“I have argued with him on almost every subject in the world; and we have always been on opposite sides, without affectation or animosity. . . . It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.” G.K. Chesterton on George Bernard Shaw
The friendship between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, both famous authors and social critics of the early 20th century, should give us hope in these quarrelsome times. They argued about everything – things that really mattered – and yet they maintained a respect and deep friendship. As Chesterton put it, “perhaps the principal objection to a quarrel, is that it interrupts an argument.”
Similar friendships throughout history can give us hope that it is possible to love and understand while disagreeing, such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Today is Election Day in the US. We can expect the day to be full of quarreling. Increasingly, our political social-environment displays the symptoms of what others have called “The Closing of the American Mind”. True open-mindedness is rare and a closed mind is a quarrelsome one.
Having an open-mind means considering contrasting opinions, being willing to have our minds changed, and refusing to castigate those that arrive at different opinions. Instead, we increasingly see the other side as bigots, Godless, or just stupid. We are told “This time is different;” “The stakes are too high;” and “They are too wrong.” That same belief has driven many before us. It drove the atrocities of the Soviet and French Revolution and Nazi Germany. This election may be unique in many ways, but human nature has not changed. Our proclivity towards exaggeration, tribal division, envy, anger, and pride remain the same.
I have been shocked to see people I respect hop on every social media bandwagon and become judge and jury to their fellow humans. This is not entirely their fault as “the facts” are hard to come-by in our modern climate. I have myself been too quick to assume news as fact. I am as guilty of anyone at letting fear and anger make me blind to the perspective of the other side. But, if I take the time to get a full picture and examine the opposing arguments, my outrage usually abates.
“The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.”Fyodor Dostoevsky
We are often told the “other side” is driven by vile motivations or ignorance. We tend to believe our “enemies” are motivated by bigotry or power and we by love and compassion. The truth is more complicated. We are not as angelic as we would like to believe and they are not as devilish.
The Contempt of Labels
In the last few years we have seen such division in our nation and the world. Much of this division is caused by a true conflict of ideas – Atheist vs Theist, Capitalist vs Socialist, Republican vs Democrat. However, often it is the label itself which creates the wedge between us.
Let’s imagine, for example, an open-minded young college student who takes an interest in socialism. He studies it privately. He seeks out opposing viewpoints. He interviews those who have lived under socialism. He researches its history and present-day operation. He does not fear putting socialism under close scrutiny because he is seeking truth, not a label. He remains humble and open to having his mind changed as new information is discovered.
“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”George Eliot, Middlemarch
By contrast, what we frequently see is a rush to label and denounce. Take the compassionate and suggestable young man who hears of the goodness of socialism from his one-sided professor. “Socialism is about equality and fairness.” Of course he supports equality and fairness, he would be wicked not to. After a few more episodes of indoctrination, he announces on Facebook that he is a Socialist. He joins groups and organizations promoting Socialism – building an echo-chamber around him. He avoids the opinions of the “greedy”, “cold-hearted” opposition. He becomes dogmatic and unwilling to admit to any of the downsides to his new tribe. He defends or ignores dictators and historical atrocities for fear it would poke holes in his ideology, which is safe and comfortable and filled with friends and supporters fighting a common enemy – an evil one. To lose that ideology, after it has become his identity and he has pronounced it to the world, would require an immense amount of humility and introspection – traits he likely traded in for comfort and safety.
“The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There’s not one of them which won’t make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.”CS Lewis
In modern discourse everyone, every issue, every opinion is defined as either “left-wing” or “right-wing”. You are concerned with pollution and excess waste – you must be a “lefty”. You are concerned about increasing crime – you must be “right wing”. These “right and left” labels were designations placed on opposing viewpoints specific to the French Revolution and do not adapt themselves to every question of the modern world. Most people look at each issue individually and the attempt to place others in ideological boxes further distorts our modern reality.
The world is infinitely complicated – and so are we. There is such a shallowness in today’s identity politics. There are many facets to our nature and thinking that to confine them to the boundaries of man-made ideology or political party is needlessly restrictive. Once a political, social, or radical philosophy becomes our identity, the chance of changing course is unlikely – for an entire identity is a traumatic thing to lose.
“Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”Corrie Ten Boom
There are issues at the moment that to me seems so horrifically important that I see little room for debate – particularly when it regards the safety and well being of innocent children – but the only path to truth is through open communication. Labeling and anger keep these channels shut. If we view outsiders as a threat and anything that contradicts our own viewpoint as “hateful” or “ignorant” we cannot make social progress.
