Mr Open-minded Seldom Is
As a gay man hoping to one day enjoy full equal rights under the law, I spend probably far too much time reading about people who are trying to prevent those rights from being granted. A surprising number of them describe themselves as open-minded, just before they start spewing their most bigoted talking points.
Which reminded me of a discussion I had with some friends a while back. We had all met people who had described themselves as open-minded, yet once we got to know them, they were quite the opposite. There are several reasons for this phenomenon:
The first is defensive: some of them have been accused often enough of being narrow-minded or intolerant that they are now trying to preempt more accusations. Like the professional spokespeople for various hate groups, they operate under a delusion that simply saying they are open-minded will somehow cause you not to notice their narrow-minded behavior or statements.
If they aren’t delusional, they’re simply trying really hard not to appear to be intolerant, because they’ve realized that if people think you’re intolerant, only intolerant people will hang out with you, and they aren’t usually good company. You would hope that realizing this would make them try to figure out how to actually be more open-minded. Maybe someday it will.
Some people are genuinely trying to be open-minded. In some cases, they recognized that their past narrow-minded behavior ruined a friendship, broke up a relationship, or simply hurt someone they cared about. Now they feel guilty and are trying to be open-minded. And there’s nothing wrong with trying, per se, but it is a little disingenuous to say they “are” open-minded when they’re only in the hoping-to-be stage.
There are others who aren’t at the trying stage, they simply misunderstand what open-minded means. For instance, for some open-minded means smiling condescendingly at people, ideas, or behaviors they disapprove of—sometimes even encouraging the behavior—only to ridicule and condemn it later when the person isn’t around. It’s a form of social entrapment: I’ll pretend I accept you as you are in order to get you to reveal more of yourself, then use what I learn against you.
Similarly, some think being open-minded means letting the other person have their say before telling them just how very wrong they are. Now, sometimes that’s how a debate can look to an outsider, but every interaction shouldn’t be a debate. And there’s a difference between gritting one’s teeth while waiting for the other person to finish spouting off their nonsense so you can tell them what they ought to think, and sincerely trying to understand why the other person feels that way. And consider whether maybe there might be room in your worldview for more than one opinion on the matter.
Along the same lines, some folks think that they have a nuanced position on some issues, because they are willing to be friends with the unfortunate people who are so wrong-thinking. “I’m not bigoted! I know that it’s not really your people’s fault that all of you are mentally ill and morally bankrupt. It’s like a sickness. And look at how big hearted I am, willing to be next to you and not at all afraid it might be catching!”
Most of these are just a subset of a bigger truth about human behavior: the more eager someone seems to be to describe themselves with a particularly positive treat, the more emphatically they insist that they do not feel a particular negative way, the more likely that the opposite of what they are saying is the truth.
As Hamlet’s mother famously observed, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”