Since I published my last post, it got reblogged by some folks whose views I pretty strongly disagree with. In that post, I was attempting to defend the idea of “closedmindedness.” I have been accused of closedmindedness in the past, and I wanted to point out that this claim doesn’t seem to mean anything specific, and when it does it remains specious at best.
Nonetheless, my somewhat ironic use of the term seems too vague in hindsight. I didn’t mean to claim that simply because one believes something, and believes it strongly, they are therefore entitled to ignore all contradictory claims and counterarguments. That is simply dogmatism, and it is a good deal different from what I mean by closedmindedness.
Closedmindedness is an attempt to respond to (neo)liberal concept of the “marketplace of ideas.” This figuration suggests that all political perspectives are in competition with one another, and as such they must all be given equal consideration by the “rational” actor. In this way, the “best” views can triumph, and all politics can be subordinated to the rationality of the market.
As I said in the last post, this view generally ignores history and power, as well as the institutional forces that allow some views to be more widely broadcast and more vigorously defended than others. I further argued that some views can be excluded from one’s political consideration in order to take a moral and political stand for justice.
Despite my best intentions, however, my piece can be read as a simple endorsement of dogmatism. This is precisely what I was hoping to avoid. As such, I’d like to clarify the difference between dogmatism and closedmindedness. Then, I will offer an outline of how one might come to exclude certain views from one’s political consideration, or how one comes to determine where to close one’s mind on the political terrain.
In my framework, dogmatism is decidedly different from closedmindedness. Dogmatism is an embrace of dead ideology. It does not respond to critique, is not fully conscious of the wider political terrain, and adopts very limited readings of history, reality, and theory. A good example is RadFem/Radscum thought. For those who are not familiar, RadFems are a group of dubiously self-proclaimed feminists who claim to advocate “Radical Feminism.”
Now, I chose RadFems as my example of dogmatism for three specific reasons. The first is that I used to almost be one and know how compelling parts of their ideology can seem to certain feminist neophytes. I think it is therefore important to point out that this is hardly a feminist group, despite their claims to the contrary. The second is that I am still a radical feminist, in that I am radical in my feminism. As such, I want to defend a hardcore, Left feminism that is deeply committed to abolishing all forms of oppression, but that remains vital and responsive to the world even as it is morally, ethically, and politically grounded. Lastly, I think juxtaposing RadFem dogmatism with my own brand of closemindedness will help to clearly demonstrate the differences between the two.
RadFems argue that the mainstream feminist movement today has forgotten its radical roots, and has been co-opted by oppressive forces. So far, so good. However, rather than engaging in a living, vibrant oppositional politics, RadFems tend to stick to their own closed communities and limited political views. They are neither radical (because they do not seek to understand the living world to “grasp things at the root”) nor feminists (as I will soon show). RadFems quote a handful of mid-20th century white, Euroamerican theorists as if their work were scripture, and they focus their political efforts on conservative readings of a small handful of issues. Thus, as an example of dogmatism, a RadFem might say, “You are no feminist, because you support X. I know that no feminist can possibly support X, because Andrea Dworkin once wrote Y. Dworkin is a true feminist, and I am too because I agree with her on everything. You, however, are not a feminist, because you support X, and no feminist can support X….” This cyclical logical continues unabated throughout the entirety of “RadFem” thought.
In contrast, closedmindedness is emphatically not dogmatic. Closedmindedness is not the belief that because I claim to deeply believe something, I can therefore a priori dismiss all other perspectives. Rather, it is a form of political praxis that takes stock of the present political moment, incorporates a historical analysis, and (drawing from a collective, transgenerational body of knowledge and experience) makes intentional decisions about where and how to focus one’s political time and attention. Closedmindedness is heavily indebted to Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed, and incorporates in particular her components of “semiotics” (sign reading) and “democratics” (a moral orientation towards love in the postmodern world).
