On Keeping An Open Mind

It’s impossible not to talk about the Virginia Tech shootings in some way today. Although I hadn’t intended to talk about them at all, it seems that incidents like this worm their way inside your mind and charge everything you read with a kind of radioactive significance. I happened to be flicking through the wonderful Adam Phillips’s collection of essays, Promises, Promises, and by sheer chance started to read his piece on open mindedness and it seemed so poignantly apt, not necessarily to the tragedy that took place, but to the nightmare of the aftermath that will now inevitably follow it.

An open mind is not an open door,’ Phillips suggest in his introduction, ‘ “open-mindedness” merely describes what is, for some people, a preferred way of discriminating…. After all, at its most minimal, the open-minded have to know what they must keep out of their minds to keep them open… An open-mind, as Northrop Frye remarked, has to be open at both ends. So when we think of ourselves as open-minded we think of ourselves as open to the right kinds of things. We have doors in order to be able to close them. Our attention is not so much selective as exclusive.’

Being open-minded in our contemporary multi-cultural, heterogeneous, morality-lite society isn’t so much advisable as essential, if we’re all going to rub along together one way or another. But what Phillips reminds us here is that the open-mindedness we strive for is never complete or comprehensive. It simply couldn’t be because our minds aren’t made that way; thinking outside our own particular boxes is a struggle and a problem and the vast majority of the points are gained for making the effort. Yet one of the implicit problems with open-mindedness is that, as an attitude, it tends to embrace a resilient optimism, a firm conviction in truth and possibility that is as beautiful as it is constraining. Being open-minded we think of as being a good thing, and so therefore it’s a state that attracts other positives, like to like. No matter how far we’ve opened our minds – or perhaps because we may have opened them to their widest extent – we can’t make room for the most devastating depths of negativity, violence and horror. There’s almost a shadow of a hope in the very embrace of open-mindedness that it’s gentle liberality might make the dimension of evil and hopeless despair disappear.

But Phillips goes on to propose that the opposite of open-mindedness, or what we used to call ‘narrow-mindedness’ is all about that other positive-seeming act of making our minds up. Once we have made our minds up about something, for good and all, once we’ve got something licked, something fixed and sorted, something whose sense and reason justifies us utterly, then we’ve suddenly closed one of those doors. I’ve said before that I think all truths come with an attached use by date, and Phillips is suggesting that this is their very saving grace. Too much ‘knowingness’ can be as much, if not more, of a problem than radical doubt. Phillips quotes another author, Jonathon Lear, who argues that what we really need, which is to say what might ultimately be the most useful stance to adopt, is ‘the capacity to live non-defensively with the question of how to live.’ Knowing things for sure is a good way of building up walls of protection, great barricades of self-assurance that are all the more painful when events conspire to kick them away. Relying on reason to validate us and the things we do is one of the great illusions of the human condition. The reason can be all too spurious, because all we really wanted was the validation, the life support system of logic to ground our actions.

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with the Virginia Tech massacres, then it’s because Phillips subsequently considers tragedy and catastrophe. ‘It is the fact that terrifying and shocking and surprising things happen – that we do terrifying and shocking and surprising things – that is always tempering our hope for ourselves.’ A hope that is too often based on the reasonableness, the rationality, the intelligibility of human conduct, though what Phillips is trying to suggest here as a way out of the impasse is that ‘real rationality fully acknowledges the significance of irrationality.’ We really need to accept that part of ourselves is always capable of acting in unforeseen and inexplicable ways (this is something that Bikeprof’s excellent post also talks about today – in much more lucid ways that I have). When tragedy strikes, it has even the most open of minds reaching for any kind of reason to counteract the intolerable nagging of the question: Why? When we are reminded of our awful vulnerability, then our immediate instinct is to become defensive and protective and mired in the mud of ‘knowing’ what will fix the terrible problem of human violence. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech disasters, who wouldn’t ask the unbearable question, why? But can we then find the courage and the openness to bear the equally devastating possibility that there may not be a proper answer? I’m going to leave the last word on this awful prospect to Phillips, who says it with far more brilliance and grace than I ever could:

There is something in human nature that wants, for no available reason, to destroy what we most value… There is something beyond intelligibility that is causing all the trouble, and we are really up against it. So there are two kinds of people: those who believe that it’s just a matter of time before we work it all out (call them, say, technocrats); and those who believe that we never will because life isn’t like that… We may live by trading with the enemy, but we can’t force the enemy to trade. If there is meaningless destructiveness then we are all potentially inconsolable.’

12 thoughts on “On Keeping An Open Mind

  1. Wow Litlove, you’ve certainly given me something to think about. I tend to be an optimistic and hopeful person and always think things will get worked out. This is on a personal level though, on a world-wide humanity level, I want to believe, like Emerson, that someday we will all reach our full and divine potential but I can’t because another part of me sits back and laughs and scoffs that it will never happen. I wonder, is there a balance? Or maybe that’s part of what religion is for, to help us accept the inexplicable things that happen?

  2. This is a dangerous day to say so, and I mean no offense by it, but we all want to shoot up a classroom. I don’t mean that. Except for me, and you, everybody else wants to shoot up a classroom. Our deepest desire to reconcile the mayhem, to curb the violence inherent in our natures, will likely drive us to ludicrous lengths to further civilize the already civilized among us. I’d feel safer at the airport if there were no metal detectors, because I wouldn’t be thinking about metal in the bags, and because I know the next generation of terrorist won’t bring metal on-board to work their catastrophes.

