YANSS 256 – Why Americans must change their minds about their ability to change other Americans’ minds

This is the third episode in a three-part series about how to have difficult conversations with people who see the world differently, how to have better debates about contentious issues, and how to ethically and scientifically persuade one another about things that matter – in short, this is a three-part series about How Minds Change (which is also the title of my new book).

There seems to be a movement afoot, a new wave of nonfiction about how to reduce all this argumentative madness and epistemic chaos. I want to boost everyone’s signal on this issue, so I thought it would be nice to collaborate instead of compete, since that’s part of what we are all proselytizing with these books.

So this episode’s guest is Anand Giridharadas, the author of The Persuaders – a book about activists, politicians, educators, and everyday citizens who are on the ground working to change minds, bridge divisions, and fight for democracy.

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The Persuaders is a stunning insider account of activists, politicians, educators, and everyday citizens who are on the ground working to change minds, bridge divisions, and fight for democracy.

Many Americans have grown alienated from an idea at the heart of democratic theory: that you change things by changing minds—by persuading.

This challenge to persuasion has taken myriad forms. Social movements that need to grow to win have often seemed to devote more energy to keeping people out than pulling people in. Political campaigns frequently receive advice to focus on mobilizing sympathetic voters more than winning over skeptics. People have watched as tens of millions of their loved ones mentally disappear into online rabbit holes and cults, but little organized effort is made to bring them back or protect future victims. Leaders who attempt outreach have been attacked by their own as sellouts, chided for centering those who would never ally with them anyway over those who have long had their back, if not their attention.

The tendency to write off is rooted in the assumption that differences of identity are unbridgeable, that people are too invested in their privileges and interests to change, that the failure to achieve change in the past predicts failure in the future, that people and their opinions are monolithic and strong rather than complicated and fragile, and therefore the purpose of politics is to protect yourself from Others and galvanize your own instead of trying to reach across.

In the change-making circles I had begun to follow, the political culture of the write-off had made itself strongly felt. It had helped to open an ever-widening, seemingly unsustainable gap between the ambitions for structural, material change and the utter pessimism about individual people changing. How could social transformation come to pass when so many, even those most thirsting to change things, had written off the very possibility of changing people’s minds?

The stakes of this writing off were high: some of the most dangerous and antidemocratic movements of our time had managed, in spite of those features, to make their causes appear welcoming and make newcomers feel at home, whereas some of the most righteous, inclusive, and just movements gave many the feeling of being inaccessible, intractable, and alienating.

I became drawn to a group of activists, organizers, politicians, educators, and others in these change-making circles who dissented from the great write-off and were seeking another way.

Anand Giridharadas

Anand Giridharadas is a writer. He is the author of Winners Take All, The True American, India Calling, and now The Persuaders. A former foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times for more than a decade, he has also written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Time, and he is the publisher of the newsletter The.Ink. He has spoken on stages around the world and taught narrative journalism at New York University. He is a regular on-air political analyst for MSNBC.

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Previous Episodes 

How Minds Change

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Show Notes


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The Persuaders