When I teach writing to first-year college students, one of my favorite assignments asks students to write about a time their opinion changed. What, I ask, inspired the change? And what does that change teach them (or what does it not teach them) about the nature of persuasion?
Often, students write about the impact of personal experience and relationships on their perspective. (“Rooming with an international student changed how I feel about immigration.”) Sometimes, they’ll explain how they were persuaded by new data they hadn’t previously been aware of, especially as it related to low-priority subjects. (“I read the stats and realized android phones are better after all!”)
Not once has a student written, “I changed my mind on an issue that mattered deeply to me because somebody beat me in an argument.” Nor do they write, “I was repeatedly pestered by people with a different view, and eventually they pestered me enough that I decided they were right.”
We human beings are rarely argued into submission about the things that matter most. This is what my students and I conclude, semester after semester, as we aggregate their stories in our classroom and discuss what constitutes effective persuasion. Even though they’ve been taught that persuasion is all about making smarter arguments and proving the other side wrong, they recognize at an instinctive level that their own minds rarely work this way.
In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt proposes that moral intuition precedes moral reasoning. That is, people tend to determine on an instinctive and emotional level what they are going to believe about morality. Only then do they develop rational arguments in defense of that morality. Haidt compares moral reasoning to a rider on an elephant: the rider tries to appear in control of the elephant’s movements, but most of the time the rider simply offers rationalizations for movements decided by the (much weightier) elephant.
I read Haidt’s book during a series of airplane rides, on my way to and from a conference about faith and sexuality. Hunched in my economy class airplane seat, flipping pages and munching on complimentary mini pretzels, I wondered what would happen if Christians of all stripes took Haidt seriously in the way we approach our conversations about sexual ethics. What if we spent less time honing our arguments about why our view is superior to other views, and spent correspondingly more time investing in relationships and making our churches liveable for LGBTQ and same-sex attracted people?
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I don’t want to suggest that being informed about what the Bible has to say on sexual ethics—and debates concerning what the Bible means by what it says—are unimportant. Far from it. Interacting with those debates has been an important part of my own journey, and it has likewise been important for many of the other celibate and mixed-orientation-married gay folks I know. But these debates are by no means the only reason people like me hold a traditional sexual ethic; they’re not even the most important reason. And by the same token, these debates are neither the only or the most important reason that other people hold a progressive sexual ethic.
What about changes of opinion: what inspires Christians to shift their views about sexual ethics? There are plenty of public narratives told from the perspective of formerly traditional people who shifted to a more progressive sexual ethic. I’ve also heard from a small but growing handful of formerly progressive folks who shifted to traditional sexual ethic. In both cases, rational arguments might be part of the story, but these arguments are virtually never the motivating force.
Like my first-year college writing students, people don’t seem to change their views about sexual ethics because of an argument someone made. Rather, they change their views because something at the intuitive level motivates them to believe differently. As Haidt would say, they change their belief because something alters the direction of their elephant.
If your hope as you enter conversations about sexuality is that people will come to think more like you on the matter of sexual ethics, let me suggest that your arguments may matter less than you think. Being thoughtful and well-read is a valuable entry step to productive and mutually transformative conversation, but this entry step isn’t itself sufficient to inspire meaningful transformation. Perpetual pestering, though it may feel holy in its motivation, isn’t generally praised for its success in motivating changes of heart.
On the other hand, respect, charity, faithful presence, and unceasing prayer are relational choices that I’ve never regretted making. And they’re choices that have occasionally been known to transform even the most unlikely of elephants.