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July 27, 2007

Closed Open Minds

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What I'm about to say probably isn't one bit original; if I were a good scholar, I'd provide lots of citations and links to what others have written on the subject.

Alas, I'm too lazy to be scholarly. Besides, I wanna vent, and scholarship gets in the way of that.

My subject is people who claim that other folks are "closed-minded" and people who urge others to be "open-minded." The two groups undoubtedly overlap considerably because the assertions are implicitly two sides of the same coin.

Truth is, most "mindedness" issues are subjective. In such cases evidence is contradictory, not overwhelmingly on one side of a matter. This means that taking one side and rejecting others can be intellectually defensible regardless of which side is taken.

My gripe is that most of the times when someone says "Be open-minded about X" or "Don't be closed-minded regarding X," what they are doing is faulting others for not agreeing with the speaker's position. Simply put, it's a form a intellectual bullying.

The irony is that the person who is "open-minded" -- favorably disposed to case-X -- is probably "closed-minded" to case contra-X.

Here's a trivial example to illustrate my point (I'll be cowardly and avoid hot topics such as homosexual marriage, abortion, etc. to keep Comments calm).

Joe and Susie were in Central Park when the 2005 Christo assemblage The Gates was on view. Susie expresses the thought that The Gates isn't really art. Shocked, Joe says "C'mon Sue, it is art. Be open-minded." Joe, it seems, might be "closed-minded" to the idea that The Gates is not art. So what Joe was really saying was: "My position regarding The Gates is obviously right and you, Suzie, are simply wrong. Get with the program and change your mind."

The real issue here is how "art" is defined, and the definition of "art" is hardly a settled matter. If Suzie had never considered the possibility that The Gates might be art, then the "closed-minded" label might have justification. But if she had given the matter of the definition of art some thought and still rejected the idea the The Gates was art, then she wasn't being "closed-minded" at all: she was simply making an honest disagreement.

People who accuse others of being "closed-minded" seldom seem to have considered the possibility that their targets have given a matter any thought at all. Nor do they bother to ask. As I said, they're basically bullies.

I think a proper approach would be to say "I take position Y on issue X. If you haven't given the matter some thought, then please do so. Perhaps you might then come to agree with me." Sigh: probably wishful thinking in this bumper-sticker age.

So when I hear or read someone assert "Be open-minded," my reaction often is: "Closed-minded bastard!" C'est la vie.



posted by Donald at July 27, 2007


Sometimes it's sincere: maybe Susie really does think that Joe is overlooking something. Often, however, it's an attempt at manipulation. Peggy Noonan touches on the latter type of behavior in her column today.

Posted by: Jonathan on July 27, 2007 12:53 PM

Donald, I am right there with you. I have always found that when someone says be "open-minded" they are saying, be open-minded to my idea and not something else.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on July 27, 2007 1:12 PM

But it's just another instance of the intellectually worthless ad hominem attack. If I think something's not art, well, honourable people can disagree about that. But the status of my mind, closed, open, purple-hazed, or whatever, is not the issue at hand. It's like people responding, "Oh, you're too judgmental", or "You're too negative", in response to an expressed criticism.

Well, I don't give a fudge what you think about ME. What about the farkin' point I made?

Posted by: PatrickH on July 27, 2007 1:14 PM

Often, the accusation of "close-mindedness" represents an illogical inference from the content of a belief to the methodology by which it was arrived at. From the fact that I believe that this work is not art, nothing follows about how I arrived at that belief.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on July 27, 2007 2:24 PM

Sometime the "don't be close minded" comment may be a gentle rebuke to someone for phrasing something in a manner that presumes a superior position or knowledge and closes off actual discussion. Susie didn't say, "I don't think this is art." or "Can you tell me why you think this is art?" or "I don't like this." or "This is fun, but I still don't think it is art."

In short, it was Susie, not Joe who was really saying, "My position regarding The Gates is obviously right and you, Joe, are simply wrong."

Is this just a different way of starting a thread on whether The Gates was art or on how to define art? Otherwise, while I can think of examples where "don't be close minded" would constitute a rhetorical salvo from someone equally (or more) close-minded, the case offered seems to do the reverse.

Posted by: Chris White on July 27, 2007 3:00 PM

I agree, with some reservations. A certain kind of argument against gay marriage, for example, is inherently closed-minded, namely one that begins and ends by saying "Marriage is between a man and a woman." It is right now, yes, but the question at hand is whether it should continue to be so and why. Many opponents of gay marriage have given those questions serious thought, of course, but the closed-minded form of opposition is pretty common and should be called out as such.

