the #newschool: Having an #OpenMind

On the back of my old 1983 Toyota Celica hatchback, I used to have a bumper sticker that read “Minds are like parachutes. They only function when open.” I drove that car from 1992 until 1998 and, while in traffic, would periodically get honks and signs of approval for the sticker. Rarer were the times when some antagonist – at a gas station or in a parking lot – would make an ugly remark about the message, preferring, I guess, that we were all as closed-minded as they were. (The metaphor of the consequences of an unopened parachute was clearly lost on that latter group.)

When I think back on it now, those grouchy people remind me of the Bergins in the movie Trolls, who remain steadfast and insistent that the only way to be happy is to smother, imprison, and devour the joy of others. For them, even that tiny bit of joy will only last for a moment, so they find themselves craving opportunities to do it again. Sadly, there is too much support for those attitudes in our society.

Close-mindedness might be the plague of our era. It pervades everything in our culture, including how we handle things that affect all people: healthcare, education, the environment. When we hunker down on our positions, especially on either-or positions, there’s no room to accept new facts that might lead to a better decision, nor is there room to make exceptions where ones should be made.

In late July, the PBS NewsHour ran a story about how closed-mindedness is hurting our whole nation, as the two political parties get more deeply entrenched. As problems arise that need solutions, the viewpoints then are not focused on helping the most Americans possible but on defeating the opposing party. That’s when politics becomes a team sport, and the blame-game becomes more important than governing. Thus, we are all frustrated – both the representatives and the citizens – but what is the root cause? Closed-mindedness.

I live in Alabama, a deeply conservative state that has emerged once again in the 21st century as a player in America’s culture war. After its staunch support for secession in the 19th century and its inclusion in the Solid South of the 20th century, our electoral votes can once again be depended-upon . . . by any Republican candidate who campaigns on being uncompromising. That strategy wins. The super-majority in our state legislature has been used to institutionalize conservative social positions and to cling to fiscal conservatism, while neglecting to solve glaring problems. And anyone who opposes such stolidness is labeled “too liberal for Alabama.” The state is a case study in the historic failures of a one-party system and of closed-mindedness.

If you didn’t watch the PBS NewHour segment linked above, I’ll let you in something that you missed. At the end of the segment, the following factoid was presented:

Roughly a third of Republicans and Democrats say when they discuss politics with people they disagree with, they usually find they have more in common than they thought. – Source: 2016 Pew

That leads me to two conclusions: those two-thirds who didn’t find as much in common need to be more open-minded, and the one-third of us who do find common ground need to start taking the lead in our country.

Although I regularly write to my representatives in Congress and in our state legislature, I don’t see those small groups of people as the solution to the problem of closed-mindedness. Ordinary citizens, who talk with each other every day, will form the grassroots movement that shifts the tide. In millions of conversations, this tendency toward obloquy can be undone when we listen to each other and expose that common ground. But we must first recognize what David Cannadine wrote in his introduction to The Undivided Past:

The real world is not binary— except insofar as it is divided into those of us who insist that it is and those who know that it is not.

Open-mindedness isn’t a plank in the left-wing political platform, and the willingness to listen and to acknowledge that opposing viewpoints have validity are not signs of weakness. Strict loyalty to a political party ideology is also not the path to crafting public policy that works for all people. The answers will not come supporting one of two warring factions, but they could from genuine concern for all people, including the ones whose lives don’t resemble our own.

Not too long ago, the poet and writer Wendell Berry tweeted out this friendly reminder, and I couldn’t have put any better than he did:

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