In 2004, I was introduced to the term “flip-flop,” an insult popularized that election year by one John Kerry — the chronically indecisive Democratic nominee. Eight years later, Mitt Romney wears this badge of dishonor; though make no mistake — the terms “somersaulting” and “flip-flopping” have had roots in politics for centuries.
And that doesn’t come as a surprise, considering our society has long valued strong leaders with conviction. Some would say Kerry’s flip-flopping lost him the election, which illustrates the consequences of not going balls-to-the-walls with your beliefs. He was confused and weak, and that seemingly made him unfit to lead. (While I hardly think changing your mind is a crime, perhaps doing so in the face of an election extends the question of indecisiveness into one of integrity and honesty. Maybe Kerry was unfit in those regards, though who am I to say?)
But the celebrating of those who are steadfast in their positions extends beyond politics: individuals who are passionate and confident in their convictions seem to be viewed as stronger, more intelligent, and more capable. They are the heroes in films, they are the ones who rally us to go to war, they are the people who we aspire to be. Someone who knows what they believe in, whatever that is.
Conversely, if you are someone who doesn’t live for the art of debate, who isn’t completely sure of what and who you are, you might feel a bit down on yourself for not meeting this standard. The people who seem to achieve the Western idea of greatness have a power that the “lesser-thans” don’t — the power to commit to an idea. The power to believe so strongly in something that they cannot be convinced or swayed otherwise.
I am, in this scenario, one of the lesser-thans. I operate on intuition rather than belief; if my intuition tells me something new because of knowledge I’ve gained, I’m open to embracing the new perspective — until more information becomes available to me, at which point I’ll undoubtedly change or “flip-flop” again. And I thought this made me undesirable or that I was failing to aspire to a certain ideal, but then I read something that changed how I view the strength of conviction.
According to David Cain, having strong beliefs is not necessarily something to be proud of:
Believing something is not an accomplishment. I grew up thinking that beliefs are something to be proud of, but they’re really nothing but opinions one refuses to reconsider. Beliefs are easy. The stronger your beliefs are, the less open you are to growth and wisdom, because “strength of belief” is only the intensity with which you resist questioning yourself. As soon as you are proud of a belief, as soon as you think it adds something to who you are, then you’ve made it a part of your ego… Wherever there is a belief, there is a closed door.
So are those with the strongest convictions really the people who should be emulated? We know on a base level that impenetrable beliefs aren’t always noble. Sometimes they’re plain scary, in the case of radical religion or Nazis or the fringe Tea Partiers or the KKK. But what are your strongest beliefs and are you willing to question them? Let’s think about something most of us have experience with, like monogamy. Do you believe that, when you’re in a relationship, sex with other people should be off-limits? Even though humans have the primal instinct to mate, even though you most likely know people who cheat, are in open relationships, are polyamorous, are divorced — do you still believe that monogamy is the healthiest way to be in a relationship? If you had the option to be in a happy relationship or a monogamous one, what would you choose? Why?
To someone whose identity is not at stake when we discuss monogamy, the happy relationship may sound like the obvious choice. But to someone who has built their life around the pursuit of finding their one true love, of marriage, of growing old with someone — entertaining options outside of monogamy, suggesting that monogamy is not synonymous with happiness becomes an attack on a belief system that has shaped the person; thus it becomes an attack on the person. This is what having strong convictions does: it causes religion, political views, love, morality to latently become a part of our personhood. And once that happens, it becomes difficult to acknowledge or listen to other perspectives because they feel like personal attacks on our perspective and subsequently, on us.
But asking someone to open their mind is hardly done nefariously. In the essay “It’s Okay That You Said Something Racist,” the author illustrates how the goal of calling someone out for making a racist comment is not a personal attack, but an attempt to teach or discuss another perspective.
And know this, you will get called out. I’ve called two people out in the last week and the stories are dramatically different. When eating at a Japanese restaurant, my friend leaned over to me and said something in a stereotypical Japanese accent. I shot him a look, and said, “What?” I think he replied, “Whoops,” and then thanked me for catching him later. Honestly, I can’t even remember exactly what happened because it wasn’t a big deal! It never has to be. It’s only when people are closed minded that fireworks break out. Later that week, someone used outright racist imagery to advertise an upcoming party, and those responsible we called out, albeit sarcastically. Instead of acknowledging and apologizing, or even throwing the snarkiness back in our face, the party organizers continued to feign ignorance, insult us and others, and defend their right to do racist things even in the wake of thoughtful, well-rounded commentary. Obviously, they didn’t know how easy and common this is. Instead they choose to freak out and be personally insulted.
Asking a person to rethink their belief system is not to personally attack them, it’s giving them a show of faith. It says, “I believe that you are capable of reason,” not “You’re an idiot and you’re wrong.” Questioning your beliefs, testing them, changing your mind, “flip-flopping” does not make a person weak. I’d argue that it does the opposite — it allows us to entertain various perspectives, which in turn allows us to grow wiser, more rounded. Why are we afraid of giving power to people who can admit when they’re wrong, who can evolve, who place value in learning and growth? Isn’t that preferable to someone who sticks to their decisions and worldviews ’til death do them part?
Nietzsche once said, “We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the way in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.” But we fancy our beliefs as infallible only when they are heavily tied into our identities. If those are the grounds on which we defend and argue for them — not logic or objectivity — are they worth having in the first place?