The other night I had a conversation with a friend that was sparked by him expressing his disgust with and contempt for the anti-Obama crowd in many of its incarnations — the "birther" crew, the "tea party" people, etc.
It was actually an entry point for him into a far more universal flavor of disgust, since his next comment was along these lines: Given that people are gonna believe what they want to believe anyway, what's the point of bothering to try and tell them anything?
It took me a good long while to respond to that.
People believe what they want to believe. Okay, why? Because they have a certain sensibility about themselves, a specific self-image. When the self-image changes, so do the beliefs.
Most people vigorously defend their images of themselves as a specific kind of person — and I'm willing to wager at least some of that is because if they change, they'll feel like they've broken a covenant with the people around them who depend on (or expect) that self-image to persist. If your mother suddenly throws her travel valise into the back of a rented car and disappears for a year to "find herself", you might think of her that much less as "mother" — especially if she says the same thing.
Self-images are mutable. They can change without warning, from the outside or the inside, for good or ill. We get into the habit of reinforcing certain views of ourselves — typically for the sake of survival, but sometimes because we perceive (however inaccurately) that certain traits need to be preserved at all costs. If you're lucky, you can wake yourself up from that kind of reverie. Sometimes you need more than luck, though; sometimes you need a push from the outside to have your perceptions changed.
This is why telling them something matters. You have no way of knowing what sorts of changes can come about from even the most incidental interactions between people. You're a part of a process of remaking everyone around you, even if that process is invisible.
The older and more cynical part of me, the closet Andrei Codrescu if you will, has his own rather jaundiced view of this: Somehow we went from having friends for the sake of having friends, to having friends for the sake of improving ourselves and each other. Part of our compulsion to root out everything Bad For Us, I suppose. Time was we accepted the fact that people were flawed and ignoble creatures with something approaching saintly grace. Now anyone who is not stepping out of a confessional or into a twelve-step program is trouble. It is the compulsive Puritan wine of old poured into a new bottle, probably with a California label. If you have a friend who is always and forever trying to make you a "better person", run like hell. He has probably spent so much time on the analyst's couch that he thinks everyone else will end up there in time, too.
As much fun as I had writing something that curmudgeonly, I know it's only partly true. Self-improvement does not have to inevitably spiral towards Therapy Culture, and one of the unspoken corollaries of "acceptance" as we used to know it was "acquiescence". The truth's in a halfway house somewhere between these poles, as always.