Thursday, July 21, 2011

Making Up My Mind (Or Not)

There was an old D.C. lawyer, one of the most respected litigators on the bar. He argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, was a longtime partner at one of the most prestigious firms, represented the biggest clients, and taught classes at Yale and Georgetown Law. One day, towards the end of the semester, he stood in front of his class, and told them a story about a recent case. It was a big Supreme Court case, dealing with some controversial ethical issues - the kind of thing that 50% of the country feels one way on, and 50% feels the other way. The old lawyer had been asked to write a brief supporting an ethical view that he had long held, and he did the absolute best job he could, arguing passionately for the side he believed in. To judge from the Court's decision, his arguments must have been persuasive. When he came to the end of his story, the old lawyer said the most remarkable thing.

"I read all the arguments, I looked at the issues," he said, "I always thought I knew what I believed. But now, my mind isn't made up."
I had the amazing good fortune to be sitting in the third row that day. Law school is not a place where they teach indecision. When you argue a point, you argue it with confidence. You assert your convictions. For three years I had been learning that certainty was the name of the game, both inside and outside of class. And here was this amazing lawyer, who had argued forcefully a strong ethical belief, admitting to us, in what appeared to be a fit of humble weakness, that he used to think one way, but now his mind wasn't made up.


I hope others in the class took the point to heart too. Who knows if they did. But it made an impression on me.

I write about this now because it isn't just we lawyers who suffer from intransigence. No, that word is popping up a lot lately. In Minnesota we've had a state shutdowns because of refusal to compromise on principles. On a national level the unflinching support of a single ideology threatens our economic well-being. Even in our sports we're looking at nearly impassible divides born of strict adherence to a single view. But I don't write this post about the current politics - though they've got me thinking about this issue - no, instead I write this post about approach. I think that by changing our own orientations we can have a much more productive discourse, a more productive interaction with reality, a more honest discussion with ourselves.
The pervasive motif of modern negotiation appears to be that compromise is weakness, intransigence rules. Rather than work to a solution, accepting that, as in most conflicts, both sides have something worth contributing and something expendable, the view seems to be that the art of careful consideration is itself a lesser skill. But the best negotiators are able to cut to the heart of what each side finds important. Usually, if the sides are both honest, there is something of value underlying the position of each side.

Likewise with any good and honest argument. Pick a controversial topic - health care, tax policy, abortion - and each side rests its position on something of underlying importance. If there wasn't something valuable there, people wouldn't be so passionate and the topic wouldn't be so controversial. So the question is to identify the value of each side and do our best to properly weigh the competing claims. For example, the best health care analysts can tell you what's good with the system now, what's bad with it now, and the problems with each of the proposed fixes. The worst health care analysts are the ones who blindly ascribe to the belief that the U.S. has the best health care in the world, or that there aren't problems in countries with government-run health care.

Now, maybe people think they do this. Maybe people think they weigh the values of both sides. But it seems rare to me. It seems the more frequent thing is that people sit, fixed in their beliefs, on a position without serious consideration of a different view, much less movement towards a new idea. Just like at the negotiating table, any sign of serious consideration is itself a weakness. Better to dismiss the other ideas out of hand and retreat to the familiarity of whatever self-confirming news station we like to watch. Willingness to change is the enemy of strong conviction, goes the logic, and without strong conviction, you cannot advance your cause.

I'd like to turn that logic on it's head. I believe that willingness to change is the partner of strong conviction. Conviction is only truly strong when it comes from a place of understanding. Bravado is not conviction. We can be firmest in our beliefs when we have truly considered them, weighed options, ruminated on the ins and outs, considered the rules and the exceptions to them. By this, of course, I mean that we truly engage the topic, not just make ourselves passingly aware of the other side. Passing acknowledgment happens all the time, but it doesn't count. No, I mean to say that conviction can only properly rest on a foundation of serious and honest contemplation.

What does honest contemplation entail? It requires suspending conviction. You can't hire someone for a position that's already filled. Similarly, you can't stand by your view while seriously weighing the other possibilities. Thus, honest contemplation entails doubt, and admitting that doubt to yourself. And, like the law professor, it probably means admitting doubt to others.

