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February 27, 2006

Are We Closed-Minded?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Lock the doors. Put plywood over the windows. Hide under the bed. A Blowhard blow is on its way.

Yep, I'm gonna straighten up, take in a deep breath and let forth a rant. Nothing you likely haven't heard of before or thought of on your own already. But indulge me: It might be therapeutic for me, and therapy is beyond criticism -- no?

Let me build up steam. First there are those bumper stickers that say "Question Authority." I always wonder on whose authority that slogan should be taken.

A little closer to my intended mark is "free speech" -- not in the Constitutional sense, but more in line with the once-famous Berkeley "Free Speech Movement" of 1964 and later wherein, amongst other issues, it was deemed desirable to express yourself without regard to social conventions.

At one point during my year of Philip Rieff's sociological theory course at Dear Old Penn, Rieff passed along the following anecdote. He gave a lecture at Princeton in 1965 (if I recall) and one in the audience took issue with something Rieff had said, citing the Free Speech Movement claim that speech should be without restraints. Rieff responded something like this: Oh. Very good. Then you approve when people use words such as ... and here he let forth with several crude race/ethnic epithets. Apparently that left the questioner speechless because, in his little proto-Politically Correct world, such terms were never ever used.

(I discussed Rieff and the theory course here. Apparently Rieff is still alive -- though not well -- and will have four new books appearing soon, as described here.)

By now you might be able to see where I'm heading.

People who tell others what to do or think can be doing and thinking in ways that fit their own proscriptions. I'm not sure this is a matter of hypocrisy so much as it is simple lack of self-awareness, a blind-spot.

One case I find especially irksome these days is when some people urge others to be "open-minded" about some issue or another.

A good many people consider open-mindedness to be a conversion to their point of view and closed-mindedness a refusal to do so, with the stigma that such a refusal is proof of moral inferiority. I would be happy if those folks who toss "mindedness" around would admit this more often.

It wouldn't surprise me if a majority of the "mindedness" police don't realize that the game can be played against them.

Consider: "What? You don't believe the Rev. Pat Robertson is right on nearly every issue he speaks out on? Why aren't you open-minded?" One likely response would be "The man is an ignoramus and a fascist, and I don't believe a word he says! And I am being open-minded about this". If there was a shred of intellectual integrity, the person would silently admit that Robertson's views (probably) were never examined, being rejected out of hand simply because of who he is.

Have you ever met someone who is so "open-minded" that, having been told something and mulling it over briefly, he wholeheartedly accepts that view? And then does the same thing if you present an opposite proposition? I doubt you have. But if so, I think you'd be more likely to describe that person as simple-minded rather than open-minded.

We all have opinions and points of view that we accumulate. Some we take on authority, others come from life experience. Some are "wrong" and some are "right" from one perspective or another. Some are deeply-held and hard to change while others are whimsical. Most of us will refuse to change deeply-held beliefs simply on the basis of someone else's authority. From the "bumper-sticker logic" perspective, that means we all are "closed-minded" from time to time.

Better to be "closed-minded" than simple-minded.

I think I'll shut things down at his point. I don't want to raise the topics of socially-constructed reality, moral or cultural relativism, or other issues that, despite superficial profundity, seldom seem to move beyond the intellectual level of drunken college-dorm BS-ing.

My rant is about deceitful ways people can use to intimidate others into accepting their views.

As for silly me, being open-minded means to give at least a little thought to a matter -- but not necessarily change my mind about it. Being closed-minded, from my point of view, would be to refuse to give the matter any thought at all.



posted by Donald at February 27, 2006


I wonder who coined the expression "so open-minded their brains are falling out." I find it particularly true of self-professed liberals, who are "tolerant" of every viewpoint except those different from their own.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 27, 2006 10:32 PM

You hit the nail on the head, Don. Not being "open-minded" is a smear, a name-calling tactic, based on the false premise that tolerance is superior to intolerance. This is so demonstrably wrong (maybe you should be open-minded about people stealing your car) that it almost defies any logical comment. This name-calling is used when one debater (usually a leftie, where "tolerance" is considered high virtue) can't persuade or really defend hIs/her argument in a debate.

You could do what I do. Be intolerant anyway. You lose some friends, but at least you are honest. Dishonesty for the sake of social lubrication is a disease run rampant in our society. You don't hear it much in the national debate, but you do in face to face conversations. Most of the people you're trying to shine on don't really give much of a darn about you anyway, so why bother?

Posted by: BTM on February 27, 2006 10:36 PM

Winifer already used my favorite quip ("He's so open-minded, his brains fell out.") so I'll go to my second-favorite: "He's got a mind like a steel-trap -- rusted shut."

When I hang with Unitarians, I have to say, "I swear that if anyone brought a cannibal to this coffee hour and introduced him as such, the response would be, 'Oh, have you met So-and-So? She's a vegetarian.'" I suppose that's social lubrication, but it's also a diminishment of what it is to be human.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 27, 2006 11:02 PM

Another possible rejoinder: "You call it intolerance. I call it having standards."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 27, 2006 11:03 PM

I agree with almost everything that you wrote..and it's because I'm simple-minded. Well, I don't think I am simple-minded; I believe it's more like, "I'm tired."
Pat Robertson and his band of moral vitriolic vandals used to really get my juices flowing. Nowadays, I marvel at the emotion that they still put into selling the hokum. You've got to admire the energy these old geezers put into selling the medicinal waters of their biblical interpretations. Dangerous? You betcha. But something to work oneself up into a lather (as I used to do on any occassion I saw these guys)?
Nah! Too much of a wasted effort.
Besides, my tv's old. It still hasn't talked back to me after I've yelled at it. Must need some special microchip for that function.
It must be as tired as I am of all the verbal bluster.

