We all have ideas and beliefs we hold firmly, things we take seriously and have confidence in. There is no harm or inherent evil in having firmly held convictions, even those formed on little to no concrete evidence. Sometimes we don’t have much more than our instincts and intuitions to work with. The harm does not come from the firmness, or even stubbornness, of our convictions but from the deliberate act of closing our mind to any new information which doesn’t perfectly match or support our existing perceptions.
At some point we have all encountered those who are stubborn in their ideas and opinions. Trying to coax the ‘set in their ways’ crowd to expand their scope of vision or embrace new practices can at times feel like an exhaustingly steep uphill struggle but stubbornness of conviction is not the same thing as a closed mind.
The stubbornly fixed mindset can be frustratingly resistant to new information but that resistance is primarily based in an attitude of minimalism and simplification, of staying focused solely on their chosen swatch in the tapestry and waving away anything else as having nothing to do with them. While somewhat anathema to our increasingly interconnected virtual world there can be something admirable about the simplicity and efficiency of staying focused on the ground directly beneath one’s feet.
The danger of harm in this case doesn’t come from their resistance to new information, if you’re patient enough to keep working at it you can usually get through eventually and the good news is once they do make a shift they typically then hold to that new ground with the same conviction. The potential for harm comes from the lack of engagement or awareness. Problems, even massively systemic ones, can continue unabated around them as long those problems don’t directly disturb their chosen swatch.
‘Not my circus, not my monkeys’ might be a potentially important mental check and balance for those of us at the far end of the spectrum with the tendency to carry the weight of the entire world on our shoulders but it is also a mentality which enables prejudices, inequalities, and abuses to become systemic and persistent.
Closed minds are entirely different animal. They are fully willing, and often highly enthusiastic, to engage and are in a distorted way extremely aware. They are quite happy to look left, right, up, down, or any other direction because they deliberately choose to see the same things in every direction. They don’t resist new information they attack it, either by warping and distorting it to appear supporting of their existing perceptions or by villainizing it as propaganda generated by a nefarious ‘them’.
This makes them all the more dangerous and destructive because not only will they actively, and often aggressively, push their very specific perspective on those around them as the only acceptable perspective but the villainizing mechanism enables them to feel justified in any mistreatment or abuses committed in the process. If differing or contradictory information, or the sources thereof, are viewed as the enemy then it and they become something to be defeated. Not debated or even considered, defeated.
It is important to note that the primary motivator behind this particular mindset is fear, the same fear which if held and succumbed to for too long generates hate. Fear of the unknown is a natural reaction but the choice to close our minds to that unknown is a choice to be taken hostage by that fear, while falsely convincing ourselves we have conquered it.
The fear is very much in charge. We can see it in the angry attacks against any kind of information which might require genuinely facing the unknown in question, rather than simply turning away from it as in the case of the stubbornly narrowed mindset. We can see it in the weaponizing of the fear into hate to bolster and embolden those attacks. And we can see it in the desperation with which the villainizing distortion is clung to.
Those who close their minds do so by distorting their view of the unknown to make it appear fully quantified and known, by manufacturing an image casting the unknown as a malicious threat which they are now ‘on to’ or have ‘caught in the act’. Feelings of fear become justified by the obvious threat but the fear never diminishes or goes away. Despite all the hate, aggression, and attacks the fear only ever increases because all that energy is being directed at the fear of fear rather than the actual fear itself.
The only true way to conquer fear of an unknown is exposure to it. The more we actually know and understand about it the less we fear it. To genuinely conquer fear of a particular animal or insect or heights or closed spaces or any other source spend time encountering it. Gain actual experience with it (hopefully positive) to more fully understand it thereby dispelling the imagined dangers. Actual dangers which are understood can be dealt with reliably and practically. Dangers which remain imagined will forever morph and intensify into boogeymen too chaotic and dangerous to ever confront.
This is why simply stacking evidence up in front of a closed mind fails to spur them to open up and consider. The battle is not with the distorted perception but with the fear which is distorting it. The power of exposure and evidence to dissipate fear is unable to work as long as the villainizing distortion is in place.
That distortion is how the fear perpetually sustains itself. By setting the source of fear up as a falsely ‘known’ enemy all information supporting that perception becomes evidence and all information challenging it becomes enemy propaganda. If we don’t know the thing we fear it, if we let ourselves be taken hostage by the fear we enable it to convince us to stay away from the thing, if we stay away from the thing it remains an unknown, because it is still unknown we continue to fear it.