Now, with that consideration comes an opportunity for developing an honest weighing of the issues. Then, when you've weighed the issues, and come to a deeper understanding, you can embrace that position whole-heartedly. From fuller understanding comes fuller conviction. Of course, someday you'll probably run into some new argument that you hadn't considered before, and this will jump start the process all over again. That's kind of the rub - there's almost always more to be considered.
Now, maybe this all seems academic. Maybe it all seems obvious. But I don't feel like I see it in practice very often. I feel like I see a lot of passionate people, standing strong in their convictions. But I feel like I never see them honestly consider the other side. They'll pay lip service to consideration, but that's all you'll get. I feel like people think they've spent enough time in thought, and I feel like they're offended when you ask them to spend a little more time. I feel like people think they've considered everything that's out there, when they've just touched the tip of the iceberg. That's how conversations seem to go. And that's why I'm writing this post. Because the vision - strong conviction born of honest consideration, acknowledging doubt, revisiting the ideas, and reforming strong conviction - doesn't seem to appear often.

I don't see people as willing to change, and I think that's the hallmark of appropriate conviction.
I fear, of course, that people mistake my conviction as false too. It's a reasonable concern. I talk a good game about willingness to change, but I'm obviously firm in my convictions too. That's one of the tricks of the trade: the more willing you are to change, the easier it is to find positions that don't require changing. And so to illustrate a little, I'd like to share some of the things I've found myself change on, over the past decade or so: (note, I won't say what position I now hold on these issues, since that just invites much bigger conversations, but if you know me, odds are good you've got an idea where I've been and where I am now (usually closer to the middle). Some are big changes, some are more subtle). I've changed my mind on same sex marriage. I've changed my mind on gun rights. I've changed my mind on schools teaching creationism. I've changed my mind - twice - on female priests. I've changed my mind on affirmative action. I've changed my mind on drug policy. And more importantly, I evaluated dozens of other serious and controversial topics, and, with a better education and stronger conviction, reaffirmed the things I had believed before.

Now, I think that's a notable list. Maybe you'd disagree. But these were not beliefs that were remnants from childhood, things I had been taught but never evaluated. No, these were all beliefs I had generated as an adult and then, through whatever method - self evaluation, vigorous debate, painful and methodical taunting - I came to reevaluate.

Now, by saying I've changed my mind on all of these things, I don't mean to praise myself. Quite the opposite in fact; I'm embarrassed that I ever believed differently on these issues. I was wrong before. I can see that now. And I know that I haven't reached a final resting place on most of these issues, so there's always a good chance I'll someday look back and see that I'm wrong now. But that's OK that I was wrong before, or that I might be wrong now. Because someday, if I stick to it, I hope I'll be right. I'm going to keep exploring. Like the law professor, I hope to be on the journey to figuring it out long into my old age.

Because there are few issues that I have thought so intensely about so as to have reached a decisive conclusion. And that means I've got a lot of work to do.

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger


jwilli7122 said...

good post

Beau said...


Last year, I had a similar change of conviction about physician-assisted suicide. I formulated an opinion as an adult, did more research, and changed my opinion. It's actually quite freeing, rather than embarrassing, when this happens.

I fear that if someone does this in politics, they'll automatically be viewed as a flip-flopper. Of course, if you promise your constituents (and donors) you'll fight for one thing, and then you change your mind on that one thing, then it also feels like you've broken a promise.

empeterson said...

Now I don't feel as embarassed that I've changed my opinions on things. I do feel like once people know your opinion they expect you to hold that opinion forever, and if you change it you are considered weak somehow. And people often seem to have an either/or attitude on issues, like there is no middle ground anywhere anymore. That's frustrating too. At least some people appreciate thoughtful consideration of different views, and even suspension of an opinion until as much information as possible is gathered.

Redeeming Love said...

How has your opionion on same sex marriage and female priests changed?

Matthew B. Novak said...

See... when I said I wouldn't get into those specifics, that's exactly what I meant. If you're curious, contact me off-blog to discuss.

AGJ said...

Well Matt, every time we have our 'discussions' I find myself second guessing my stance. I can only imagine the conversations that your dad and mine had on the roof. However, my dad was one to never really engage in politics until recently (at least not that I am aware of).

I still stand true on some of my principles (Life, Federalism, fair tax), but I have seen some wavering in issues such as...

nope, sorry, I still haven't wavered much. I do try though. My convictions were tempered enough in my years of education.