Are you the same person you were 20 years ago? I would venture to say no. These changes can take any number of forms, but they are inevitable. If, in the late 90s, you were asked if gay people should have the right to get married, a significant number of people would say no. Now the majority of people would say yes. Clearly, change happens, but how does it happen?
An important point to realize is that change always comes from without, never within. If you run into someone who says that people don’t change, what they’re really saying is that whatever situation someone wakes up in today will be pretty similar to the situation they wake up in tomorrow. If the situation stays the same, the person stays the same. The change in the situation could simply be that the person has aged considerably, but I would even call that an external factor. You can’t simply decide to change. If you do, it’s because something in your circumstances demanded it.
Going back to the original example of gay marriage, why the quick change in people’s opinions and behavior? Is it simple social justice? I doubt it. It took decades before we decided, as a nation, to allow black and white people to get married. No, I would argue that it was mostly the TV show Will and Grace. Remember that show? It was filled with absurd caricatures of how gay people acted, and characters that you probably didn’t look up to as role models. But it normalized gay people and put them in your living room with you, alone, week after week. You got used to them. It didn’t happen all at once. You may have only watched one or two episodes. But you probably know someone who watched it often. And that person might be someone you respected. If they’re ok with watching gay people, then maybe gay people aren’t so bad. Maybe they even deserve basic human dignity.
That’s another important thing to realize. Change generally isn’t fast. There are very few cathartic moments in my life where I suddenly changed my mind about something I had a strong opinion about. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any. And I have never had someone come up to me and admit that I was right about something that they were wrong about, even if they did have such a catharsis. Even if I did notice their behavior later indicated that they had changed their mind. The reason for that is how the human mind works. We are not aware of most of our thoughts. The vast majority of them happen in our subconscious that, at best, we are only dimly aware of. If I have stated that I am for or against something, and then I see someone I respect do the opposite, I am going to start to consider that I am wrong. I may not think consciously about it, and if there is only one example it probably won’t be enough, but if I see it again and again, I will inevitably change my mind.
So what do we have so far. Change requires a long time frame. Years ideally, but at least months. It requires that people you respect start to slowly come around to a different point of view. Seen in this way, Trump’s rise comes into a little more perspective. The long time frame of a US presidential election worked in his favor. Social media, where you get insight into the minutiae of all those people you love and respect, gave you lots of opportunities for tiny things to change your mind. The next thing to explore is how the slow change on individual manifests on a large scale.