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Changing someone’s mind is always seen as a stretch; even though we may be convincing, we assume that nothing we say can change what someone believes firmly. My maternal grandmother has always been one of the most stubborn people I know, and the upcoming election has not been an exception to the list of things she feels strongly about. She is very proud to be a dedicated Republican, and in my family she is notorious for being an avid Donald Trump supporter in the 2016 election.
We have always just accepted her beliefs and brushed off her political rants at family birthday dinners because we know her well enough to know that nothing will ever be able to change her mind … unless, it actually may be possible. This paper will explore how the sociological theories of ethnomethodology and structural functionalism could apply to my grandmother’s political stance and actually change her beliefs as they apply to the 2016 election.
This presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has obviously been attracting a lot of attention.
Though many have their doubts about Clinton concerning her dishonesty with the email scandal and her involvement in the Benghazi attacks, most of America has decided that she is the lesser of two evils. Trump’s racist, sexist, and disrespectful remarks directed at those belonging to any minority demographic have earned him the scorn of many American voters. One such example would be when he was talking about potential sex with Lindsay Lohan (an inappropriate topic to begin with) and said, “How come the deeply troubled women … they’re always the best in bed?” (Amatulli) The media, other politicians, and many citizens are continuing to enforce his unfavorable image through their repeated criticisms of him.
The name and image of Donald Trump has become a symbol in today’s society. According to O’Brien and one of his three basic premises about symbolic interactionism, meanings are socially derived, rather than being inherent in nature (59). The public’s interpretation of Trump’s words and actions assigns a meaning to the name “Donald Trump’; for many, this name evokes feelings of rage and personal victimization. Even many Republicans and more middle-of-the-road conservatives are appalled by the vulgar remarks he has made and the concerning policies he would install. Nevertheless, my grandmother has no qualms about sticking out against the vocal majority of American voters by continuing to proclaim her support for Trump. Her belief that he qualifies as a viable choice for U.S. President stems from a childhood when she moved around for many years of her young life, especially between the southern states, due to her military-employed father. She is about seventy-five years old now, which puts her childhood and teen years during the 40s and 50s when ideas about race and gender were much less progressive than they are today. Because she is so resistant to change, she is willing to overlook any questionable things done by Trump to maintain her positive view of him. I chose her as the topic for this analysis because once she has her mind set on whatever she thinks is right, it is very difficult to convince her otherwise.
My grandmother’s true belief is that an American nation run by Donald Trump would be a positive one and that he is the best choice compared to “Crooked Hillary”. Most of her behavior is affected by this central belief, including how she maintains relationships with those around her and how she votes on not just the presidential ballot, but also on local and other national ballots and measures. A belief encompassing so many important aspects of her life is what causes a once-simple belief to become her whole reality. One’s reality can be described by the theory of ethnomethodology, as outlined in Hugh Mehan and Houston Wood’s writing, “Five Features of Reality”. According to this theory and its explanation of reflexivity, my grandmother’s beliefs that align with very right-wing policies and Trump as a presidential candidate are considered an incorrigible proposition. An incorrigible proposition is a belief “in which you would never admit to be false” that “is compatible with any and every conceivable state of affairs” (Mehan and Wood 380). My grandmother is so deeply invested in her conservative ideologies that every piece of evidence or media flexes back to support her original belief, even if outside observers would say that these pieces are actually counter evidence. When addressing certain articles or television news stories about something unsavory that Trump did or said, she always manages to turn it around with something like, “Well, the media is trying to cover up how his real intentions were to do something positive.” This is an example of a secondary elaboration of belief, which is a way of explaining a contradiction in order to make it fit with one’s incorrigible proposition. Through these secondary elaborations of belief, she cannot interpret even a common sense piece of evidence as proving herself wrong, thus strengthening her belief even more.
