skinner’s utopia spawned at least two actual communes, the most famous of which are: Twin Oaks in Virginia, and Los Horcones in Sonora in Mexico.  Both of these communities are discussed in detail in Hilke Kuhlmann’s Living Walden Two book.  Kuhlmann, interestingly enough, notes that Twin Oaks has a fairly high membership turnover, and that Los Horcones is dependent upon the charismatic leadership of its founder, thus suggesting that the actual “Walden Two” communities, though worthwhile, do not quite achieve the ideal vision of Walden Two itself.

Nevertheless, there is something powerful about Skinner’s ideas for the prospect of changing people’s minds.  If we understand that different environments can change people’s minds, we can set about changing our environment with the hopes that our minds will change, too.

Of course, we do need to watch for the sort of environmental change we don’t want.  The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is global warming — if the Earth were to be burnt to a crisp this would be the sort of environmental change that we’d be unprepared for, and this would achieve the opposite of Skinner’s aims.



For at least a couple of decades now I’ve wanted to “change minds.”  The problem isn’t really in people’s heads — the real disaster is in the social order they’ve created.  This social order is demonstrably the product of narrow, inside-the-box thinking, thinking that, for instance, puts the impeachment of the Favorite Son (in Nancy Pelosi’s words) “off the table.”

Today, that same narrow thinking seeks to resuscitate the political and economic orders which existed before the collapse.  This is coming at us at a point in time in which the economy is collapsing, the Republicans are in full meltdown, and we have a new President whose messages are full of hope.

There should be enough room there for a major mind-change across society, such as could force some sort of radical turnabout in political affairs.  That would be what would be required to give some sort of traction to the political agenda I’ve placed at the top of this essay.

At this point I’m just going to throw it open to the reading audience.  I need something to change your mind.  Take a look at the ideas for mind-changing, as they’ve ranged across history, or at least the ones I’ve elaborated above.  What could I do to change your mind?


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