I have two sets of friends with diametrically opposed political viewpoints: one group identifies with the left and the other with the right. While both groups are up for a good argument, neither is particularly open to debate. In other words, you can’t convince them to adopt an opposing position with mere facts, statistics, or rational devices. I’ve tried. At least they have that in common.
So, what’s happening here? Politics is the business of government policy. One would hope the purpose of a policy is to achieve a specific objective. The effectiveness of any given policy should be based on empirical data and outcomes. In other words, responsible governing should be results-based, but we know it’s not. Instead, results are interpreted through the skewed lens of the interpreter’s political affiliation. Watch any 24-hour news channel for examples of this phenomenon.
Government policies are not results-based; they are values based.
This explains why sophisticated politicians play what I call the ethical dilemma game. The study of ethics deals with justice and fairness. The problem is we have different opinions about what is just and fair. An ethical dilemma is a situation encompassing two conflicting moral imperatives. In essence, both sides are “right,” but we can’t have both. The side you favor depends on your value system. Politicians effectively play the side of the ethical dilemma that resonates with their potential voters. The “game” is not to sway voters into changing their values; the game is to find the people who share certain values and persuade them to vote.
Why is it so difficult to change someone’s point of view?
It’s genetic. At least, there is a genetic component. According to recent studies (learn more here and here), our genes predispose us to a social ideological orientation. How we are nurtured or socialized solidifies our value system. It is not by chance that groups of people living in geographic clusters share the same ideology. A biological predisposition + socialization = a common value system. That’s how we get red states versus blue states or more accurately, red districts versus blue districts.
Skeptical? We readily accept that physical traits, personality traits and many health conditions are inherited. Why not value systems?
Here is how this relates to marketing: it is much easier to persuade someone to buy what we’re selling when the customer has a predisposition to value it. That’s why the first step in marketing is to identify our target market. These are the people who get us. They share our values. They are the members of our party. They are our tribe.
If you want to sell something, stop wasting your time trying to convert non-believers. Instead, find people who want to believe and persuade them to act.
Here is the bigger picture: as a human being, recognize that rational debate is an exercise in futility. Opinions involving ideology are literally hardwired into our DNA and reinforced by our experiences, socialization and self-concept. Therefore, they don’t move very easily, if at all. If you are actively trying to convince someone to abandon their position on a social issue in order to adopt your side of the issue… you are wasting your time.
There are ways in which one’s value system might realign: through a traumatic experience or resocialization. A traumatic experience provides a jolt to our self-concept opening the door to reevaluate our value system. Resocialization is typically associated with despotic leaders attempting to “recondition” dissidents in the bowels some nefarious institution, but it can also happen over an extended period of time by settling in a cluster where the people share an opposing value system. Of course, in both of these examples one might confirm the validity of his or her original belief system and become further entrenched.
So, in the interest of our collective sanity and well-being, it would be prudent to avoid political debate altogether and simply understand there are two “right” answers to every ethical dilemma, which is the definition of the term. The side we take is largely determined by forces outside of our control. We inherit a predisposition and are then socialized to a particular point of view.
Our ideological orientation is a large part of our self-concept and identity. It's who we are. Any attempt to argue the opposite side of our ideology feels like a personal attack. Therefore, listening to reason is not an option.
Let’s just agree to disagree.