“We don’t have an anger problem in American politics. We have a contempt problem. . . . If you listen to how people talk to each other in political life today, you notice it is with pure contempt. When somebody around you treats you with contempt, you never quite forget it. So if we want to solve the problem of polarization today, we have to solve the contempt problem.”Arthur C. Brooks
I have seen good Christian women, friends who previously I could not imagine saying a hurtful word, labeling entire voting blocks as racist and cowards. I have seen journalists say that anyone who votes for — is just plain stupid. This is a symptom of the “closing of the American mind”. These declarations simplify life to black and white- because that is what ideology does. But it is a lie. Life is complex and multifaceted, with various factors and motivations affecting people’s decisions.
“We must never forget that human motives are generally far more complicated than we are apt to suppose, and that we can very rarely accurately describe the motives of another.”Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Firm in Truth – While Seeking Understanding
There is truth. One path is better than the other – even though in the case of politics both paths are likely low roads. If we firmly believe something after open-minded inquiry we should stand strong in defending it and voting in line with the truths we have gained. We can share our knowledge and perspective with others while seeking understanding from those with whom we disagree.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:32
The experience we have on earth is subjective. A child raised on the streets of India will not see the same world as the daughter of a president. Does that mean there is no bridging the gap or that there is no “real” truth to be found? No. We are all having subjective experiences with objective truth. A feather falls differently than a stone. The quest is to discover the force that works on both of them – gravity. The truth is law, despite our unique experiences with it. We must allow our experience, our suffering, our passions to inform our view, but not close our view.
“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”G.K. Chesteron
However, as G.K Chesterton says, the object of seeking is finding. When we have freed ourselves from man-made ideology and a quarrelsome mind, and honestly seek – we will find. When we do, we should not allow opposition or changing culture to sway us from truths we have confidence in. We should also not let our grasp of truth turn to pride and condemnation of those who have not yet found it.
So how do we decide who to vote for? We decide with an open-mind.
Often when I listen to a fiery sermon, I go away thinking – “I wish Susie could have heard that. Maybe she would clue in to her judgmentalness!” But the fact is this: the sermon was meant for me. I hope instead of considering how others need to drop their anger, stop stereotyping, or closing their minds, I can see how I need to change.
The world will keep spinning no matter who wins this election- but it will only be bearable to live here if we can seek to understand those that interpret that spinning in a different way.
We cannot gain truth if we refuse to seek it, in whatever “dark” corner it may dwell. Let’s consider unconsidered reasons why the “other side” may support their candidate. Let’s see the humanity in their choice. It is a much greater risk to stay angry or ignorant than to let go of our labels or misperception. Perhaps we will not change our vote, but we will lighten our load.
Quotes on Open-Mindedness
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.Isaac Asimov
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.Albert Einstein
A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.Frank Zappa
Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.Dostoyevsky
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.Charles Darwin
It is never too late to give up your prejudicesHenry David Thoreau
Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom https://www.amazon.com/Closing-American-Mind-Education-Impoverished/dp/1451683200/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+closing+of+the+american+mind&qid=1603977935&sr=8-1
The Codding of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failture, Greg Lukianoff and Johnathon Haidt, https://www.amazon.com/Coddling-American-Mind-Intentions-Generation/dp/0735224919/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1VSE73RQZ6R34&dchild=1&keywords=the+coddling+of+the+american+mind&qid=1603977999&sprefix=The+coddling+o%2Caps%2C183&sr=8-3
A Great Book By Arthur Brooks. Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt https://www.amazon.com/dp/0062883755/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_OTVMFbCFMZHAK
Arthur Brooks on Loving your Political Enemies. https://youtu.be/w4Wun752OHg
5 thoughts on “The Opening of the American Voters’ Mind”
Every time you start a sentence with ‘I’m no lover of politics …’, a great political insight is about to follow.
“We tend to believe our “enemies” are motivated by bigotry or power and we by love and compassion. The truth is more complicated.”
Great stuff Ally.
Good luck to you and all of your fellow citizens this coming week. This moment is of tremendous import and not just for US citizens. We foreigners peer in anxiously from afar hoping things go well. My main hope for you lies in a smooth transition, with no violence, even more so than with a particular winner.
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I would be lying if I didn’t admit to some anxiety about this election. I pray we can all keep our heads.
This is a great line: “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
Also, great stuff Allyson!
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A beautifully crafted and inspirational piece, Ally.
It seems to me that our world is in an overt battle between Truth and Power. If Power is the only currency you value, then Truth has to be abandoned. Politicians, for example, routinely lie because often the Truth does not serve their purpose. Now, so does the media, the bureaucracies, and institutions of all kinds.
My challenge (and not only mine) is to overcome the desire to meet Power with more Power; that is, to use the same deceitful weapons against my opponents as they use against me, only better. Jesus managed it (“turn the other cheek”), but ordinary mortals like me will always struggle with it.
Very timely post– was so great to read it today. “To lose that ideology, after it has become his identity and he has pronounced it to the world, would require an immense amount of humility and introspection – traits he traded in for comfort and safety…” Brilliant.