Opening our mind to alternative opinions just might lead to new ideas

January 5, 2011 

Polls suggest that divisiveness in America is growing. We disagree more stridently and often on issues of civic import, as illustrated for me personally in some of my debates about government with my father.

The list of flash point issues gets longer: taxation, health care, the role of government, wars, poverty, educational equality, immigration, climate change, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, religion, marijuana, to name a few.

We have a hard time listening to each other and resisting the human tendency to look only for evidence that supports our beliefs and to discount evidence that undercuts them.

My hunch is that some of the increased divisiveness stems from easy Internet and TV access to one-sided sources, whether on the political right, left, or otherwise. As junk food has fattened our bodies and impaired our health, one-sided information (especially commentators and blogs) has fed our predispositions and closed our minds. A reaffirmation of the virtue of open-mindedness seems in order.

So what is open-mindedness and why does it matter? To inform myself, I located excellent papers from professors William Hare and Wayne Riggs. Hare writes: “Open-mindedness ... means being critically receptive to alternative possibilities and new ideas, resisting inflexible and dogmatic attitudes, and sincerely trying to avoid whatever might suppress or distort our reflections.” It does not mean that the open-minded person cannot have strong beliefs.

As Riggs puts it: “What explains her willingness to take the challenge (to her belief) seriously is not any sudden or latent doubts about the truth of the belief, but rather her acknowledgment that, being human, she could always have gotten things wrong in this case. This need not affect the strength of her belief at all.”

The professors explain that open-mindedness matters because it gives us the means to find and rid ourselves of flawed beliefs and opens us to the possibility of new ideas, even ones that challenge orthodoxy. Hare points out that open-mindedness made it possible for Frederick Douglass in his July 4th, 1852 oration to awaken the conscience of many to the contradiction of a society founded on the freedom and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence but which enslaved three million people.

Riggs aptly puts it, “At the very least, it would seem that being closed-minded virtually guarantees that you are stuck with whatever false beliefs you get on your own.”

We all like to think we are open-minded. But just how open-minded are we? Try rating yourself on a scale of 1-4 on each of these four indicators of open-mindedness. (Be honest):

 • In the moment of encountering another view, how aware am I of my cognitive weaknesses, such as bias, unexamined assumptions, lack of evidence, focus on rebutting the message rather than understanding it, overconfidence, and exaggeration?

 • How often do I seek out and sincerely consider (with no agenda) other sources that may be more impartial or present an alternative intelligent view, including views from around the world?

 • How often do I reassess or modify my views in light of new information or analysis?

 • How often do I admit to others that my view is flawed or requires modification?

If you don’t ask for my score, I’ll not ask for yours.

Open-mindedness, obviously, is a tall order. The difficulty compounds with the demands on our time and the complexity behind nearly every major issue if it is seriously explored.

Like any habit, bad intellectual habits are especially hard to break. But some small steps are possible, such as seeking out alternative viewpoints and fact checking with a reasonably credible source such as Snopes.com.

For my part, I have resolved in the New Year to seek out some thinkers espousing positions with which I typically disagree. I will start with the Wall Street Journal. Please don’t tell my father.

Brian Faller, an attorney in the Office of the Attorney General, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at brianfaller@comcast.net.

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