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King: Toxic issues spark views that go beyond facts
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Everybody has opinions. Some opinions are just that: opinion. Others go deeper. They become convictions, part of a personal belief system that resists change regardless of fact or circumstance.

On one hand, a conviction is similar to unconditional love or a strong religious belief-basically good thing---but convictions become dangerous if and when they divide a country emotionally. Personal convictions become wedge issues, and opportunists use these wedge issues to their own advantage.

One such issue is gun control. Not every person feels strongly about gun ownership, but God help the politician who crosses the National Rifle Association.

The other is abortion. Not every opinionated person wants his or her conviction turned in law, but all to many of us are sucked into useless and emotionally draining battles because unscrupulous individuals use abortion to distract and divide the public.

The middle ground is lost. Rationality is lost. Facts become irrelevant. A frightening report from the University of Michigan shows that facts rarely change minds. Furthermore, the reverse is often true. Faced with information that runs counter to a strongly held belief, individuals may become even more certain they are right.

Apparently education is not the answer. Researchers at Stony Brook University say that in many cases better-educated individuals are even less open to new information then their less sophisticated brethren. The educated man or woman may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but his or her confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which the individual is totally wrong.

Let's assume that you and I are the better-educated individuals. Pick an issue. What would it take to change your mind? I'm a pacifist. I don't like guns, so I approached Happiness is a Worn Gun in Harper's Magazine (August 2010) with a certain degree of prejudice. In the article the author, Dan Baum, recounts his experience as a licensed concealed-weapon carrier.

Now here's the interesting part: Baum describes himself as a liberal Democrat who had always supported gun-control measures, so why did this man apply for a permit, go through the background check and take a gun safety course in order to pack heat?

Because he could, and because he's a writer. Why did I read it? To learn things: Facts. Figures. What makes a person want to carry a weapon? And if I understood these things, would I change my mind about guns?

Harper's is a well-respected magazine with a first-class fact-checking department. Regardless of their editorial philosophy, Harper's figures can be trusted.

Here's what I learned. Crime is down. Gun sales are up. Moreover — and this is from FBI data — the kind of crime concealed-weapon critics worry about has not increased. Furthermore, while law enforcement is officially opposed to concealed guns, the cop on the street is often not.

Did I change my mind about guns? Not exactly, but to a degree I changed my mind about gun-carry laws. My gun-toting neighbor is not necessarily a threat to society.

How about other wedge issues that divide us? Abortion itself does not threaten the social fabric, but the divisive controversy over abortion does (Note: A book popular with teenage readers, Unwind by Neal Shusterman, fanaticizes about a time in the future when the abortion issue leads to a second U.S. Civil War.)

An issue that should be between a woman and her God is dragged into just about every political campaign in the country. It eats up time, energy, and money that could, and should, be put to better use.

Where abortion is illegal, women die. It's that simple, but a crusade to "save babies" blinds people to the figures. Abortion should not be politicized because the issue is so highly emotional it's immune to fact or reason. Homosexuality is similar.

This nation has some serious problems to solve. These toxic issues only distract us from the job at hand.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and on