As for art, I do concede that some people may find it useful to distinguish between art and non-art, though I don't. But the judgment that something "is not art" often results from a quick litmus test for art/not art that doesn't require actual consideration of the purported artwork--e.g., painting X is not art because it doesn't represent anything. I think being really fixated on the question of what is and is not art tends to encourage the use of this kind of litmus test, which we can rightly call closed-minded.

Posted by: BP on July 27, 2007 3:01 PM

Counter-example: I've served on a committee for years which is utterly closed-minded. I've learnt that if a bright idea occurs to me in discussion, I mustn't advance it: it will be kiboshed immediately. What I must do is approach the committee members separately afterwards and try to persuade them of its merits. Then I can put it on the agenda for a later meeting and it stands a chance of progress.

Posted by: dearieme on July 27, 2007 4:23 PM

Others assume that I have given thought to whatever they're jawing on about? Practically never happens. In my experience, rare is the assumption that the other guy has any inner life at all to speak of, let alone one about a topic at hand. This is astonishing. Experience should teach us that just about everyone has a rich, teeming, inner life. And yet the evidence is that most think all the others are clueless blanks. It saves a lot of agita once you come to terms with the fact that you'll be lectured to by pishers till the day you fall into the grave.

Posted by: ricpic on July 27, 2007 4:48 PM

This is anohter example of debating the motives of the person who makes the comment instead of addressing the substance.

If something is true, it is true regardless of the way the conclusion was reached. Since no one does or think anything for one motive alone - usually for ten or twenty differents ones - it is not hard to fidn a disreputable one. So, if you disagre, direct your criticism to the truth or untruth of the stated fact, or to their interpretation. You cant point to a bigger issue of which this is just an instance, and not the most egregious. But anything else is worthless as a debating tactic - that is, if your object is to find the truth, not get invited to shout at the McLaughlin Group.

On the other hand the statement is "I do not think this is Art" is a true one. No one buy you can know what you think and feel. You may ask for the reasons why she believes it, ask what she likes or does not like, compare tastes, and maybe get an agreement on educating each other tastes.

Posted by: Adriana on July 27, 2007 6:05 PM

Most painters, if asked what it was they produced, would say paintings. Not art. A composer writes music, not art. For the public to worry about whether something is art or not is to interfere with the pleasure it might provide.

I remember seeing, in the early 70s, Christo's drawings of his proposed "Running Fence." I thought "What a waste of money and effort." The drawings were artful, but this thing he wants to make is merely grandiose." An awful lot of people agreed with me. I think we were wrong.

I live in northern California. As the project went forward I got interested. Not just by the views, but by the logistical problems Christo was willing to solve to get the fence built. I suppose the consensus now is that Running Fence was art.

Most of us attending a display of paintings in the park would have no trouble saying we were at an "art show." But if asked, is it art?, chances are we'd look at the cliches and say no.

One of the best examinations of the "is it art, is it not art" question is the movie "Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?", in which an elderly woman truck driver buys a painting for $5 at a garage sale. It turns out to be a genuine Pollock.

The grandstanding of the scholars and curators is a delight to see. They know what art is -- and that means they certainly know an authentic Pollock. They brook no debate. It is richly satisfying when they are proven wrong.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on July 27, 2007 7:39 PM

Fun musings from everyone. As long as the conversation has drifted in the direction of that fraught word "art" ... Here's a posting I did long ago about how I dodge arguments about the word "art."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2007 8:22 PM

People who accuse others of being "closed-minded" seldom seem to have considered the possibility that their targets have given a matter any thought at all. Nor do they bother to ask. As I said, they're basically bullies.

Or, people whose education heavily emphasized examining their feelings rather than exposing them to actual reasoned debate. Lot of that going around these days. Though a bullying attitude might be the predictable result when an undisciplined mind is made anxious by unwonted disagreement. If you haven't been given the tools to engage, some variant of the ad hominem is pretty much all ya got. (I think for all of us there exist opinions that are beyond the pale, and that we do consider indicative of dubious character traits. But some people seem to find just about any contradictory opinion morally suspect.)

