Thursday, 5 August 2010

Open minds? Empty vessels!

Keeping an open mind has become an end not a means. A virtue has become a vice.

As well as being open to new experiences and ideas, the purpose of being open-minded is to assess them with a view to reaching better conclusions about them than you would if you didn't do so. It requires us to be keen to learn and to go beyond what we think we know and believe already, and to make judgements based upon the experience. This may also require us to change our opinions from time to time.

But too many people see ‘an open mind’ as one which reaches no conclusion and avoids judgement for fear of not being seen to be ‘tolerant’. Worse, they seriously believe this to be virtuous behaviour. This kind of thinking suffuses British public service, which I have had the privilege if not the pleasure to inhabit for some 15 years now. Of even more concern is that most people I have prodded on the subject tend to believe it as well.

But this kind of open mind is really an empty one. It's timid, fearful and afraid to make mistakes, and people who never make mistakes never learn. And it’s not even tolerant. You can only tolerate things of which you disapprove. If you shrink from judgement of any kind, and from negative ones in particular, you can't be tolerant. So in fact it's an outward show masking moral squeamishness, like someone who won’t try foreign food and then dresses their small-mindedness as principle.

Worse, these people are intolerant. For all their often rigid sense of personal righteousness, their social ideals are weakly developed. Because of the power they have and exert, they push others backwards too. They work against their own professed aims. Careless as they are in distorting meaning (discrimination, for example, has been reinvented as a vice - unfair discrimination is the vice), they nonetheless insist that everyone else should maintain strict semantic and moral hygiene.

I do wish they'd be more open minded.

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