“Facts still matter…” said journalist and broadcaster Bill Moyers, quoting Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
The revolution in Egypt provides evidence of a public well-informed by 30 years of mostly silent submission to the dictates of a self-serving regime.
Finally, when the silence yielded to a voice that said “Enough”, the latest technology and social networking brought that voice to millions ready to protest and bring down the regime.
Their first unstinting demand was for Hosni Mubarak to leave. Mubarak, under his narcissistic spell, couldn’t believe what he was seeing and hearing. He was the subject of a mental state that kept him denying reality and blind to the facts.
Moyers refers to research at the University of Michigan, which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds.
The same research found that “we often base our opinions on our beliefs … and rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we choose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit our preconceived notions.”
For instance, Egypt not only reeled from a dictator and self-decreed father of his people; Mubarak adamantly refused to be confused by the facts.
Egypt is also the seat of two very different mind-sets that will resist each other. There’s the people’s mind-set that believes the country needs a new constitution, fair elections and new leaders.
Then there are the old military leaders who know that the existing constitution has benefitted them; and they now believe they are the fathers to the people.
Just as no amount of evidence can change the birthers’ minds, there have been irreconcilable differences between scientists and politicians about climate change. Neither has been willing to examine or able to understand the opposing mind-set.
Similar beliefs and denials have taken place and distorted facts between political parties in every governmental system.
Americans firmly believe, for instance, that the only viable political system is a democracy unless the democratically elected are not the preferred winners. (Think Hamas and Hezbollah).
Those who still insist that the bombing and occupation of Iraq was justified ignore factual evidence to the contrary. No matter how much evidence points to Israel insisting that Iraq’s potential for WMDs had to be eliminated, few people accept that fact.
Even though evidence supports the conclusion that Israel has no intention of ever honestly agreeing to a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, people believe the ruse of a negotiated peace.
The problem is not the differences of opinion. The real issue is always that opinions become unchangeable mind-sets. The realities they face raise many questions.
In Egypt, who’s going to write the new constitution? Will the military or the people decide what is included? Who will be responsible for fair and open elections? What other influences will play a role?
Who are potential new leaders? Those who have been part of the regime that the people want changed? Or protesters with no experience governing? Will the Muslim brotherhood get a fair chance to take part in a government by a military who have opposed their existence for 30 years?
Egypt, a newcomer to real democracy, not only has a lot to learn about a functioning republic. It has to learn about the perils of locked minds.
Currently there’s a similar situation in the US state of Wisconsin. Protesters have been out in the capitol for days with their minds locked onto the belief that the governor wants to destroy the labour unions.
That mind-set has been instilled in thousands who have joined the original smaller group of protestors against a bill that the governor attempted to get passed quickly and without debate in a predominantly republican state senate.
The governor’s completely opposite imprisoned mentality absolutely refuses to allow for discussion, debate or negotiation. Both sides have diametrically opposed unchangeable beliefs. Both believe they are right.
It no longer takes 30 years for one mind-set to energise large groups of protestors to rebel. With the media and social networking prepared to rapidly accommodate opposites on any issue, people’s revolutions will soon become common.
Will today’s peaceful revolutionaries be able to prevail even when force is used against them? How many protesters need to be killed or injured before the authorities yield to demands?
How many peaceful demonstrations need to be turned into carnages and failed revolutions before leaders and the public learn to open their minds to the opposition?
Carl Rogers, the most influential psychologist in American history, said, “The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.”
Does that mean that Egyptians needed to empathise with Hosni Mubarak? Or that the people of Wisconsin should accept their governor’s position? No.
However, protestors, demonstrators and revolutionaries may have legitimate complaints. Does that convey the ability to govern? No. A lack of knowledge that comes with experience could render things much worse.
Being elected to or inheriting an office does not guarantee proper governance. A guarantee that it’s improper comes when thousands of people take to the streets. When that happens it’s usually too late.
We need to understand that our beliefs do influence our ability to deal with facts that may not support our beliefs. Unless I’m wrong, we need to look more closely at the facts that don’t support our beliefs.
* Paul J. Balles is a retired American university professor and freelance writer who has lived in the Middle East for many years. He’s a weekly Op-Ed columnist for the Gulf Daily News. Dr. Balles is also Editorial Consultant for Red House Marketing and a regular contributor to Bahrain This Month.