Some folks out in the bustle of the internet tell me that being open minded is being willing to revise your beliefs in the light of new evidence. But whomever this sense of ‘open minded’ applies to has already declared the conceptual territory they are willing to be open to, and presumably the acceptable methods for determining what counts as evidence too. That doesn’t sound one jot like being open minded to me – it sounds more like being a cheerleader for the sciences. What’s more, it seems that most scientists do not easily adjust their beliefs in the light of new evidence, but rather expressly doubt evidence that does not accord with their beliefs – which not coincidentally aligns with what psychologists say about humans in general.
On the other hand, there are the strange and wonderful folks you can meet at various New Age bazaars to whom being open minded seems to mean uncritically accepting every wild practice anyone is pursuing earnestly. Except of course such people are only open minded towards those particular kinds of practices, and are generally dismissive of scientific evidence dismissing the efficacy of all such methods. (I might note, such ‘discreditings’ are usually in comparison to placebo – which would be another way of saying that they all work as well as each other, and just as well as a fair chunk of medical practices too.)
Then there is that liberal open mindedness that tolerates other cultures. As Isabelle Stengers warns, this tolerance is a curse, one that immediately prevents any understanding from taking place between us. Indeed, as I have accused in Chaos Ethics, liberal open mindedness largely means forcing everyone to accept a previously prescribed catalogue of acceptable identities, and acting punitively towards those who do not. Alain Badiou observes that this kind of ‘open mindedness’ is characterised by being instantly horrified by African tribal rituals, Chinese politics, and pretty much everything else even remotely different from the allegedly open minded person. Once again, the proclamation of ‘open mindedness’ is a cover for a demand, a requirement, outside of which everything else is to be denounced.
Perhaps ‘open minded’ simply means ‘I will not openly denounce what I can merely politely dismiss’, at least if we ignore the firebrands and malcontents. If so, it is not so much about being open to difference as it is a mode of politeness, of tolerance. But again, I stand with Stengers here: tolerance is a curse that prevents understanding. Everyone who declares themselves open minded is presupposing what it is we should be open to – whether it be the positivistic methods attributed to the sciences, the transformative potential of peculiar rituals, or the political identities that are opposed to conservatism.
If being open minded is genuinely a virtue, we seem to have lost sight of what it is supposed to be about. Ask a liberal to be open minded about gun ownership, or an atheist to be open minded about God, or a faith healer to be open minded about pharmaceuticals. We are all calling ‘open minded’ just those people who are open to our own ways of thinking. That’s no kind of open mindedness at all.