Can People Change?

The Victorian author Anthony Trollope had some funny titles for his books – He Knew He Was Right and Can You Forgive Her? and Is He Popenjoy?  So in the spirit of Trollope I add my own title, not as funny, perhaps, but something I wrestle with:  Can people change?

The obvious answer is yes, people do change.  But then there is the age old adage:  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Or even, “People never change.”

My argument is that people DO change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst.

Let’s start with the bad stuff first, so I can end on a positive note.

It’s been frustrating for me to hear the news pundits say things like “Trump has really tapped into something with voters.”  People, there are some things you shouldn’t tap into.  The yawing chasm of hate that he has opened up is something, as a friend on Facebook pointed out, we might never recover from.  And the change is palpable.  Yes, those people who go to Trump rallies might have had that hate buried deep within them all along, but I also think they have changed for the worst.  Suddenly this bigoted, no-nothing shell of a man has given permission for the worst to come out of people and now we have images of a young black woman being shoved and pushed and yelled at at a Trump rally, and a young black man being punched in the face seared into our collective memory.  Trump supporters have changed because they no longer think it’s necessary to keep their behavior in check.  And that’s a scary, scary thing.  It’s all I can do not to think that this is the end of civilized society.  And yes, I know, perhaps we’ve never been “civilized”, especially to minority groups, but the public discourse has definitely been ratcheted down to a new low.

Still, I believe people can change for the better, too.

Back in the Jurassic age when I went to college, I remember arguing with my father about gay rights.  He said, “Gays are just a special interest group and special interest groups shouldn’t get privileges.”  Or something to that effect.  He made me cry.  Decades later, he has a gay son, my brother Tom, and a bisexual daughter, me.  You would never believe he ever said such a thing.  He knows the importance of gay rights now, and even more importantly, has been openly supportive and loving to Tom and his partner Jean, and of course to me.  My father, and my mother, have changed.  For the better.  I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for them, but they rose to the challenge beautifully.

Sometimes I think it’s a matter of theory and practice.  In theory, many people support gay rights and same-sex marriage, but in practice are pretty awful about gay people.  They’re clearly uncomfortable around gay people, say stupid or offensive things to and about gay people, and generally let the world know that they have some serious issues to still work out.  My parents, on the other hand, in theory are still uncomfortable with gay issues and talking about their gay children.  But in practice, my parents are love personified.  I wish more people were like them.  It is in our practice, in what we say or do, that really matters.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the “fixed” mindset vs. the “growth” mindset.  She is particularly talking about intelligence, but intelligence may rule so much of our behavior and character that I think it is relevant to change as well.  People with a “fixed” mindset don’t believe they can change.  They are stuck with what nature gave them.  The “growth” mindset believes it can change and become better, the effort itself being an important element.

Dweck writes:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .” (Dweck, taken from the “BrainPickings” blog)

I think it’s possible to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.  Maybe that’s what happened to my parents. It has probably happened to me, when I accepted my own sexuality.   I don’t know if I can go as far to say that the Trump supporters at his violent rallies all have a fixed mindset.  But I wonder.  I wonder if they are just very fearful people, fearful of change, of difference, of “the other”.  I wonder if their posturing is just another form of what Dweck would say is “proving themselves over and over.”  That Trump himself, for all his braggadocio, must be a very insecure man down deep goes without saying.  That’s classic narcissism for you.

Perhaps I must leave the question:  Can people change? and go to a statement:  People must change.  We must grow and become better people.  And yes, we must convince others to do the same, whether that is in a family and done with love, or whether that means protesting the hate of others.  Both are important.