Open-minded mistakes

Attitudes of universal acceptance are detrimental to education and discourse.

By Alex Aciman

If there was one thing in particular about my New York high school that I had hoped to leave behind, it was an outlook on life and people epitomized by the term “universal acceptance.” I was disappointed to find that the indiscriminate adoration of all ideas and people and tastes had followed me when I relocated in September.There is a distinction between universal acceptance and open-mindedness. The latter is a necessary tool for education. Open-mindedness is giving something foreign the benefit of the doubt, having the audacity and the interest to try something new, and to examine unfamiliar ideas. This is a common enough disposition at the U of C. Universal acceptance, however, is a way of life and interaction that has its roots in the creed of every high school guidance counselor and politically correct kindergarten teacher: Everybody is entitled to their opinion. The universal acceptance I am describing differs from open-mindedness because when it is faced with something unusual or different, it does not require investigation, or even interest. It manifests itself instead in a small, loving nod of the head and a smile to affirm the belief that someone has just expressed an idea, and that regardless of what it is, or what it really means, that person is right, as is everyone else. Perhaps someone even throws out an ending phrase: Thank you for sharing. This works like a charm in Alcoholics Anonymous, but how does it hold up at a rigorous university? In classes, in housing, and in everyday situations, one will definitely find students who are unbearably tolerant of everything that comes their way. They are the cheery camp-counselor types, the over-eager future RAs who do not want to disagree with you, and certainly not offend you. In fact, they themselves might become offended or indignant if they catch you disagreeing with another student, or if you say something that throws off their sensitive intellectual balance. Their blanket understanding and acceptance of all ideas stunts the fruitful back-and-forth of any intellectual conversation.It is not necessary to be contrarian in order to be intellectual, or to look for something to disagree with in order to have a good conversation. Argument is not always enjoyable. However, one would imagine that at a university where nearly every class is a discussion or a seminar, a little friction in conversation is exactly what we’re looking for. It not only allows one to come up with an opposing idea, but also to be exposed to new ways of seeing something. The best possible outcome is that one learns to build on another’s ideas—and this cannot happen without first questioning an idea. The overly accepting are reluctant to do even this. The problem with those who are universally accepting is that they are unable to understand the difference between disagreeing with a person’s opinion and disagreeing with the person himself. While I may not be of the same opinion as a classmate or even as a professor, there is nothing to stop me from being friendly to them later on, in a different setting or during a different conversation. The universally accepting take intellectual opposition as personal opposition and treat it as insensitivity, closed-mindedness, and intolerance. The sad truth is that general acceptance, which is all too common, does not force someone to consider someone else’s idea: The goal is to avoid opposition by any means necessary. Therefore, instead of trying to understand and, if they have to, pick apart another argument, they choose to accept it immediately, because, after all, everyone’s opinions are of equal value, and they all deserve the same amount of respect. The very people who consider themselves the most open-minded fail to examine what is unknown and what is foreign, and fail to understand these things any more than is required in order to write them off as another person’s odd, but nonetheless valuable, opinion. They don’t even bother to hit the ball to the other side. The universally accepting are afraid to engage an opinion for fear of hurting someone.Their vast tolerance is in fact intolerance to the highest degree. It is ignorant; it is the death of the very discourse that we seek to perfect and that will teach us most during our lives. It is anti-intellectual, and it impedes education. And should something new, and something that diverges from what is common, make its way into their sights, it is left alone without examination simply because the universally accepting are afraid to disagree with it. This novelty will remain unknown to them. But this is fine, because it is only someone’s opinion, and everyone is different, so all that matters is that it be respected—never questioned or engaged or explored. Tolerance is intelligence, and intelligence is tolerance, and that is all we need to know.

Alex Aciman is a first-year in the College.