On Open-mindedness

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As globalization brought together experiences and values shaped by different cultural contexts, the modern world seems to be characterized by conflicts—between X-ists and antiX-ists, or even among different subcategories of X-ists. Yet most social tensions can be defused, for they have been fueled less by a fundamental contradiction in ideology but more by the lack of open-mindedness, or the willingness to understand perspectives different from one’s own. Thus, the cultivation of such empathy is the prerequisite for progress in any social justice work, from feminism to the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

When humans do not actively try to understand something new and/or foreign, their innate egocentrism drives them to judge it against their own experience and views, which they assume to be universal. Oblivious to the fact that the variety of human conditions begets diverse opinions, people tend to label beliefs different from theirs as heretical. The result is an unproductive pandemonium of mutual attack. For example, in the liberal bubble of a New England boarding school, one could be tempted to take gender equality as granted and deny the existence of “the oppression of women,” considering the description an unfair accusation of men. However, if one assessed the judgment in a broader context, one would see that it remains accurate in many places: domestic violence against women are often treated legally or culturally as “private” or “normal;” education is less accessible to women—two thirds of the world’s illiterates are women, and from my personal experience in China, companies can and often do blatantly refuse to hire female employees. Because women are treated differently in different cultures, both the proponents or the opponents of the phrase “oppression of women” are to an extent right but also incomprehensive. The contradictory conclusions are caused by different but equally valid observations, not different beliefs. Therefore, both sides need to be open-minded—willing to understand the rationale behind a statement that at first seems unreasonable—so that they would not pit themselves against their friend in advocating for gender equality. Even when two values are fundamentally contradictory, the willingness to understand each other can resolve the superficial disagreements due to each side’s limited perception of reality (maybe misunderstandings, too). By focusing the contention on genuine ideological differences, open-mindedness makes debates more constructive. It guides us away from hostility and towards truth.

True open-mindedness is not to be conflated with “progressiveness”—while the latter is merely a stance, the former is an indiscriminate consideration of any stance, even if it contradicts with one’s own. In trying to understand my family’s homophobia though I myself identify with and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, I have discovered the key to empathy: to be ready to validate others’ experiences and opinions, one must first acknowledge the limitedness of one’s own perception—the objective reality and personal experience can be different somewhere else for someone else, shaping different values. My parents’ prejudices have been indoctrinated to them by elders, textbooks, the media, and rumors at the dinner table. What seems self-evident to me can be shocking against the backdrop of their knowledge and experience. How can I then blame them for being malicious? To what extent is my progressive view shaped by the liberal time into which I was born? My understanding of their perspective, however, does not mean that I give up my effort to break their bias. It simply means that I try to persuade them with reasoning and evidence instead of imposing my ideas onto them as if I hold the absolute truth and they are egregiously wrong.

We are all blind people groping about a giant elephant called life. One who feels the trunk can learn more about the elephant only if one opens his/her heart to what others have to say about the elephant’s ears, body, legs, and tail. In real life, this means to get to know people from different backgrounds, travel to experience different cultures, learn a foreign language, pay attention to celebrations of exotic festivals… In seeing different manifestations of humanity, we would become more aware of our own limitedness and more willing to understand those different from ourselves. With an empathetic heart, we would see that in the end, in our shared humanity, we all want to be safe, happy, respected and fulfilled. Then, what irreconcilable conflicts could there be?

Featured Image: https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2015/08/against-open-mindedness/

About the author

Lora Xie is a IV boarding student from Chengdu, a southwestern city in China that has the best spicy food in the universe. She feels driven to think and talk about the “big” and abstract questions. She has a weird sense of humor and takes pride in making others think. Her current life goal is to figure out the meaning of her life (or the lack thereof, should that be the case). She hopes that the things she enjoys - math, philosophy, language, computer science, and visual art - will guide her on this journey. She plays tennis and is trying to run. Eating a good breakfast helps her write more elegantly.

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