In contemporary society, much can be said about the merits of being ‘open-minded’.
The stigma that is attached to those whose minds are considered to be ‘closed’ is ever present in those of us who would like to see ourselves as being open to new ideas, to new values and to different cultural practices.
Many people who hold so-called ‘progressive’ views are often said to have an open mind, inasmuch as these views represent a break with a more traditional way of thinking that often appears as repressive, prejudicial and dogmatic.
It might not be hard to think of opinions that would fit into any of these three categories.
However, is holding progressive views enough to warrant being ‘open-minded’? What does it even mean to be ‘open-minded’ in the first place?
I think that the answer to the first question is ‘no’, and that this will be illuminated by thinking about the second question.
I also think that to be truly ‘progressive’ we also must always try to be open-minded, as the true enemy of the progressive is not tradition, but dogma or opinion which is treated as fact.
There are a number of views that might be called ‘progressive’, such as being in favour of same-sex marriage, considering gender to be socially constructed or ‘fluid’.
All of these represent a break with a more traditional set of values which take the opposing stance and, as such, all can be called ‘progressive’ inasmuch as they have in mind the ‘progression’ towards a fairer and more egalitarian society.
I am of the opinion that each of these values – and the realisation of them in society – are of crucial importance in achieving this aim.
I also believe that this aim is preferable to every other conceivable aim.
However, I do not think that a person who holds these views is, by the mere fact of doing so, ‘open-minded’.
The open-minded person must be willing to always question the opinions and values that they encounter. As such, they will not simply accept as true any attempt to claim that same-sex couples should not have the right to marry, or that gender is based on specific biological factors that cannot be influenced by cultural practices and institutions; rather, they will question these claims and make up their own minds whether to agree with them or not.
However, they will also do this to the progressive counterparts of these claims. They will not simply accept as true that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, or that gender is socially constructed.
They question because they want to understand and this requires that they be optimistic that these opinions can be understood and are preferable to others.
Alongside this, being open-minded means that we always try to distinguish between the person and their opinions, no matter how unpleasant the person may appear to be.
This isn’t to say that we must embrace the person as a kindred spirit, but only that we understand that their opinions are not indicative of their whole character and also that they will have been formed through the experiences they have had.
There are views which are undeniably racist, sexist or homophobic; however, the person who holds them may have had life experiences that we have not, and while we have no obligation to agree with their views, if we desire a more caring and equal society then it makes sense that we try to understand why someone has these views, instead of just dismissing them because theirs do not accord with the ones we consider to be ‘correct’.
However, there seems to be a lot of individuals who, while holding views that aim at an inclusive and egalitarian society, at the same time dismiss those who hold opposing views often to the point of wanting them removed from society altogether or, failing that, having their democratic platform denied.
I am willing to stick my neck out and say that this is not what it means to be open-minded. We criticise, debate and discuss not because we harbour the suspicion that a less equal society might actually be a better one, but because we are so confident in our egalitarian cause that we are able to argue it against anyone who would oppose us.
More importantly, we are so committed to this cause that we are willing to embody it in our character even if doing so means that its opponents will be able to make their voices heard. This is what it means to be open-minded and truly ‘progressive’.