Posted by: DarkoV on February 28, 2006 9:31 AM

OOPS! I am showing the grey.
Instead of "and it's because I'm simple-minded", that should be "..and it's NOT because I'm simple-minded". All those claps on the hands with a cane by Sister Mary Aloyious when we were in typing class did not seem to help.

Posted by: DarkoV on February 28, 2006 9:33 AM

Here's the issue, I think, that is straining everybody's open mindedness.

The religion of the past 50 years in American has been individualism. In the communities I inhabit, the continued growth and expression of individualism is thought to be an unlimited virtue.

Is there a point at which this obsession with individualism becomes a negative?

I think so, and I think we reached that point some time ago. My girlfriend, a native Filipina who now lives in the U.S., calls our society a "free-for-all," as opposed to a society of "freedom."

When I look at all those iPods and other devices that enclose people in their individual cocoons, I wonder what happened. Does anybody remember when sound systems in our homes were huge, for the express purpose of filling a room that was crowded with people?

The obsession with individualism in terms of sexuality, in particular, seems to be making more people unhappy and lonely. The circus of porn and promiscuity distracts us from this, but I think it is true. The ability to get along with another person is becoming rarer, even as sexual license increases.

When does this obsession with individual freedom become a stark negative?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on February 28, 2006 10:49 AM

Have you ever met someone who is so "open-minded" that, having been told something and mulling it over briefly, he wholeheartedly accepts that view? And then does the same thing if you present an opposite proposition? I doubt you have. But if so, I think you'd be more likely to describe that person as simple-minded rather than open-minded.

Gosh, Donald, I've accepted everything you've ever said exactly like this. You mean I shouldn't have?

Posted by: annette on February 28, 2006 11:46 AM

Annette -- Not to worry: You're still cool.

Well, that assumes I haven't contradicted myself. In which case ...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 28, 2006 5:09 PM

you contain multitudes?

Posted by: Mike Snider on February 28, 2006 5:31 PM

I persist in the belief that deep-down, if only everyone were honest (and especially if they were open-minded) they'd finally get around to seeing things my way.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 1, 2006 12:54 AM

Just a few thoughts from a left leaning, East coast, artsy-fartsy type on this thread.

First, regarding the "Question Authority" opener: as one who might consider sporting this aphorism on my bumper, it is about being skeptical, for example, of whether the pre-invasion pronouncements of administration "authorities" regarding the justifications for the invasion of Iraq (Saddam supports Al Qaeda, has WMDs, etc.) and on the likely level of ease with which we could depose Saddam and help the predominantly grateful Iraqis to institute a functional democracy (many of whom, we were assured, would greet us as liberators) was credible. It is our collective fault that "we the people" did not more fully Question Authority when these assertions were being made. Similar examples might be drawn from the arts or any other area. Certainly there have been times when threads on 2blowhards have questioned the authority of art experts. Sometimes when we question authority we will decide they are correct, other times not. The key is to form our own opinions based on an assessment of the facts and opinions from multiple sources rather than accepting without inquiry pronouncements from on high.

As to the major thrust of the thread, the consideration of being "open-minded," I am a bit perplexed. I think of myself as "open-minded." I am willing and able to consider differing viewpoints and have even (however rarely) found my opinion changed by a cogent and compelling argument countering my initial position.

Part of being open-minded has to do with free speech (in the constitutional sense), along with freedom of religion and so forth. I am open-minded in the sense that, while I might find particular language or opinions heinous, unless they are legally libelous or fall into the category of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, I defend the right of anyone to hold views I would never accept. Pat Robertson has every right to espouse theological nonsense such as the notion Katrina was divine retribution for the sinful ways of New Orleans. I don't think I need to change my own position on the nature of God, nor accept Robertson's position as valid, to prove my open-mindedness. What I do have to do is accept his right to spout such nonsense and recognize and respect the apparent sincerity of his belief.

As noted, we each accumulate a set of knowledge, beliefs and opinions as we wend out way through life. If someone tells me that the white race is genetically superior to all others and God means for the white race to hold power over other races, I do not have to spend time rethinking that subject. It is not close-minded to reject such a view without reconsidering it each time it surfaces.

What I find unsettling here are some of the inherent implications. Should we [a] accept authority without question and [b] refuse to accept different views as being worthy of consideration? This is the path of the Taliban or Castro's cult of personality.

Posted by: Chris White on March 1, 2006 4:58 PM


If you're feeling in a particularly questioning frame of mind and don't have any authorities near to hand, you might make a habit of looking for what other bumper stickers you see on the same car as the Question Authority one. Give yourself a point every time you see a bumper sticker on one such car that disagrees with any bumper sticker you have previously seen on any car also sporting a Question Authority bumper sticker.

It's not so much that authority should never be questioned, it's that the phrase has become a particularly obnoxious form of group identification that is a) grating to anybody who does not place himself in that group, and b) not obviously characteristic of that group.

Posted by: Zach on March 4, 2006 9:56 PM

Enjoyed this article and all the comments.
Makes me think I should take comments easier.They could be right ! And of course they could be wrong. But at least there is a feed back for my own assesment.

Look fr studiolda

Posted by: look on March 8, 2006 6:56 PM

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