The modern myth of open-mindedness

SALT is a small collective of writers from our Advance friends at Grace London seeking to engage with thoughtful Londoners on matters of faith and life. We believe that Godfirst and the people of Cheltenham would also find their weekly posts interesting. We reproduce them here by kind permission.

The modern myth of open-mindedness
3rd June 2016 by Irina Wang

By the people, for the people. We see Democracy as the golden rule of Western freedom, the guidebook for prosperity and happiness. Child-centred education, patient-centred care, consumer-led capitalism. If those phrases trigger a mental hurrah or nod of approval, it’s because we live in a time and place that champions Individualism; everything about our popular culture reflects a deep-rooted belief that we can trust ourselves to make the best decisions for ourselves.

This ocean of Individualism enveloped us at birth, infused our childhood, fuelled our adolescent angst, and now it spouts from a proud fountain of our collective thoughts and actions, feeding its original source. As millennials who have never set foot on dry land, the very same attitude that makes us first to cry, ‘That’s neither fair nor true, because it’s just a social construct!’ is itself a social construction, a product of specific cultural conditioning. Relativism cancels itself out [1].

Still, we often assume present norms are innately right because we’re entrenched; we haven’t known any other reality. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but the spell breaks when we realise the norm itself is always shifting. Take lobster — today it’s perceived as nothing short of luxurious, yet a century ago it was trash food reserved for servants, prisoners, and your cat. Society’s changeable conviction shifted the lobster-norm from something poor kids were embarrassed to pack in their school lunch to ‘the sort of thing girls from new-rich families ordered for their weddings’ [2]. (And just when you thought you’d hacked the £20 system at Burger & Lobster...)

Similarly, the religious norm in Britain is currently at a tipping point, where those who identify as religious are becoming the minority. A gay friend recently told me about someone who had finally ‘come out’ to her as a Christian. This metaphorical closet, so recently associated with the marginalised LGBT community, is always being repopulated with whoever doesn’t fit into updated cultural norms. Not so long ago, one was judged and ostracised for not attending church regularly; today in London, the scenario is flipped.

Why the shift? Individualism has also (perhaps unwittingly) played a big role in matters of faith. Professor Linda Woodhead has been studying the rising population group that identifies as having ‘no religion’ at all — she refers to them as ‘nones’. Many interviewed ‘nones’ said things like ‘A god of your understanding is whatever you want it to be, you don’t have to have all these iconic symbols,’ and ‘I’ve been taught to trust myself, to trust my perspective in life […] I don’t believe I have to have a set book of morals.’ [3] While that sounds pretty attractive, it also loses its seemingly inherent ‘rightness’ when placed within the context of our post-dogmatic, believe-in-yourself era; these beliefs behave like any other social conditioning. Whether they are true requires and deserves much further examination.

Can I really trust myself to define morality when I can’t even remember where I put my keys this morning? As if I weren’t unqualified already, what kind of person am I encouraged to become when the promise of happiness is inseparable from the illusion of control? In a recent Guardian piece, Will Hutton notes the effects on mental health: ‘Happiness — when individual liberty is seen as all-important — lies in exercising choice and taking responsibility for our own lives. Get the choices right… self-fulfilment and happiness will follow. Get them wrong and you risk mockery and marginalisation’ [4]. And surely we should wonder whether that self-fulfilment is truly and ultimately fulfilling at all. Are we spending a lifetime driven by fear of perceived failure when the bigger problem is our definition of victory?

We must hold our insular bubble of norms accountable to the standard of scrutiny that we sanctimoniously dole out to alternative systems, religions, and ethics. Whether it’s the hijab or hipster top-knot, we’re quick to poke holes in any practice which deviates from our own. But why is it that today’s so-called open-mindedness only respects and tolerates other suitably liberal ideas? If we automatically dismiss ‘traditional’ as morally backwards, we may fool ourselves into a spiral of bigoted anti-bigotry and dogmatic anti-dogma.

I’m certainly not claiming that we’d always be better off with old norms. Civilisation’s survival across the ages is thanks to a degree of social adaptation and conditioning; but as free-willed human beings, we should be actively and earnestly seeking truth that stands apart from cultural climate, geographic situation, and social circumstance. Otherwise, we may accidentally base our entire lives upon principles that have as much integrity as the market price of lobster. It’s far better to ask difficult questions now than to breezily carry on under adopted assumptions, only to wake up and find that those truths were just a trend.

[1] For more on social constructionism, check out the ideas and works of sociologist Peter L. Berger
[2] From ‘How Lobster Got Fancy’, an article by Daniel Luzer for Pacific Standard (June 2013)
[3] From Woodhead’s lecture, ‘Why no religion is the new religion’ at The British Academy on (Jan 2016), full video available online at britac.ac.uk
[4] From Hutton's article ‘Only fundamental social change can defeat the anxiety epidemic’ (May 2016)