Opinion guest column

How conversations flipped my political views

Difficult discussions have the power to foster change

Finding the courage to engage with ignorance can make an enormous impact; it certainly did for me. I stepped onto MIT’s campus as a staunch conservative. Conversation after conversation, I learned from people who had experienced life in dramatically different ways, and my political belief system crumbled. While my academic experience at MIT charted my career, my fellow students, diverse and brilliant, changed my life. They proved that hearts and minds can be changed by those with whom one disagrees.

I grew up in a town in Massachusetts with a population that is 97.5% white. It is conservative, favoring the Republican candidate in every Senate and presidential election since 2008. On its community website, those promoting tolerance are shouted down by others asserting that “All Lives Matter.”

Upon arriving at MIT, I argued against universal health care (because capitalism was good, wasn’t it?). I believed that “color blindness” was the solution to racism (because if you wanted to eliminate discrimination, then why not stop discriminating?). I wrote articles opposing same-sex marriage and advocating for the deportation of undocumented immigrants (because the law was the law, and didn’t laws need to be upheld?). These positions naively made sense to a guy like me: privileged, straight, cis-gendered, white, and unencumbered by real humans with real experiences.

Over my freshman and sophomore years, my political beliefs were transformed by conversations with people who had extremely different experiences in life. American capitalism props up the few at the expense of the many. Color blindness simply maintains the racist status quo; actively anti-racist practices are necessary for change. So many laws today actively discriminate against marginalized people. The rights of LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people are human rights, and undocumented immigrants aren’t criminals, but victims of a broken system and horrible circumstances.

I am so grateful to everyone who challenged my views, and I’ve worked since to do the same for others. By earnestly engaging with friends, students, and members of my community, I’ve found that change really can happen. From helping skeptical people to better understand COVID-19 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to dispelling racist beliefs, I’ve found success with the following framework:

  1. Assume a willingness to engage in good faith until proven wrong. Remember that people whom we see as villains, in fiction and in real life, often see themselves as the heroes. If I’m talking with someone who expresses a racist viewpoint, calling them a racist and walking away is not going to change their mind. If anything, it will only embolden them as the hero, standing up against the intolerant, name-calling liberal. The individual expressing that view may be a die-hard racist, but they may also be ignorant or misinformed. Don’t assume they’re one or the other; find out.

  2. Do your research. By being informed, you can point others to useful articles or data that will help them understand your position better. Particularly in the world of social media, good fact-checking websites are your friend, as misinformation runs rampant. Gauging how others respond to the data you share is an excellent way to check whether someone is engaging in good faith.

  3. Keep your cool. Particularly when discussing sensitive issues electronically, it can be tempting to fire off a snarky one-liner; don’t. If you’re feeling heated, don’t respond immediately. Be thoughtful about your response and work to address the actual points raised by the other person.

  4. Ask questions. One of the best ways to change someone’s mind is to reveal that they’re operating off incorrect assumptions, incomplete data, or personal biases. Ask them why they believe what they do, what data they have to justify it, or what kind of evidence would be sufficient to change their position. Whether you are better understanding the other person’s position or finding out that you are actually the one who is wrong, asking questions communicates your own willingness to engage in good faith. It’s hard to caricature the “other side” as villains if they’re politely curious about your beliefs.

  5. Be open-minded and self-aware. When two people disagree on something, if it’s not a semantic issue, then usually one of them is wrong; sometimes, it’s you. Admit it. Learn from it.

  6. Grow and be better. Sometimes, even if you’re right, you may discover that an argument or a piece of evidence you were using is wrong. Don’t dig in your heels; thank the other person for pointing it out and move on. Though often portrayed as a weakness, the ability to change your mind in light of new information is a great strength.

You may leave the conversation feeling frustrated, ineffectual, and angry. While the discussion itself may not be enough to change someone’s mind, the echoes of what you both say live on. If they were engaging in good faith, but perhaps were unwilling to admit they were wrong or ignorant, they may do more research in private. They may, over time, correct their own flaws because you planted that first seed of self-examination.

Every day, I work to create a safe, accepting classroom for my students, teach critical thinking, and encourage them to learn from mistakes (as I continue to do). To anyone reading this, I encourage you to do the same in your own spheres. Seek out diversity, put in the work to learn from those around you, question your own unexamined beliefs and biases, and quash ignorant, hateful beliefs. Together, we can create a better world.

Ryan Normandin is a member of the Class of 2013 and a former opinion editor and columnist for The Tech.