We’re a divided society.
To follow the news is to be constantly bombarded with reports about disagreements, sometimes hostile in nature, about all sorts of issues, including race relations, same-sex marriage, health care, gun control, economic policy, immigration, and environmental issues from fracking to climate change. Tensions and disagreements are not just “in the news.” They are also experienced locally, as friends, family members, and colleagues clash over these and personal issues as well.
Whether regarding public or personal issues, most of us don’t relish conflict. So many people deal with the tension by avoiding it. They may do this by consulting only those news programs, pundits, and websites that reinforce their own perspective. Similarly, at the personal level they may stay away from certain people who disagree with them. And to the extent that they engage, it may be from a safe distance, so their convictions remain securely insulated from serious challenge.
Another way of coping with disagreement is to engage others by ruthlessly insisting on the truth of one’s own views. This is a sort of brute dogmatism, where one simply assert her view as “obviously true,” without the aid of evidence or argument. Or the dogmatist might use argumentation but only to create a façade of informedness and to dominate the conversation, which usually looks more like a monologue than a dialogue. Here the game is intimidation and blather. Filibuster rather than true debate.
A less common way of dealing with disagreement is to soar above it all by assuming the posture of the skeptic. It is uncommon because nearly every thinking adult holds views on the issues that divide us today. But there are some who do manage to present a skeptical attitude, tending to various debates but never taking sides. Every argument is greeted with a detached nod and patronizing “perhaps.” But no affirmations are offered in support of a particular perspective.
I believe all of these are unhealthy ways of dealing with disagreement, whether in the public or private sphere. Each is a sort of cowardice in the face of conflict, as each effectively refuses to seriously engage. More importantly, each defaults on the duty to pursue truth and understanding, which Scripture tells us is paramount: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Pr. 4:7). Clearly, we cannot abide by this counsel through avoidance, dogmatism, or skepticism. Genuine pursuit of truth calls for engagement and risk, active encountering of contrary positions and people. It means a willingness to have our views challenged and possibly changed. In short, a key to truth and understanding is open-mindedness. And this is especially true in a context of disagreement.
Open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue, a character trait that makes one better as a thinker and knower. As philosopher Jason Baehr characterizes it, to be open-minded is to be willing to suspend one’s default cognitive standpoint for the sake of considering an alternative standpoint or perspective. An obvious benefit of open-mindedness is that this virtue enables one to gain knowledge and, where necessary, to change one’s mind in order to do so. Open-mindedness also improves relationships, as it demonstrates grace and generosity to those with whom one disagrees.
However, to be open-minded does not mean one should be open to any and all views. For instance, it would be intellectually—and perhaps even morally—vicious to be open to the possibility that, say, slavery or genocide is a good idea, or that rape or pedophilia may be morally permissible. These and many other issues are ones that even the generally open-minded person should be foreclosed on. But where mature and intelligent people disagree, such as regarding the moral and social issues mentioned earlier, absolute foreclosure seems inappropriate. Belief commitment, even firm conviction, may be appropriate on each of these issues. But the open-minded person recognizes that, after all, some of her views may be false or at least to some degree mistaken. So she should be willing to entertain new evidence or give further arguments a serious look.
There are also significant moral and theological reasons to be open-minded. For one thing, if I am utterly foreclosed on an issue, then I assume that all those who disagree with me are wrong. And on many issues some of those who disagree are smarter and more informed than I am. To so completely disregard their intelligence and informedness is arrogant, irresponsible, or both. Furthermore, open-mindedness is actually recommended by the Golden Rule. For don’t we all want other people to be open to the views we defend? And don’t we want others to patiently listen to our arguments? Of course. So the Golden Rule entails that we should be just as willing to be challenged by others views and to patiently listen to their arguments.
So open-mindedness is a good trait. We might even call it a Christian virtue. In any case, to be open-minded is crucial to the pursuit of truth, it is a boon to relationships, and it fulfills the Golden Rule. It is also a wise coping strategy for dealing with the disagreements in your life.
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