Thought for Thursday: Open-mindedness

So, after having my kids watch Bill Nye the Science Guy “debate” Ken Ham the Creationist Guy, I’ve begun a discussion with my critical thinking students about the difference between “arguing” and “fighting.”  I was really very gratified this morning to see that, for the most part, the students were able to comprehend – and articulate! – the nuance between the activities.

They came up with the idea that “argument” is generally about an exchange of ideas; it’s an effort on the part of one party to offer the opposition evidence and proof that the speaker’s position has merit.  Argument is generally civil in tone, focused in scope and, while not devoid of emotion, is much more restrained and logical than it is emotional.  The end result, they reasoned, is to leave the listener with food for thought.  One doesn’t “win” an argument, they said;  it’s enough just to pry open the door of a previously closed mind, even if only a little.

“Fighting,” they decided, was less about an honest and earnest exchange and more about “force and power.”  Fighting is often a struggle for control or superiority; the object is to “win,” not to convince someone that your point of view has merit.  People in fights don’t listen to understand; they listen to respond (and, often, to refute).  Emotion is largely the controlling energy behind fighting, and rarely do people enter fights with the kind of open-mindedness necessary for any kind of meaningful consideration to happen.  Despite how lovely and polite the Nye/Ham debate was, they said, it was really a fight; neither man was likely very interested in seeing merit in the other man’s point.

It was about here that I introduced their next project – an issue analysis – and talked about topic/purpose/audience.  Their topic, I told them, can be anything that’s part of our national conversation at the moment (and then I gave them a quick list of potentials; the minimum wage, healthcare policy, immigration, etc, etc).   Since this is to be an inquiry exercise, I told them that they weren’t to choose something about which they had strong feelings.  The trick to picking a good topic is to find something that you’re interested in, but that you don’t really know a whole lot about.  “For example,” I said, “I wouldn’t pick abortion as my topic for this paper because I’ve already made up my mind about it.  I’m WAAY over here (I outstretched my arms and wiggled my left index finger) on this topic; I believe that ANY woman of ANY age should have access to a safe and legal abortion at ANY time in her pregnancy for ANY reason.  Period.  I am, admittedly, on the far-left fringe of this issue, because in all the research and observation I’ve done around this topic, I’ve encountered nothing that’s been sufficient to compel me to change my position that I have NO RIGHT to tell ANY woman what she can or cannot do with her body.”

We continued on to the topic of audience, and here I talked about the people on the fringes, using myself as an example. (Arms outstretched again, wiggling left index finger) “I’m over here on abortion, right?  Someone else is WAAY over here (wiggling right index finger) and believes that there should be no such THING as abortion; that it’s ALWAYS wrong under EVERY circumstance.  We (wiggling both index fingers) are NOT your audience for this paper.  You’re talking to everyone in between us; the people who are unsure of where they stand, or who believe that it’s okay sometimes but not others, or who don’t know enough about the topic to make a decision one way or another.”

At this point, a particularly astute student asked a really interesting question.  “Professor Chili,” he asked, “what would you say to the person over there (pointing to my right index finger)?  What do you think about what they think?”

And here, dear readers, is where we get to the point of this post.

My honest, heartfelt answer is that I absolutely support that person’s right to think the way s/he does.  I wholeheartedly support that person’s right to NEVER even THINK about having an abortion, and to feel that people who do have abortions are entirely, tragically wrong.  What I DON’T support is that person forcing someone else to comport themselves in accordance with someone else’s beliefs or feelings, and therein lies the difference between the way different people think.  I often get accused of being “closed-minded” about some things, though I profess not to be.  I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of how I operate.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve been presented with questions and challenges about my atheism – and the occasion of the Nye/Ham face-off has brought into sharp focus the divide between people who think and believe very differently.  I am fine with how others believe.  I have no problem if you (the general “you,” please; I got in trouble yesterday on a facebook post when the other folks on the thread weren’t hip enough to realize that I was speaking in general terms) want to reject scientific evidence or deny yourself medical care or give all your money to a church or devote your life to a particular faith.  YOUR life, YOUR choices.

Where I get itchy is when you try to make ME comply with your choices, or when your choices negatively impact others.  If you deny your child life-saving medical care, I am going to take issue with that.  If you try to use your morals to legislate my behavior (or that of my friends and family, or even, to be honest, complete strangers), I’m going to have a problem with that.  If you’re going to enforce your denial of certain scientifically-accepted premises on our schoolchildren, use your morality to hamper medical, genetic, or technological discovery and advancement, or use your faith as a justification to deny other people basic human rights and dignity, I’m going to make some noise.

