Why do we think what we think?

I just listened to an ABC Conversations podcast with Sarah Kanowski called “How to Change a Mind” in which she interviews Eleanor Gordon Smith – author of Stop Being Reasonable. Eleanor grew up as an only child in a supportive and intellectual family and was passionate about debating at school. The conversation with Sarah Kanowski takes you through her naive belief in the power of debating, through boredom with law and politics and international relations and then the discovery of philosophy.

I think the part I found most interesting was her quest, as part of a job for the student paper, to try and change the minds of men who wolf whistle and cat call. She used to go out late at night in Kings Cross in Sydney and, if men accosted her in this way, she would turn around and ask them what motivated them to do that and then, if they were willing, she would interview them. She discovered that logic and reason and evidence were no use. Men were convinced that women, in general, like this kind of attention. How could they not? It’s a compliment! Of course they like it!

This absolute belief in the face of opposing evidence reminded me so much of my own recent experiences…

In the week before the election, I went to a calling party for a well known political organisation. I parked my car when the sat nav told me I had arrived and saw the required house number on a letterbox. “Hmmm” I wondered. “Does that letterbox belong to this house or that house? Oh! It’s one big house!”

So before I even knocked on the door I heard a dog barking and a man saying “Thank you. Thank you. A person is here. Now, you be nice, ok?”

The man was wearing black tracksuit pants and a well loved PUMA jacket. He held the collar of a whippet and smiled hello. “This is P,” he said. “Don’t worry, she’s only bitten electricians so far.” I decided it might be wise not to pat her just in case she didn’t correctly intuit my profession. But she only sniffed me and her eyes looked friendly, not wild.

There was one other person there – a woman by the name of C who is only in this city to do some “grandmothering” (as she put it) but normally lives in Sydney. I learned later that both the host (S) and C are staunch Labor supporters. They both professed to love the whole team – Shorten, Wong, Albenese, Bowen…

Eventually I was settled in the front hall at one powerpoint (to plug my mobile into) while C stayed in the spare room and S disappeared off down the hall to what might have been the kitchen (I never went down there). Just before I wound up courage to get started, P made a funny whining noise and a woman appeared (the wife of S?) and lead her into a nearby room and tucked her into a comfy looking bed.

The calling began. As luck would have it, my first call was a lovely old lady who was happy to chat and when I asked “How likely is it that you will vote for D in this election?” she responded, “Well, first you would have to run over me with a truck and then a tractor and then you would have to mince me up…” I’d already guessed that her answer would be along those lines because I had already asked what issue she was most concerned about and she’d said “Refugees”.

Anyway, that was the best call of the night. Most of the next 30(?) calls were answering machines, many were not interested, one man told me that the organisation I was calling from are a bunch of (insert expletives), and one man (my longest conversation) told me that he couldn’t vote for Labor because they were going to steal all his hard earned savings from the last 50 years and he would end up on a pension which my children would have to pay for. He also told me that the scientists couldn’t know that carbon would stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years because they haven’t been alive that long. And he pointed out that a scientist wrote about climate change in 1923 so it can’t be real because it’s 100 years later and “it hasn’t happened yet”. I eventually managed to end the call but I didn’t seem to have made any headway on the lies Murdoch has been telling him. S later reassured me that I “might have sewn the seeds of doubt”. The results of the election would suggest I failed on that score.

At 8:20pm the dialling tool switches off to ensure all calls are over by 8:30pm. Just as I was packing my phone away, a teenage girl came in the front door. After saying helloto her, S ushered me back into the spare room where we “de-briefed” and said “My daughter is so anxious about all this stuff. I have to keep telling her ‘I’m doing stuff! I’m really trying!'”

We settled on chairs and my hands were still shaking.

I sighed “That was frustrating!” S and C emphatically agreed and S said he’d spoken to a 24 year old girl who had no idea about any of the issues. He gently suggested perhaps she ought to be worried about climate change and she meekly agreed. I wonder whether she thought about it after the phone call.

I told S and C about an amazing podcast I’d listened to to that day (another from “Conversations” on the ABC) about the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Back then, the Australian Government went in search of skilled refugees from camps all over Europe (it was so soon after the war). The refugees were told “Come to Australia. For two years you must work where the government tells you to but after that you are free to apply for citizenship or return to your home countries.” I bemoaned the fact that our current government doesn’t see similar value in refugees. S commented: “Yes. Those Syrian refugees know how to grow crops in a desert. Hmmm… I wonder how that could be useful?”

I couldn’t sleep that night for thinking about what I should’ve said to the man on the phone. But in my heart I knew I wouldn’t change his mind if I talked to him non-stop for a week. For a start, he wasn’t really listening. And for another thing, his ideas were ingrained. The culture he grew up in, the papers he reads, the people he talks to, they all support his point of view. And I’m the same. I surround myself with things that support my world view. Most people do.

But the thing I find frustrating about Climate Change is that it’s not a world view. It’s a world event!! The scientific evidence is overwhelming. At a lunch recently my husband made some comment about people who “believe” in Climate Change. The gentleman nearby said “Don’t use the word ‘believe’. I don’t think that’s accurate. Use the word ‘accept'”. My husband was pleased with the correction. It’s absolutely right. Climate Change is not a religious concept. It is not a point of faith. It is as evident and real as Trump being the president of the USA.

It doesn’t always suit us but it’s real enough.

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