    Are we asking today why security isn’t stricter at shopping malls? We’re not. We’re wringing our hands about universities. But if a maniac had shot up 32 innocent Gap-shoppers yesterday, we’d be rushing to pin the blame on some poor guy in blue who let a gunman in the store instead of . . . instead of what? Every security measure that sounds reasonable the day after sounds insane the day before. I know that doesn’t sound like “resilient optimism,” but, frankly, I’m resigned to my odds. Yesterday’s horrifying events don’t make life on college campuses one iota more dangerous. Acting as if we could make it free from danger, though, could make things a whole lot worse.

  3. America is an open society of single-minded people. That makes for quite a showdown sometimes (thinking western film). It will be interesting to find out what led this student to act so dramatically. Was he certifiably insane, or did he snap from parental pressure to maintain grades? Did he feel alienated?

    As for the bigger question, it seems as though we should be able to alternate our thinking depending on the circumstance or problem at hand, as I’m sure Virginia tech will by adjusting its procedures and policies to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from ever happening again.

  4. Yes, I’ve been listening to people talk about ways to keep the Virginia Tech-type tragedies from happening, but I just don’t know … yes, there are things perhaps we could do to make it less likely, but we tend to assume that we can stamp out violence, if we just have the perfect policy, and I don’t think it works that way.

  5. I agree with Dorothy – I don’t think this kind of violence can be stamped out. However, what we can do is ban handguns in this society and I hope if any good from this develops it’s making illegal weapons created only to kill.

    MDX – American is not an opoen society of single-minded people so much as it is a society of single-minded media that promote that idea.

  6. Stefanie – I like to think that there might be a balance, but perhaps that’s optimistic open-mindedness on my part! I suppose I think it’s an unstable balance, that we have to work hard at all the time. Religion can help people come to terms with loss, I imagine, but then it has also, on occasion, been the origin of some of the most terrible atrocities. I’m all for psychoanalysis here – I think it’s very good at helping us live with what isn’t acceptable. David – I see what you mean (or at least tell me if I’ve not got you right). Natures that are prepared to be tamed, will be tamed already; it’s where we become intransigent that we hit difficulties. And of course we are all of us intransigent somewhere. There’s always something that matters too much. I also agree with what you say about those metal detectors. Violence, even when not opportunistic, is essentially Darwinian. Thieves, terrorists and murderers are evolutionary creatures, adapting to cultural and historical change. mdx – I’ve been looking at the internet news but no one’s yet come out with his motivation, although what’s also interesting is how significant blogging has been to the diffusion of news in this event. Apparently there are already lots of witness accounts being posted that are working faster than traditional news sources. Dorothy – the perfect policy is a wonderful dream, isn’t it? But I agree with you, I don’t think one exists yet. Courtney – I’m also in the camp that thinks you should ban handguns. It’s hard to get hold of guns here and there is less gun crime as a consequence. But just to be fair, we did have a terrible tragedy some years back at a primary school where there was a gun massacre, which I guess goes to show that determined people are hard to stop.

  7. I definitely fall in the “we never will, because life isn’t like that camp.” My life centers around the hopeful fact that these sorts of horrific events are few and far between, statistically, when one considers the fragility of the human psyche (and I’m not really sure why that is). And I so agree with davidbale when it comes to everyone’s desire to shoot up classrooms and where our focus lies. A perfect example of this: no airline thinks of eating utensils as dangerous until 9/11 happens. No aiport requires removal of shoes to go through security until a shoe bomb fails. No airport thinks of certain “personal hygeine” liquids as potential hazards until a terrorist plot fails, and now we’re restricted as to what we can carry on. Those with the evil intent often seem to be one step ahead of those trying to prevent it.

    And I agree with Court, too, both about handguns and the media.

  8. I like what you say about how truth has a shelf life, although I don’t always see the use by date attached.
    Also what you say about how we use reason for validation. Do you think it is possible just to seek reason for reason’s sake? I mean non-ego driven.

  9. Sorry to comment twice but I thought of something else. The effort for officials to find reasons for why Cho did this is directly related to the effort for Americans to find reason behind this kind of act. This is connected with the big questions of reason that religion tackles. What I mean by reason here is the effort to make some sense of the unknown. In this way, reason isn’t used for validation only, but as a coping tool.

  10. It’s sort of scary to think of how close people/humans can get to the edge, and I think it is possible for even the most reasonable of us to topple over. I guess it is just curious that some of us do topple over, and others (in the same circumstance) don’t. I don’t think that will ever change–no matter how sad it is each time something like this happens.

  11. Pingback: Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup

  12. Emily – you’re quite right, statistically they are negligible but the randomness of the attack is what makes them so impactful. The time lapse between attacks is also a way for violence to stay ahead of our attempts to contain it. But I hope you and all the other optimistic people are right. Ian – please do comment as many times as you like! I agree absolutely that reason is used as a coping tool, which is again an underlying emotional motivation for embracing it. Now that the media knows the gunman’s reasons we can all see how scary it is when reason becomes absolute and compelling. He thought he was right. I suppose this is all saying that I don’t think reason is ever truly free from emotion of some kind. Danielle – I know just what you mean! Why do some people seem to have a fault line in their character that means they cannot deal with what happens to them? It’s so disconcerting, and yes, I agree with you, probably an inevitable part of human nature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s