Truth and Reconciliation: How To Change a Prejudiced Mind

handshake with rainbow background

Prejudice: [prej-uh-dis] an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason. That pretty much sums up Donald Trump’s Twitter announcement last week that transgender people would be barred from serving in “any capacity” in the United States military. Trump exhibited his lack of knowledge when he tweeted, “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” According to a 2016 Rand Corporation study on transgender military personnel, commissioned by the US Defense Department, the cost would be between $2.4 and 8.4 million annually, and even with the higher amount, that would only be 0.13% of $6.2 billion budget. By contrast, the Military Times reported in 2015 that the military spends $84 million annually on erectile dysfunction medicine, e.g., Viagra, mainly on its veterans. So, Trump’s “facts” about the medical costs of the estimated 15,000 transgender people currently serving were wrong.

Trump’s thought and reasoning, if he made any attempt at either, were way off, too. Vanity Fair reported that the Secretary of Defense James Mattis had been given very little warning about Trump’s announcement. It was clear (to me and many others) from a memo by the the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that his top generals were not consulted on his decision. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance,” it read. “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect … and will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”

Is it possible to change the prejudiced mind of Donald Trump? According to The Washington Post and many other media, the answer is a simple Yes, because his flip-flops on issues seem to be influenced by the last person to speak with him. But for other prejudiced minds, the key to change is to listen.

Change a Prejudiced Mind By Actively Listening

Though my example continues with the transgender theme of this post, I believe it applies to any type of prejudice. Stanford University researchers David Broockman and Joshua Kalla published a paper in Science (April 2016) about reducing transphobia. They studied the issue during a door-to-door survey by the Los Angeles LGBT Center on attitudes towards transgender people. Instead of overwhelming prejudiced people with statistics and policy statements, the surveyors used active listening techniques (demonstrating full concentration, occasional nodding or short verbal responses, remembering what was said, asking open-ended questions, speaking little, and, very importantly, not getting emotional). The questions were designed to make the people think about discrimination issues they themselves had faced, and consequently arrive at the conclusion for themselves that we all have a shared humanity.

Certainly there are some people who are so deeply entrenched in their own beliefs and prejudices that they aren’t open to change. But I think they are the exception. Perhaps there can be reconciliation between Turks, Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks if everyone listens more—unemotionally—and relates their own experiences to those of others?

It’s amazing to watch this woman, prejudiced against transgender people, arrive at a different conclusion at the end of 8 minutes!

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