Keeping an open mind?


What does it mean to be ‘open-minded’? I guess it must include mental flexibility, being willing to hear everyone’s point of view, and being able to assimilate new experiences without prejudice. I imagine that you would certainly expect a person with these gifts to be tolerant, observant and perceptive. Expressed like this open-mindedness must evidently join motherhood and apple pie as a condition that no sane person could object to. Recently a friend, possibly by now an ex-friend, unfavourably contrasted her own open-mindedness with what she was pleased to call my own constant stream of negativity. I really don’t see myself as a negative person but her remark has certainly made me question the way in which we use the expression and I am now asking myself whether open-mindedness is always a desirable quality.

There are certainly some difficulties here. For a start the way we describe a particular event can be profoundly altered by our attitude to that event. For example: I am faithful to my football club even when they are playing badly (how true, there is a lot of heartache involved in supporting Villa) but you, on the other hand, are foolishly wedded to a group of over-paid losers. I am firm of purpose, but you are stubborn. I do not not suffer fools gladly, but you are a malicious bigot. I like the finer things of life, but you are an overweight drunk. So could it be that I am open-minded but you are indecisive and credulous?

Reluctantly I have concluded that there are far more important issues involved here than simply word meanings. To be a rounded and effective individual it is desirable to possess intelligence, emotional intelligence, and cultural intelligence. Without getting totally bogged down in definitions I would expect highly intelligent people to be articulate, astute, and to have wide interests and knowledge. However some people who possess all these qualities may be totally ignorant of the origin of their own feelings, or be quite unable to consider the emotional impact of their statements; in other words they lack emotional intelligence. We have had a good example of this recently in the shape of Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt whose remarks about women in science have been widely reported and criticised. In my view his lack of insight on this topic is so universal and profound as to constitute disability rather than malice. Cultural intelligence is fairly obvious and reflects awareness of the background, education, and ethnic origin of those we encounter. For example if we invite Muslims or vegetarians for a meal at our home it is an expression of cultural intelligence to provide food and drink which are appropriate and with which our guests feel comfortable. Can this be taken too far? One of the features of Rachel Dolezal’s widely reported, and extremely complex, family history is that she identified so closely with African-Americans that she considered herself to be a person of colour although her biological parents are white. Should cultural intelligence include tolerance to forced marriage, slavery, or female genital mutilation even if these are considered acceptable by the societies practicing them? So basically what I am asking is can open-mindedness be taken too far?

I think that we may appropriately use the term when discussing personal tastes in areas such as music, art, literature or cuisine. We might quite reasonably say: ‘I prefer orchestral classics to jazz but I am prepared to listen to any music and try to keep an open mind’. The polar opposite to a statement of this type would occur if we were discussing physics. Would it ever make sense to say: ‘I understand that perpetual motion machines would breach the law of conservation of energy but I try to keep an open mind concerning the possibility of their existence’? Now I do understand what is meant by faith so it follows that I consider that to reject the theory of evolution ‘because the religion I have faith in teaches divine creation in 4004 BC’ is perfectly understandable, if very regrettable. To have an ‘open mind’ about whether creationism or evolution is a better explanation for the origin of species is just weird.

I had better say at once that using a spurious open-mindedness to object to proven scientific laws makes no sense to me whatsoever. This is one of the areas where my friend and I fell out. But let me give another example from a different discipline. John has been arrested and accused of a serious physical assault. At his trial we hear the statements of his victim and several eye-witnesses. There is scientific evidence linking John to the victim, and it is revealed that he has previously committed similar offences. He is convicted and sentenced. His legal team appeals on the grounds that the trial judge misdirected the jury. This application is rejected by the court of appeal judges who express their complete confidence that the correct verdict has been reached. Now, those that love John might be able to say that their affection for him will not be influenced by the verdicts; fine. Others might hope to find additional evidence, bribery of crucial witnesses perhaps, that could be tested in a further appeal. Improbable perhaps but also fine. But to reject the verdict of the two courts on the basis that you wished to keep ‘an open-mind’ over John’s guilt would be ludicrous.

It is probably true that I see questions in black or white, and that this may indeed be a fault. I should probably try to make more effort to understand other points of view. But, assuming you are a flexibly minded friend, would you agree that open-mindedness is not appropriate to all disputed questions? Furthermore the expression should never be used as a means of avoiding thinking about a difficult issue whilst pretending to occupy a spurious moral high ground.

Many people clearly struggle with validation and evidence. If I say that I like chips with brown gravy I am expressing a personal preference which needs no further validation. If I say that once, when I was feeling poorly, I ate chips and brown gravy after which I started to feel much better then that is an individual experience against which one cannot argue and which makes no attempt to claim causality. If I were to generalise rashly from my individual experience by saying that everyone unwell would be improved by the same meal then that suggestion would require a large controlled trial and fairly impressive statistics for validation.

It’s not difficult to find books or web-pages that seek to encourage one to be more open to the opinions of others. I feel a little guilty that I don’t find these as helpful as their authors evidently expect. We may reasonably be encouraged to see another’s point of view and to take into account their life experiences. This might be helpful if we are discussing football or party politics but I cannot see it helps overmuch if the debate concerns gravity or global warming. It may be a sensible position to assume that one may not be 100% right but if I am arguing that there is no place for naturally occurring, but unknown, chemical elements in the periodic table how can I be 20% wrong, or even 0.01% wrong? Well, if anyone has convincing answers to this conundrum could you let me have them please?


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