It's also amazingly narcissistic and solipsistic. These people are often genuinely bewildered that there're other points of view out there. I can guess that this can be quite painful if you've been encouraged to invest your whole emotional self and none of your (now vestigial) reason in an issue. Not that one can't be both passionate and cogent on an issue. But if you haven't been taught to argue, if intellectual detachment is an unknown concept, if you have never been made to understand that divergent views among perfectly decent people are a natural feature of the universe, you're gonna - well, you're grab at whatever can hold you up and display these irritating behaviors we're all deploring here.

Don't know what's more irritating, though: the person who impugns your motives or character merely because of an intellectual disagreement, or the related pathology that compels people to believe that the only reason you could possibly disagree is because they just haven't succeeded in getting you to understand their position. (Even when their position is perfectly straightforward and would be readily comprehensible by a tolerably intelligent chimpanzee.) So they repeat their views practically verbatim over and over and over....

Posted by: Moira Breen on July 27, 2007 8:29 PM

Donald -- you're sooo closed-minded about open-minded people who want others to not be so closed-minded....


Posted by: Jun on July 28, 2007 3:49 AM

Being willing to "think outside the box" is good for you, as long as you do it with an open mind, open even to the possibility of developing an even deeper appreciation for the box.

It seems to me that a lot of people have closed their minds to the possibility that boxes became boxes for some pretty goods reasons, that conventional ways of doing things really do represent the "slowly distilled wisdom of generations".

Posted by: Bill on July 28, 2007 9:38 AM

I just had a frustrating argument with a friend who was checking out a gold-buying pyramid scam he heard about from a woman he met through an internet dating service. I spent about ten minutes trying to convince him that there's no cut-rate gold anywhere, that pyramid schemes are usually ripoffs, and that if all you know about about someone is that they screw total strangers, probably they're not totally reliable. He got madder and madder until finally he accused me of being closed-minded.

I've also tried to convince him that lotteries are scientifically designed to take your money away from you, but he didn't get it.

Posted by: John Emerson on July 29, 2007 11:14 AM

This gets back to one of my favorite sayings: some people are so open-minded that their brain falls out.

Posted by: Foobarista on July 29, 2007 2:39 PM

Donald - Seems to me that the person making the request "Be open-minded" might be a bully, AND the person responding might be bull-headed and stubborn.

I find the general processes that people use to make artistic, political and other judgments to be fascinating, especially how people embrace or reject new stuff. In short, I think that most people don't have an axe to grind either way and can easily expand their perspective to embrace new stuff that pleases them. However, just as there are some people who are fierce partisans who dismiss opponents as being closed-minded, there are other people who are so romantically territorial that they often look at new stuff as an attack or an affront.

For example, today the waltz is seen as old fashioned but elegant, but no one remembers how it was originally viewed by some as being scandalous. Consider this report from the 1816 Times of London :

"We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last … it is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion."

In a related way, I have been amused to read some of the negative views of the latest Harry Potter novels, with some critics apparently panning the book because they are afraid that a child who enjoys "The Deathly Hallows" must somehow be slighting the works that the critics admire, such as Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Other critics argue furiously over whether Rowling is really art or belongs in the canon of children's literature.

None of this, of course, is relevant at all to a child who is just having fun reading the novel. However, the mere existence of the Potter novels forces critics and ordinary fans of other books to think about and re-examine their previous favorites, and some people, yes, the "close-minded" ones, simply can't make room for Rowling in their hearts or imaginations. Here is a good example of Rowling defenders and detractors having it out over the merits of "The Deathly Hallows":

This is not to say that everything new is good or valuable or artistic. Much that is considered hot or great today will be discarded by future generations. However, I do note that one of the strongest American traditions is creating new stuff and embracing innovation.

C'est la vie, indeed.

Posted by: Alec on July 29, 2007 4:19 PM

Your comments strike me as awfully closed minded. But I'm keeping an open mind about them.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 29, 2007 4:19 PM


You are sooooo close minded, and so judgemental on pyramid schemes. You cling to such an antiquated morality, not proper of our enlightened times.

Don't you know that it is inmoral to let suckers keep their money?

Posted by: Adriana on July 29, 2007 5:43 PM

Ambrose Bierce, a century ago, in the Devil's Dictionary, defined a bigot as "One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.", which I think says it all.

Posted by: Will S. on July 30, 2007 1:00 PM

I have found that people who ask me if I have an open mind are really looking for an unguarded mind that they can use as a gaarbage dump.

Posted by: Bret on July 30, 2007 11:41 PM

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