Once this cycle is up and running evidence or exposure can’t get close enough to have an effect because the fear is actively working to thwart it, virtually identical to the cycle of addiction. The longer the cycle turns the deeper and more horrifying the unknown seems and thus the more desperately the villainizing image is clutched to.
So how do we break this cycle?
Acknowledge The Problem
As with most problems of distorted perceptions the first challenge is to get someone to recognize and acknowledge the distortion.
Before you can get someone to re-examine a topic they have closed their mind to you first have to address the closure. Pilling up evidence or even expertly persuasive arguments will be thwarted before they start unless the active and deliberate closing off of their mind is relaxed.
This is the most difficult step, and where we have the least amount of power, because to progress beyond it requires the other person to be willing to participate. We can set up everything perfectly for them but they have to choose to take action, they have to choose to step back from the cycle and turn to face that fearful unknown. We cannot simply force people to change, to open their minds.
There are times when events can be so powerfully shocking and clear they shove us out of our cycles and perceptions, whether we want them to or not. This can create an opportunity for change but finding ourselves suddenly standing exposed outside of our mental vaults can inspire an even more powerful surge of fear aimed at driving us right back inside.
Outside of those extreme moments, or in attempts to make use of an opportunity provided by them, the first step is to address the close minded cycle not the specific unknown in question. The best chance to help people recognize their status as a hostage of fear is to focus on the hostage aspect rather than further provoking the fear.
Opening The Mind Doesn’t Mean Changing It
An important part of helping someone open their mind is establishing trust with the person that opening their mind to new information does not require they change their mind.
Even if our ultimate desire would be to see them alter their existing perception, not only is that not a choice we can or have any right to make for them, if we make that the only acceptable outcome then we make it all too easy for their fear to cast us as the deceitful enemy who must be defeated.
To affect true and lasting change we need others to choose, agree, and participate not simply do as we demand they do. Even if that were able to achieve a desirable outcome it would always be temporary, lasting only until someone with enough exercisable power forces whatever change they want to see. To affect true and lasting change we need to change not simply the results but the systems used to produce them.
For a society to function freely and effectively it requires consensus not uniformity. Genuine agreement and co-operation stem from finding common ground between differing perspectives not from enforced obedience.
Enforced obedience is only a ‘good’ outcome when you are aligned with the ones currently enforcing it.
What’s In It For Them
When dealing with someone who has surrendered and become a hostage to their own fears pleas on behalf of others are doomed to fall on deaf ears. Not because they are a horrible person devoid of compassion but because their fears have trapped in them in a false mode of pure survival.
Those who have surrendered to their fears and closed their minds wind up living in a state of perpetual existential terror, their only perception of the particular unknown one of primal danger. Not only do we need to reduce the perceived danger of opening their minds we also need to try and illustrate there is a better life for them on the other side of their fears which is worth confronting them for.
Altruism is a lovely ideal but it is one which can be very difficult to aspire to if we are trapped in a state visceral fear. Facing our personal fears is among the most difficult and painful struggles we can face in our lives. To take on that kind of struggle we need a reason to do so which resonates with sufficient personal value, it is a basic part of human nature.
This principle applies every step along the way. What will they gain by facing their deliberate choice to close off their mind? Or what may they potentially lose by refusing to? What is there to be gained by exposure to new experiences and information? Or what may potentially be lost by refusing to? And finally, what can be gained by possibly shifting or adapting their previous perceptions? Or what might potentially be lost by refusing to consider it?
And it is vital to remember feelings of importance and value can differ greatly from person to person. What matters a great deal to one will not necessarily carry the same weight with another. That which you would seek to gain, or would not want to lose, may not resonate strongly enough with the other person to make the struggle with their fears seem worth it.
True and lasting change only occurs and sustains when it generates stakes and benefits for all involved. The results of the moment may be of greater benefit to some more than others from circumstance to circumstance but if the change is one of system not of singular result then circumstances will come around when the benefits are greater for others rather than some. Positive change, positive societies arise from systems aimed at shared beneficial opportunities for all, not at selectively privileged results.
When confronted with a closed mind the most genuine and sustainably beneficial goal is not to change their mind but to help them to open it. A changed single attitude is a result, a healthier way of arriving at it is positive genuine change.
And remember they are not your enemy, even if they are behaving like one. The enemy you are doing battle with is their fear, the fear which has taken them hostage and will attempt to do the same to all those they encounter.
Freeing them from that fear is the true victory.