This is perhaps one of the most common insults we have for those we tend to disagree with, particularly in regards to politics and religion. We’ve probably all found ourselves after watching a politician on TV, holding our hands up to the ceiling and lamenting, “Why?! Why can’t they see that what they’re doing is harmful? Why do they refuse to listen to reason? Why can’t they just open their minds?”
Of course, when we ask people to open their minds, it’s usually so that they will accept our ideas and views about the world at the expense of overthrowing their own ideas. If the same criticism was leveled at you, you’d probably find it preposterous at the very least. As a society we do recognize that some ideas are better than others and sometimes changing our minds could be beneficial, but as we’ve just seen, it is a delicate process.
The trouble is, being closed minded is perfectly natural.
Regardless of intelligence, most humans spend a great deal of time thinking about their place in the world and develop their own ways of understanding it. I know it doesn’t seem like most people are actually thoughtful individuals, but regardless of the content and the quality of the thoughts, everyone spends a good deal of time thinking. I am convinced that the more time you spend thinking about your views and ideas, the harder it becomes to change them. The act of thinking reinforces and validates beliefs in a way that promotes identity and confidence, and these are things that people will fight to protect. If you’ve held an idea for twenty years, and you still believe it’s right, it is highly unlikely that you’ll change it – not in the least because you’ve had 20 years of thinking to come up with other ideas that support it. On top of this, you might be convinced that this idea has ‘worked’ for you for 20 years, and so therefore it just can’t be wrong. This line of reasoning is fine with the idea that “1+1=2”, but not with, “…but that’s how we’ve always treated women.”
Thinking is also hard work. Everybody knows this!
Revisiting your views on various issues in a manner that requires you to pull them apart and factor in new information is hard work. And not only that, if you do decide that an idea you’ve held about something is wrong, it could have the cataclysmic effect of undermining numerous other cherished beliefs about the world. This kind of instability is terrifying, and another reason people like to avoid thinking and… close their mind.
If what I’ve said about time is true, then we might expect college professors to be some of the most closed minded people on the planet. While I’m tempted to agree that a handful are, most of them are not, precisely because they do revisit their views over and over again. In fact, the art of being a scholar is being able to hold many many ideas in your head, but to keep them fragmented. The more you “tie” your ideas together, to build your stable world view, the harder it becomes to untie them. You know when a college professor has mastered the art of keeping fragmented thoughts because you’ll hear them say, “Well, yes if it’s like this and you’re taking into account this, but no if it’s like this…” They might even lose ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers in favor of talking about things that seem to work, but only in certain contexts. As frustrating as this can be, it’s at least honest. But I digress…
So, if closed mindedness is inevitable, and sometimes for ‘good’ reasons, what can we do about it?
This is where I cop out. I am not a therapist. I just know that there are good and bad times for thinking, just as there are good and bad times for running. Don’t be afraid or surprised to find out that your ideas about the world don’t hold up like you thought they would, and finally, what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.