U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used the phrase “When that facts change, I change my opinion” recently. It was ostensibly in defence of his so-called flip-flops on a number of issues.
He attributed this quote to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who is apparently one of his heroes.
Churchill did not say this and in fact, Churchill’s leadership and life was marked by the steadfastness of his opinions, for better and sometimes for worse, despite any changing facts.
The saying is more usually attributed to John Maynard Keynes to explain his changing opinions during the Great Depression, although some people argue that this was apocryphal and that he didn’t say it either. But what I liked about the saying when I first heard it (attributed to Keynes), is that it sounded anti-ideological, anti-polemicist and anti-dogmatic.
When I was presenting a paper at a conference years ago while still a graduate student, I sat beside a professor at dinner who was talking about another scholar from another university. I said “I can’t stand him because I can’t stand his politics.”
The professor — who subsequently became a longtime and still current friend of mine — said “That is because you are too much of an ideologue.”
I was shocked and wounded because I believed then as I believe now that I am a rational agent who adopts positions based on reasons and evidence. But why it actually bothered me was because it was probably too close to the bone.
From my perspective, I didn’t like the professor in question because he was an extreme libertarian and wrote articles in which he argued that private property was the basis of all rights and that if someone owned a restaurant, for example, that person had the right to deny service to people who wanted to eat in the restaurant, based on any criteria the owner chose.
So if the owner of the restaurant wanted not to serve someone based on her or his race, then that was fine. I was so appalled by anyone who would articulate such a position that I decided then and there that I loathed him.
The comment from the then stranger professor had a great deal to do with how I evaluated political and moral stances from that time to this. I shared this with the now friend recently about his comments to me back then and he was really surprised that those comments were life-altering to me.
We live in very polemical times. “Ideology is all” in many places in the world and there are far too many people who judge and damn other people because of what they believe them to be like rather than based on any objective assessment of who they really are and what they actually believe.
It is far easier to judge people without actually taking the time to get to know them or read what they write or meet them and talk to them.
Many wars and acts of terrorism are ostensibly fought on ideological grounds. But ideology is not all. Further, there are far too many “hates” and other complex and confounded motives driving human action in the world than to make it probable that the human species will continue to survive or thrive into the 22nd century.
I must say that I get very tired of listening to people who are theoretically good people but who practically hate most of the actual people who traverse this world in the very short timeframe that encompasses an individual human existence. It is sort of a “I love humanity, but it is just people that I can’t stand” sort of stance.
The problem here is that it is much easier to be dogmatic than to think for yourself and it is much easier to deal with stereotypes than with human beings as they really are.
In our country, we say that people are Conservatives or New Democrats or Liberals so we don’t have to really deal with any flesh and blood person.
The upside of the decisions of a dogmatist making decisions is that the mental costs of decision-making processes are considerably less because the dogmatist deals with rules and abstraction without ever dealing with the details of the real world including real human beings.
The downside is that the failure to attend to the details of real life can lead to bad decision-making with catastrophic results.
The dogmatist significantly constrains her or his ability to see any kind of inhabited world of real human actors.
Ideologues live with cartoons. Cartoons can be fun. But sooner or later, we should all grow up and see the world as it really is.
» Deborah C. Poff, Ph.D., is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 1, 2012