As opposed to dogmatism’s (tacit) assumption of a fixed, specifically ordered world and limited understanding of history, closedmindedness is painfully aware of the political terrain. In order for closedmindedness to function (and, crucially, to avoid becoming dogmatism), one must be fully aware of the multiple, complex, and inextricable forces at play on the political terrain. Through semiotics, the closedminded individual strives to gain an understanding of the political landscape, in particular how specific actors, institutions, events, and ideas interrelate to one another. This is key to developing a predictive power and “common sense” which will allow one to understand where certain views are coming from, how these views came to be, who is advocating them, and to what end they are being articulated. Likewise, a closedminded activist must also be aware of the history that has led up this moment. It is not enough to simply work from what is happening now. One must know how we got to where we are in order to more accurately assess where it is we want to go.
Now, if objectivity is a myth and those with power have the ability to define that term, how can a closedminded activist develop the critical resources and ethico-political compass to figure out how to read the present and the past? Simply put, the one must become the many, and consciously so. The lone closedminded activist is at best powerless to affect change, and is at worst becomes a cynic and a nihilist. Alone, they are liable to be co-opted by power and/or turn to dogmatism. But the closedminded activist need not remain alone. Instead, it is essential to turn to the collective memory and critical capacity of oppositional forces in society. These can be generally termed “the oppressed.” The oppressed need not be consciously organized to produce knowledge and critical resistance relevant to their oppression, but it helps. This is in part what Sandoval means by democratics; she is referring to the collective liberation ethic that emerges from shared histories of survival and resistance.
Therefore, to give an example of closedmindedness, let me turn to a very fraught but pressing issue: the occupation of Palestine by Israel. I have chosen to refer to this as an occupation and not a conflict because I have closed my mind to Zionism. I have not done this arbitrarily (as if based on some whim or simple prejudice) nor have I been taken in by anti-Semitism (a real oppression we must take seriously). Rather, I have drawn upon my knowledge of the present political terrain, my understanding of history, and my ethico-politcal solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed. Though these components are analytically separate, in reality they are inextricable from one another.
It was only relatively recently that I have come to understand the political terrain of this issue. I began with my prior knowledge of the broader political terrain. For example, I knew that the United States is heavily funding only the Israelis, and that the political forces that most vigorously advocate for “Israel’s right to self-defense” are those which I generally oppose, namely the Right. Next, I drew on my ethico-politcal compass, informed by the struggles of other oppressed groups and social justice struggles with which I have chosen to stand in solidarity. This helped me to guide myself towards political analyses and historical accounts that reflected my emerging sense of reality. Finally, I grew into solidarity with Palestine and to support the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement from the work I had done to figure out just what was going on.
This process also fed back on itself; I quickly learned that mainstream US media provides a very limited and biased account of the situation on the ground, and this account is based on a false reading of history that supports Zionist colonial violence and occupation. Therefore, I began to exclude sources of information such as MSNBC and Huffington Post in favor of sources like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss. Finally, I connected my support for ending the occupation to other political issues about which I am passionate. It would be personally and politically hard to reconcile a stance in favor of the occupation of Palestine with one that condemns the United States’ historical and continuing colonization of indigenous land in what is now known as North America.
In truth, these components emerged unevenly and in tandem, not in a linear pattern such as I have laid out above. Nonetheless, this living, politically engaged, aware, connected, loving, and ethically grounded vision of closedmindedness is what I advocate when I say there are defendable reasons for excluding some political perspectives and sources of information. There is not a morally or politically superior rationale for remaining perpetually stuck in the “marketplace of ideas” well after closing time. Indeed, I believe that there is no need to set foot in the store in the first place. There is no particular virtue to openmindedness, nor is there any justifiable reason to resort to dogmatism. Both openmindedness and dogmatism are retreats from politics; the former is an overly-cautious liberalism that refuses to commit too strongly to any one of a very limited set of preformed opinions, while the latter has a brand loyalty that has survived several product recalls. Neither seriously engages in political contestation, and both rest upon largely hidden and unquestioned assumptions and institutional factors that preclude radical political change.
Thankfully, it is perfectly possible to leave both liberalism (in the classical sense) and fascism behind. There are millions of activists and oppressed groups around the world who are closing their minds to neoliberal capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, (neo)colonialism, and other forms of domination, exploitation, and violence. In closing our minds, we may open our hearts to one another, and finally take a collective, conscious, and undefeatable stand for liberation and justice.
Being open minded is overrated. We would rather be closed minded and stand up for what we believe to be right, than be open minded and stand for nothing at all.