My grandmother’s belief system is coherent, in which every piece of information about the election makes sense with her central belief. This means that she will find a way to make everything in her body of knowledge complement each other, and if there is some information that cannot be twisted to fit her positive image of Donald Trump, she will reject it and possibly forget she ever even heard it. Attempting to change her mind would require manipulation of how these pieces of information in her body of knowledge connect with each other; this could be done with the theory of structural functionalism. Based on ideas presented by Émile Durkheim, functionalism upholds that institutions and groups work together interdependently to keep society stable (Pampel 67). In this theory, institutions that are no longer of use to society will eventually disappear (Newman 22), so the current existence of the Republican party tells us that it is of some value to our society’s political sphere. In this sense, my grandmother is not wrong in choosing to identify with this particular one of the two main political parties. However, what is mainly important in this example is the definition of how groups, rather than institutions, contribute to the workings of society. We all belong to certain groups that categorize our place in society, such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc. (Newman 16). My grandmother belongs to the groups of white, female, individuals over the age of seventy, and more. Many conservative women are opting to vote for a candidate other than the Republican nominee because of his blatant disrespect for women, but my grandmother is placing her identity as a conservative over her group status as a woman. Rather than collectively identifying with her fellow female group members, she is rejecting the significance of belonging to this group in this case to fully embrace her belonging to her choice political group. In order to manipulate the coherent connections between her political notions, she must muddle the lines between being a woman and being Republican, thus developing the idea that she does not have to choose one over the other. This is consistent with Newman’s explanation of group integrity, in which he claims “We are as many different people as there are groups and organizations to which we belong.” (69) This proposal could help her realize that choosing to identify as Republican does not mean that she has to give up her identity as a woman in a political sense; it is still acceptable to have more conservative notions while simultaneously being offended by repugnant sexist comments.
Beliefs depend on social interaction, which is probably what fueled such an intense passion of hers for the issue in the first place. Many of the media sources she chooses to read and the friends she chooses to surround herself with will continue to feed her positive view of Trump because she will most often interact with people who have similar views. Her contributions to political conversations will involve how highly she regards Trump and how all cynics are simply mistaken, and these opinions of hers will be validated by her husband, her clients at work (most of whom are strongly Republican as well) and many of her friends. This social validation of her beliefs is comparable to the situation explained in Pollner and McDonald-Wikler’s case study. Although the studied family had a daughter, Mary, who was severely disabled, all other family members continued to interpret Mary’s actions as her being moody or uncooperative. Their interaction with each other continued to enhance these beliefs, which is what made it so difficult to accept the doctor’s’ diagnosis of Mary’s true condition years later (Pollner and McDonald-Wikler 417). This makes up a large part of the strong foundation of my grandmother’s belief; her interaction with others who continue to validate her incorrigible proposition only legitimizes her reality even more.
Although this belief of my grandmother’s is very secure, it is still just as fragile as any reality. It is fragile in the sense that it has the possibility to dissociate at any given moment, which is what I will focus on in trying to distort this reality so that she no longer believes that Trump is a viable choice for president. One method of going about this is changing her cultural perspective. Newman frequently emphasizes that “impressions can be influenced by our cultural background” (81), and my grandmother’s cultural background consists of past residence in the southern U.S. with a predominantly white heritage. One of Trump’s most infamous policies is his claim to build a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border and strictly enforce illegal immigration laws, which evokes strong emotions from those with Hispanic heritage. If it were possible to present to her a heartselling story about how deportation splits up families from a family this actually affects, she may feel sympathy toward the issue and no longer support this policy. This shift in cultural context could lead to a chain reaction that then changes her perspective on some of Trump’s other policies, which could then cause her reality of Trump as an ideal presidential choice to dissociate. Once a reality is shattered, there is no way to put the pieces perfectly back together to reassemble the original belief as if nothing ever happened.
Any reality is also permeable once these three constraints are broken: no place to escape, no time to escape, and no one to provide counterevidence. This applied to the hospital staff observing the “pseudopatients” in Rosenhan’s study described in “On Being Sane in Insane Places”. The staff was so consumed with their jobs that they never took the time to step away from their work and wonder to themselves if all of these patients they have admitted are actually suffering from a mental disorder. They also had no place to go at work where they were not surrounded by patients who, because they had no reason to believe otherwise, were crazy. And finally, there was no one to provide counter evidence because all the staff conversed with each other and supported each other’s judgements of the patients all having psychiatric disorders. This is how my grandmother’s reality is permeable; in trying to change her mind so that she does not vote for Donald Trump, it would be in the best interest of the convincer to not allow her to speak with those who support Trump and to restrict her from exiting the conversation before hearing the whole argument. This isolation from the sources of her original belief may give her a place to escape her incorrigible proposition and embrace this new belief that there may indeed be a better choice to elect as U.S. President.
Although we joke in my family that my grandmother is the most stubborn person we know, it can be possible to change even her mind about an issue that is important to her. By exploiting the fragility of this particular reality and manipulating the way she interprets her group membership, her reality can be permeated by one that suggests another presidential candidate would be a better choice.
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