Saturday, February 06, 2016

Changing Your Mind

If you had asked me for the things about which I would never change my position, it would be a short list. There's the obvious, of course: world peace (good), love (very good), and doughnuts (unbelievable good). Beyond that, I like to think I'm open minded and willing to listen to opposing arguments about most anything. Some may see it as a sign of weakness, of squishyness. After all, can you really trust anyone who is willing to start down the slippery slope of acknowledging that other people might have a different point of view, that that view might have merit given certain circumstances, that in some situations you could agree with them? I mean, if everyone did that, we might have (gasp) compromise. Was there ever a dirtier word than that?

That's not to say that those with strongly held views are wrong. For whatever reason, be they religious or cultural or familial, people have certain touchstones that they hold dear, that they base their worldview on, that they are unwilling to change. But being intransigent in and of itself is not a vice. To me, at least, the vice is in not being able to recognize that others may have different points of view, and then damming them to hell for holding to their views as strongly as you do yours.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the politics of the day. Of all the insults or putdowns one candidate can throw at another, the worst seems to be that you have actually considered changing your mind. Dare to go through with it, regardless of whether the reason was updated information or circumstances or even just a general change of heart, and you're accused of the high crime of flip-flopping, with perhaps the most famous formulation being John Kerry's "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

But let's think about it for a moment. Do we really believe that at some point before we are able to speak, or old enough to profess a view, or become parents, or become leaders of organizations big or small, that we are inculcated with a set of beliefs and values that should never, ever, ever change under any circumstance, regardless of evidence or example or situation? Might work that way for you, but not for me.  

In that light, I for one believe that changing your mind is not always a sign of weakness, but a show of intelligence. Do we really want someone taking a position and holding fast to it in spite of evidence that there might be a better way to look at the issue? Depending on your outlook, you might have held strong positions on Iran, same-sex marriage, guns, abortion or even the French. But once you encounter a broader set of circumstances or perhaps personal experiences that run counter to what you learned in the womb, does it not make sense to at least recalibrate your outlook, even at the risk of displeasing those of like-mind? I mean, who doesn't like Paris?

That said, I think it's also important to distinguish between promises and policies. "I believe in X" and "I promise to do Y" are radically different formulations. Beliefs can change, and while you might find a person's new-found views distasteful, there's nothing inherently dishonest in them making the switch. Promises are different: if you make a commitment and then go back on it, you have to answer to the constituency that took you at your word. Or as John Dickerson wrote in Slate, "Breaking a promise is a problem of a higher order than changing a policy position. Our mothers told us not to break promises."

The Brits call it a U-Turn, the Aussies a Backflip. Margaret Thatcher famously stood her ground on her economic policies by saying "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." But she was not so much refusing to change her position as standing steadfast to give her policies a chance to play out. As for me, I prefer an approach that is usually attributed to John Maynard Keynes, even though it turns it he didn't really say it. Still, it neatly captures my point of view: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to have an open mind on all things. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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