Narrow-mindedness versus a broader understanding

One problem that seems to be appearing with some consistency is the narrow-mindedness that I see in all areas of life, including academia, where one would think there would be a tendency to be broadminded. They say universities are places where people are taught to think, but I, a non-academic, was taught by my son that this is not always the case.

His major was computer science, and he had completed an apprenticeship in a well-known German company and pursued the subject on his own. His breakthrough seems to have come while he was still at school when he suddenly understood mathematics and its practical applications (thanks to a student who gave him lessons). After his apprenticeship, he went to university and found that much of what was being taught was outdated. Worse, he was told to forget everything he knew and study for exams based on outdated methods.

The consequence of this, which he personally experienced after becoming an instructor in the company he worked for, was that those with a university degree had no advantage, even though they assumed they had. Even towards him, who had dropped out of university, they assumed they were superior, which he had to correct – a problematic process. Apprentices, he said, often had an advantage because they did not have to unlearn what they had learned.

We have this situation in non-academic fields as well: Our worldview, which was taught in school, is shaped by a materialistic worldview that in many cases still adheres to a mechanistic understanding of nature. Many of us leave school realizing that we have not been prepared for the natural world. The simplistic ideas we are inculcated with are incompatible with reality, which is not black or white, and it is often not enough to assume that there is simply a wrong or right way to answer questions. Complexity forces itself upon us and we are confused when nuances complicate life. This sometimes develops into a resistance to complex questions, and we try to simplify them, but the more we learn, the more complexity arises and the more questions surface. We give up the struggle and try to empower ourselves with a preconceived notion that we do not recognize as a prejudice and therefore we do not take it into account.

In defence of such developments, we must acknowledge that life often challenges us to make complex decisions in ever shorter periods of time, which only worsens matters and helps a kind of fundamentalism to grow in all areas, not just in the religious realm where it is most prominent. Religions saw the rise of modernism as a challenge to their traditions and in some cases to the way of life they promoted, which has given rise to so-called culture wars predominantly with militant Islamic groups, but also to a doubling down of Christian fundamentalism and a phase of widespread evangelisation by people like Billy Graham in the 1970s. But there has been a similar development amongst atheist and humanist circles, which threw out the very concept of religion and spirituality in favour of a materialist ideology.

The narrowing of focus can also be seen in other areas, which is what my son and I experienced in Germany. We both became quality consultants in our vastly different fields of work (Nursing and IT) but realized in conversation that quality management is universal, even though it was initially developed for industry. It reflects a process that we implement every day, even if we are often not aware of it. We plan events, invite people to them, and buy what we need based on what we know about the people invited. Once the event has taken place, we check whether our sourcing was right for our invitees based on their satisfaction with the event and whether they will attend again. If something was not to everyone’s satisfaction, a change is made, which again may or may not be approved at the next event. This process continues if the event is held, each time evaluating the event and considering what could be done better.

This process requires a certain amount of constructive criticism and a willingness to respond to that criticism. It also means that if an event is good, we need to keep that standard and figure out what makes it a good event. This is something we do every day and something we take for granted. However, my son and I found that when we applied it to work processes, there was considerable frustration. My manager didn’t want to wait until the process took place but insisted on jumping ahead and doing the work process “good” right away. When I said I wanted to find out what made such an operation good, he said that it was obvious, even though it wasn’t, because when different people did the same work, there were different results. I wanted the operation to be good regardless of who was doing the work.

This is just one example of how we tend to narrow our perspective to individual specifics that are only part of a process, not the whole. We are increasingly discovering that our lives are made up of processes, not things. We can’t just observe the what but must also consider the how. The same kind of frustration that my CEO experienced is experienced by many people in their interactions with people. People change over time, but they also change under different circumstances, which means that every time I meet someone, they can be different to how I remember them, even after a brief period. I’m sure we all know people who are very blunt and “matter-of-fact” as they say about themselves, but in reality, they are not able to consider processes.

There are many people today who simply cannot get along with others. They seem less and less able to accept that other people have a different point of view and that this is not because they want to do us harm. The woman who is concerned about the safety of women has no intention of harming trans people who identify as women. The person who is concerned about the welfare of children is not out to harm men. The person who is comfortable with people of other ethnicity isn’t racist for not addressing their issues. The process that is charged with ensuring the quality of work does not criticize people personally. To the extent that we take a fixed perspective, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Collaboration suffers when we lose sight of the big picture, and conflicts arise.

However, our society is highly dependent on interaction and cooperation. It requires social processes in which individuals and groups interact, adapt and readjust to establish relationships and patterns of behaviour that are constantly changed through social interactions, just like the quality process described above. The more we focus on our small area of interest, forgetting that we contribute to the bigger picture, the greater the unconscious collective impact we have on society. That is the danger of narrowmindedness and the reason for much of the conflict we experience, especially in social media.

Broadmindedness is not just an inclination to tolerate or overlook opposing or “shocking” opinions or behaviour as is commonly assumed, but also to accept the various perspectives people have as valid, and subject to the process a person is going through. In fact, it would suggest that opposing opinions could have something constructive to offer towards the larger picture. Opposite sides of a coin make up the whole, despite being very different. Perhaps we could develop into a society similar to the people in the following parable:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”

“In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest, and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.”