The Hidden Wisdom of Contradicting Yourself
I don’t tend to write about politics — especially not elections. But there are some things that take place in politics that represent a more general phenomenon in the human condition. This is a piece of writing about one such instance.
Specifically, there is a lurking fear in our society of being caught contradicting yourself. In an age where more and more of our words are captured on the public record, that fear has much more ammunition on which to feed. But this fear is misplaced. We shouldn’t be afraid to contradict ourselves. In fact, we should embrace contradiction, because (a) almost all of us do it at some point and (b) in many cases, contradicting yourself is a sign of intellectual development and humility.
The Fear of Flip-Flopping
In the debates leading up to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Democratic candidate John Kerry faced a strand of criticism that was as relentless as it was insipid: he was a “flip-flopper”. The implication was that because of the different stances Kerry had taken on issues at different times, he was either (a) a slick, two-faced, sycophantic politician or (b) an indecisive, confused man, incapable of strong leadership. Neither was a flattering picture, and in part because of that, Kerry’s opponent, George W. Bush won a second term as president.
I remember hearing criticisms about Kerry’s “flip-flopping” in the weeks leading up the election. Talk show hosts made jokes. Pundits lobbed grenades of criticism. I remember feeling a sense of disbelief as I prepared to vote in my first presidential election. I found it disturbing how a large swath of American voters were willing to allow nuance and intellectual honesty to be whitewashed away by the broad brush of oversimplified rhetoric.
But it’s something that happens in more than just politics, and in more places than just America. We tend to punish people for changing their minds — for something that any intellectually honest person should do — and the more public our beliefs are, the worse it’s going to get.
Changing Our Minds is Progress
One of my favorite books is The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. I love it because it’s the story of a complex historical figure — one who took a long and winding intellectual journey. It went from youthful hedonism, to close-minded fundamentalism, and then to open-hearted brotherly love.
Malcolm Little began as hooligan, chasing girls, basically living in clubs, and with little to no direction in life. He went to prison, found religion, and became (for all intents and purposes) a religious extremist. After living and leading in that world for years, he changed his mind, and broke away from the Nation of Islam — which put his life in danger. Near the end of his short life, he changed his views on racial integration — ones that had so defined his point of view early on as a black nationalist.
In 1964, Malcolm X went on the Haaj — a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca — and wrote a letter back to the U.S. In it, he talks about a reversal of his previously negative attitudes toward racial integration — based on his experiences with muslims of all colors on the Hajj. He writes:
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.
Two things stand out in Malcolm’s words: an open mind, and the facing of facts in the intelligent search for truth. When you arrange your life around these two things, you are bound — like Malcolm X — to contradict even your most strongly-held beliefs.
Consistency ≠ Constancy
If you think, write, and talk for long enough about something, you will eventually contradict something you said earlier. To the underdeveloped, superficial thinker, this will appear inconsistent or contradictory — but it is not. Many people believe that consistency must yield constancy — that a consistent approach or method must yield results that remain constantly the same. But this is a mistake — especially in the “intelligent search for truth”. The scientific method is consistent, but yields all sorts of crazy and contradictory results. It is in that way that new theories debunk old and long-held ones, and progress is made.
So what does this mean for the average person living in this day and age? It means that intellectual and even emotional progress involves some element of contradicting oneself. It means that there is really no currency in holding the same belief for long periods of time. It means that there are no points deducted for changing one’s mind. In fact, changing one’s mind is an outright symbol of open-mindedness (granted that it is authentic, and not simply to gain popularity).
To be willing to change your mind is an overt act of respect for truth — you revere what the facts say over and above the thrill of being right. You value logic and reason over how your shallow public reputation. And in that sense, we should sing the praises of the person who contradicts their earlier statements — for they have sacrificed their intellectual comfort for the sake of the search for truth. And that is a laudable thing indeed.
Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Do it openly and eagerly. Encourage others to do it, and congratulate them when they do. In the long run, it will serve you well in finding wisdom, and finding good companions in the search for it.