Open-mindedness appears, at first blush, to be an unambiguous virtue. Yet I notice the ideal of open-mindedness is sometimes reduced to caricature and idol both. As with many ideals when the subtlety of practice is lost, the husk that remains is brittle and hollow. Such withered ideals withstand no scrutiny, offer no guidance, and become mere strictures.
Open-mindedness in this painful reduction is little more than an argumentative bludgeon, which betrays the very essence of the original ideal. This is the “open-mindedness” of the debater who cannot support their arguments, but decrees their opponent “closed-minded” for not accepting a baseless premise. This is an “open-mindedness” that embraces intellectual relativism as its bosom companion, suggesting that all concepts be equal regardless of truth. This is the “open-mindedness” of politicians and snake-oil-salesmen, an indiscriminate open-mindedness that considers truth itself negotiable or irrelevant.
Such misuse of the concept devalues the true ideal, but perhaps examining the subtleties can restore a little of its luster.
True open-mindedness is not about acceptance—rather, it is about consideration. To take an open-minded view on a thing is to consider all possibilities: to be willing to evaluate their truth, or their falsehood, or whatever may lie between. Open-mindedness of this sort is a crucial tool that protects us from our own biases, from our willingness to judge without examination. To do so is dangerous indeed, because to judge without examination is to declare truth without seeking truth.
This is also how the caricature of open-mindedness abandons judgement entirely. The caricature avoids hasty judgment not through the hard work of examination, but by passing judgement on judgement itself. It attempts to avoid a failure of reasoning by the sweeping application of that same failure.
True open-mindedness, by contrast, embraces not relativism but discernment. Open-mindedness brings us to a place of considering all things, and discernment allows us to sort among them. These two can and must go together. Nor is discerning judgment a contradiction, for true open-mindedness allows us to reconsider when evidence changes.
True open-mindedness considers all things, discerns among them, and reconsiders as necessary. It gives us the capacity to consider broadly without abandoning understanding or truth, and protects us from considering too narrowly, or becoming attached to our own ideas above all else.
This last is where the caricature of open-mindedness does its greatest disservice, for, when closely examined, we find that relativism is the very opposite. Rather than making us willing to consider all possibilities, the replacement of discernment with relativism forces the conclusion that all ideas are true. Biases return unchecked. Users of the caricature are free to declare their own ideas true and beyond reproach, while never having to do the work to prove them true. They call their skeptics “closed-minded,” but really it is their minds that have closed—to the idea that they may be wrong.
What a simple world it would be if all ideas were worthy of equal weight! What a delight it would be if no one could be wrong! It is an enticing idea, an attractive one; but I discern through logic that it cannot be true. There are too many ideas that conflict; some theories are proven and some theories are disproven; and there are many people who are most definitely wrong. Whatever the allure, I cannot affirm that all ideas are the same. And once we allow this, relativism fails. We therefore need open-mindedness, most desperately. Without it, how can we look beyond the ideas that are attractive to the ideas that are true? And we likewise need discernment, else the field of our view will dominate us, overwhelm us, and leave us no understanding at all.
When you go in search of open-mindedness, therefore, do not settle for its pale and popular shade. Consider all views of an issue, but do not simply view them—consider them deeply. Consider their value. Consider their evidence. Then, when you have done so, discern the best choice at present. Sometimes you must take a position on an issue. Sometimes you must reject some positions and leave others under consideration. Sometimes you must take no position for want of evidence. Always be willing to reconsider if faced with new evidence, but likewise do not let yourself be bullied into no position when one position is warranted and another is not.
Thus does open-mindedness make a companion of discernment and truth, and thus does it recover its value as an ideal worth striving for.