London-Streetscape_C_Bronwen-Thornton

Occupy humanity

Well, like anyone I started out totally hopeless, a complete vernix-covered liability. Ageing from zero, my beliefs and opinions have appeared and have more or less been in a complete state of flux. I now occupy a position I think is pretty respectable (haven’t I always?). Roughly I’ve moved from nothing to right to centre to left to centre again. Within and between these regions I’ve left a thick, meandering trail from belief to belief, position to position.

Unless you’re crazy or a genius, then it’s true that those things you once believed are believed by others still, at this very moment in time. Like that your country is the best in the world. Like that pop music is good. Like that xrays, radio waves and the light we see are actually all the same thing. All the positions you’ve ever held still exist, held by some cross-section of thousands of people you’ve never met. Strangers you never meet will grow up, obtain an old opinion of yours, then hold it for some time. On the more or less static landscape of human opinion one may move on, drawing their own pen stroke, or hold it forever, leaving an ugly ink blot that radiates out. People may have be ahead of you, already moving on from your position. But if you’re the kind to change their mind frequently, it’s more likely people are behind you, coming to realisations you had before.

Growing up, being exposed to new ideas, travelling, learning lessons, changing one’s mind these are a way of painting the whole of human experience. As you age, so long as you change your mind, you occupy more and more of the mental possibilities accessible to humanity. It sounds nice but intuitively the tendency to change one’s mind is seen as flaky, phony, even untrustworthy.

Here are some benefits I’ve identified by being flaky in this way:

  1. Insight. At the time, holding the old belief felt so natural, that I find myself frequently surprised when others are baffled that such a  belief even exists.
    This solves perplexion like:”I just can’t believe there are people in this world that think war solves anything!”
  2. Acumen. I can sense subtleties of now foreign beliefs that other people don’t register. Also I can intuitively appreciate that don’t need to be all or nothing. Beliefs can be partially held, limited or hedged, and this tends to disengage most slippery slope counter-arguments.
    This solves confusion like: “Gay marriage is obviously wrong because then you’d have to let animals marry”.
  3. Optimism. I can’t blame someone for holding a position that I once held. Perhaps they just haven’t been exposed to the right things yet. After all I succeeded in changing.
    This solves hatred like: “What you believe is immoral so you are my enemy. I’m not even going to give you a platform.”
  4. Humility. There’s nothing like being proved wrong to prove that you can be wrong some times. I learnt that being proved wrong isn’t the end of my legitimacy as a thinker. This solves recklessness like: “You are a bully and a charlatan and you are wrong.”
  5. Kinship. If you once held the position, you can’t help but naturally empathise with those people whose beliefs you used to share.
    This solves solitude like: “People are stupid.”

I feel sorry for those born on one side of the political spectrum, and who stay there under some false virtue of “consistency”. I hate even more those who think that acquiescing on a point is tantamount to destroying an entire movement. At least I would hate them if I didn’t used to think that myself. The power of seeing both sides of an argument would explain to me why converts from a side are generally held in high regard by those who aren’t on that side, and rightly feared by those on the inside. These behaviours would almost be acceptable if only political differences caused the effects, but all of human experience involves opinions and belief and so is likewise stained.

This all means we should be thankful that we are born neutral, influenced by parents that are (on average) centrists, then that youth and university pushes people to the left, and age and parenthood pulls back to the right. There is no need to correlate wisdom to being right wing just because old people tend to be right wing and called wise.  Travelling around the globe because you experience new places and meet people goes some way to make you smarter, but wisdom comes from travelling through human opinion because you experience new ideas and be other people.