Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prejudiced In Favor Of Prejudice

It's been a long time since I thought open-mindedness was much of a virtue. So much depends on what it's supposed to mean. In heterosexual personal ads, it usually seems to be code for something like "interested in a one-man, two-woman threesome" or "willing to accept oral sex from a woman as long as she doesn't expect reciprocation."

On the ethical and political fronts, I think it was during the late 1980s that I began to notice increasing numbers of people who accused me (or others) of being closed-minded because I rejected long-discredited arguments for racism, sexism, or anti-gay bigotry. No doubt this was because I was getting older and had heard those arguments before, while they may well have been new to the mostly younger people who were offering them to me. Sometimes I'd encounter the half-serious accusation that I was "prejudiced against prejudice." After the first time or two I would simply invite my accuser to offer me some good reasons to be in favor of prejudice, which usually shut them up.

I do think it's important to be open to new evidence and arguments. The trouble is that I so seldom encounter new ones -- one of the pitfalls, not just of getting older, but of being a wide-ranging reader. In fact, when someone does have something new to say on important issues, even if I disagree with it, I'm genuinely pleased. But in the meantime I agree with Avedon at The Sideshow: "When it comes to being open-minded, I'd like to draw the line at trusting the views of people who have shown themselves to be consistently wrong." It is not closed-minded, even in principle, to dismiss worthless arguments you've heard dozens of times before.

But that cuts several ways. Avedon links to this blog post, which in turn refers to postings about "being opened minded and whether Democrats need to look at how they treat small town Americans. An interesting point about what it means to be respectful and willing to listen to others who have views that differ from yours was from EconTech who brought up the subject of why it might be dangerous to you to listen to someone who was factually wrong.
Thus, when I run into someone who is willing to believe that the universe is a few thousand years old, I recognize that they are incapable of making judgements based on evidence, and anything they say to me, if I listen to them enough, will begin to ring true. That I have good reason to believe their opinions more likely than not to be wrong, listening to them would be a mistake. A literal corruption of the mind that I, knowing this to be possible, should take action to avoid.
The blogger then draws a connection to the current election campaign:
That is why John McCain is running such an aggressively false campaign. The big lie works because when it is repeated so often it becomes true in your mind. It is this aspect that has caused too many Americans to "believe" Obama is Muslim despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it is frightening to realize that what the Republicans are doing could work its poison into the body politic enough to let him "win".
(Why are "believe" and "win" in quotation marks here? I'm rather closed-minded about people who can't do basic punctuation.) All very well, but of course Obama's campaign wants you to believe that Obama is a progressive who will bring about change, even though his record and most of his stated positions are reactionary. Contrary to this blogger, someone who believes that the universe is only a few thousand years old may be quite capable of forming judgments based on evidence in domains that directly affect his or her life. The age of the universe really is not of much importance to most people, and I haven't found that most people who hold that it is billions of years old have examined the evidence all that carefully either.

But given this blogger's judgments about people, what should I make of an Obama advocate who tells me that Obama will end the war in Iraq, when there is ample evidence that Obama means to maintain the US occupation there, accepts the Republican account of the progress of the war, wants to extend the war in Afghanistan, and possibly to Iran and Pakistan as well? What should I make of an Obama advocate who assures me that "Obama will help the Progressive idea" by listening "to what we have to say and not shuffle us off in a label box", but offers absolutely no evidence in support of this claim? Why should I trust Obama advocates who clearly have no idea what their candidate has said and done or what he stands for, but still demand that I vote for him because he'll make everything better?

I certainly agree that McCain is running a "false campaign" (which I take to mean a campaign built on falsehoods), and I don't want to see him and Palin "win" or even win the election. But I'm not so sure that Obama's campaign isn't false also. I see plenty of reasons not to trust him, and his supporters have done nothing to allay my concerns. I don't think that's closed-minded of me, but if it is, I think I can live with it.

As for respectful treatment of small-town Americans, I would first want to point out that I am a small-town American by birthright. Beyond that, the Daily Show, as usual, said it best.

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