The difference between “us” and “them” is that we’re okay with them believing what they want, but they are terrified by the fact that we don’t believe as they do.

Just after the debate, Buzzfeed posted a list of pictures of Creationists asking questions of people who embrace evolution.  Slate posted a response to each of those questions, and one of the points that was made was that, “There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”

Let that sink in for a minute.  “There is more room for god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”

That, right there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the difference.  I have beliefs.  I stand for things, but I am not so wrapped up in those beliefs, nor do I integrate them so fully into my very identity, that I am threatened by people who do not think as I do.  More to the point, I don’t force anyone to conform to my ideology; I would never force someone to have an abortion, for example.  Many of the staunchly anti-choice proponents wouldn’t say the opposite and, in fact, have pushed legislation that has the effect of keeping women from obtaining abortion services.

That’s the difference.  Too many people don’t understand how big a difference that is.

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9 responses to “Thought for Thursday: Open-mindedness

  1. Pingback: Thought for Thursday | The Blue Door

  2. Rowan

    As usual you make your point quite clearly and objectively. Good job!

  3. I think the problem with the abortion debate is that many believe it’s murder. And when you believe something is murder, you generally want to stop that something because, you know, murder is bad. I’m slightly to the right of you on the abortion debate, although not by much. That being said, I would never vote for legislation to end abortion. I’m pretty damn pro-choice, but in the Bill Clinton “safe, legal, and rare” sense of the term. And I think there’s plenty of room for God in science. I believe in him and I’m a scientist and hopefully I’ll be a nurse in six months. But I wouldn’t support legislation making this nation a theocracy either.

    Those are the ramblings you get on a Thursday afternoon when I’ve been locked in the house with minimal food and then subsequently had a beer. Sorry if they’re not quite as cogent as I’d like them to be.

  4. Rowen, thank you. I felt a little rambly on this one – I published my first shot at this thinking instead of working through a draft as I often do with the bigger ideas I try to work through on this forum.

    Kristi, YES! When I say what I say about my stance on abortion, that does NOT mean that I WANT people to have abortions. “Safe, legal, and rare” is exactly my stance, too, and I try to advocate for all the things – education, access to contraception, economic opportunity and strong self-esteem – that help to make abortions rare. That being the case, as I said, I would never, EVER, tell ANYONE else what they could or could not do with their bodies. While I understand the stance of those who consider abortion murder (and appreciate the notion that we really don’t KNOW “when life begins”) I have to default to a woman’s bodily autonomy; that’s my line in the sand. Once we tell someone they HAVE to incubate a fetus, we’ve ceased to consider that person a full human being, and the implications of that are too dire for me to even comprehend.

    • Good, I’m glad we’re actually on the same page. That one tiny beer went straight to my head and I was afraid I’d stopped making sense. I really just wish we’d teach people about contraception. As a general rule it really does work and it’s so much better than the alternative.

  5. As a pro-choice advocate, I would most likely encourage a loved one not to have an abortion due to her risk of cervical cancer. For me it is all about the health of the one who might undergo said procedure. Thoughts on this position from one of your students? As a person who clearly favors a woman’s right to decide her own actions here, I wonder what your response might be to a student such as me who holds very liberal views on this, but who also has concerns for the mother.

    • Carson, I will admit to not having a whole lot of expertise in this area, but I don’t know of any reputable study that links abortion to increased risks of cervical cancer. A quick investigation on Local U’s databases turned up this, from The Journal of Cancer Research

      Martin’s study
      involved small groups in which the large excess of induced
      abortions easily might be spurious or a result of concomi
      tant cultural bias. In my own design, with more than 400
      each of patients and controls and all matched in pairs, the
      number of abortions was taken as a percentage of total preg
      nancies, resulting in almost exact equivalences of both spon
      taneous and induced abortions for patients and controls.
      Pending further research, abortion frequencies would ap
      pear to have no bearing upon risk, directly or indirectly.
      It is doubtful that any source of direct trauma to the cervix
      carries cancer risk potential.

  6. Carson, I’ve literally never heard that abortion increases the risk of cervical cancer. I’ve read several studies that suggest there could possibly be a link, but despite study the link has yet to be determined as causal. As a general rule, my thought process is teach people to use contraception and then we won’t have to deal with abortions.

  7. I will need to go back and do my homework here. As for contraception, is it now affordable to low income citizens? I know the ACA is supposed to take care of this, but I am not sure. As for your students, I am glad they are being trained to defend a position in a non confrontational manner. For some reason, folks believe that a debate/argument is only that which is heated. Sure, emotions are important, but they can get one in trouble; I avoid emotions if I can….I need clarity of thought when articulating a matter.

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