Are you open minded? Hold on, don’t answer without pausing for a moment. You might think that this is a simple question with a simple answer. It is not.
Sure, we all like to think that we are open minded; but before you declare that you are, consider the definition found in the Cambridge English Dictionary: “Willing to listen to other people and consider new ideas, suggestions, and opinions.” Be honest. Can you sign on to that?
For me, it is a struggle. Every day I question my attitudes and opinions. Regrettably, they might not be as “pure” as I would like. Too often, I find myself dismissing opposing points of view without giving them fair consideration. Admitting this flaw is particularly troubling because in my writings about personal responsibility I have urged others to be open-minded. (See the letter “O” in the Young Adult version of my Responsibility Workbooks). I fear that I might not be living up to my own standard.
But that is my problem, not yours. I will work on my short-comings on my own time. Instead, let’s look at the issue of open-mindedness in a broader context.
Are we, as a society, being open-minded? Probably not. If that is the case, we do have a problem, a serious problem. Today, it is increasingly apparent that knee-jerk rejection vs. objective consideration is the norm, not the exception. Worse, this response frequently entails attacking the messenger, not addressing the issue.
How have we come to this sorry state? How have we turned away from civil discussion and adopted confrontational opposition? How have we become so polarized?
Perhaps the answer lies in how we gather and absorb information. What news resources do we access to learn about events unfolding around us? What information guides our understanding of current events?
There are plenty of news sources to choose from: network and cable news, talk radio, social media. The problem is not lack of information. No, the problem is recognizing the difference between factual reporting and agenda driven opinion. The line between the two is no longer clear. All too often, newscasters will present the news in such a way as to reinforce their own preconceived position. Their mission is no longer to inform but, rather, to bolster an opinion which supports their agenda.
The challenge of differentiating opinion from straight reporting is made more difficult because, all too often, we only listen to those news sources which reinforce the positions that we hold.
The current debate swirling around our national leadership illustrates how vexing this problem has become. Should we support Donald Trump because he is our president? Or should we seek his removal from office because we question his qualifications and the legitimacy of his election? News sources on both sides offer persuasive arguments for either position.
A friend of mine is a rabid, right-wing conservative. He is so invested in a particular outcome that he is totally unable to listen to, let alone consider, any liberal commentary.
Another friend of mine is a radical, left-wing progressive. He is so invested in a particular outcome that he is totally unable to listen to, let alone consider, any conservative commentary.
Take your pick. You get the picture. We have a problem. Is there a practical solution? Yes, I believe there is.
This problem, as daunting as it may seem, can best be addressed if we learn to ask ourselves three, very basic, questions.
The first is, “do we want to be open-minded?” Asking this question is important. If you say, “No, I am not interested in being open-minded,” that’s okay. You are being honest. Thank you. But, if that is the case, the conversation stops here. You no longer have credibility and your position, whatever it might have been, has little importance in our effort to engage in open-minded discussion. On the other hand, if you say “Yes, being open-minded is important to me,” you are committing to honest debate and civil discussion. Move on to the next two questions.
The second question is, “Are we being influenced by newscasters whose commentary is presenting opinion rather than reporting facts?”
This problem is not easily dealt with. Today’s newscasters are skilled at reporting news-worthy events in such a way as to serve an unrelated agenda.
Consider this hypothetical example: a spectacular apartment fire takes the lives of a mother and her four children. The newscaster reports the fire and its tragic consequences but also notes that the incumbent Mayor (of whichever political party happens to be in the network’s crosshairs) had blocked funding for union-supported emergency responder training. Of course, our hearts go out to the victims. But we also take on a decidedly negative attitude toward the Mayor and his political party, exactly the outcome sought by the network.
We need to make a concerted effort to recognize the difference between agenda driven commentary and straight news reporting. When faced with outcome driven content, pick up your remote and change the channel. It might drive your spouse crazy but keep hitting the remote until you find objective reporting. You might end up on the Weather Channel but that is certainly more productive than listening to some pointy-headed pundit pushing his agenda. Don’t accept anything less than intellectually objective content.
The third question is, “do we have sufficient information to reach a well-informed conclusion?”
It is all too easy to adopt a position without taking time to dig into background and context. Even professional newscasters occasionally stray into areas where they have only superficial knowledge.
This problem becomes intractable if one party to the conversation amps up the volume in an attempt to mask an ill-informed position.
Don’t let that happen. If you do find yourself in a discussion where you are getting into unfamiliar territory, don’t be afraid to step back and say, “I really don’t know much about that. Let me take some time to look into it and we can pick up the conversation later.”
Warning..,.Warning. There is a potential danger in taking that approach. What if we do the honest research and discover, horror-of-horrors, that our cherished position might, in fact, be wrong. We could never let that happen, could we? Yes, if we are truly open-minded, we could. (See my essay, Three Powerful Words.
Given the power of today’s internet, there is little excuse for taking a position without knowing the basic information underlying the issue.
At the end of the day, most of us do want to be open-minded. It will not be easy. As much as we aspire to that ideal, it takes more than words.
Yes, it can be done. It can be done if we make a personal commitment to be open-minded, if we are able to recognize opinion disguised as fact, if we go beyond news sources which might support an outcome which we desire, if we make the effort to be well-informed……then yes, we can reverse the trend toward polarized hostility and return to civil discussion of the issues.
I will try. I hope you will, too.