We are all shaped by the cultural environment in which we grow up. Our attitudes, inclinations and prejudices are instilled in us at an early age by our parent-figures, our schools, the media and all the other influences of modern society. There is no getting away from this and in any case I don’t believe it is inherently a bad thing; it’s just the way it is. One of the main interests for me in going abroad is to see how differently people in other countries view the world.
It sounds as if I’ve kicked off by contradicting the title and message of this week’s post and, at one level, I suppose I have. None of us is created and nurtured in a vacuum, and in terms of cultural values, ethics and politics, nothing much exists by way of objective truth. We can each only do our best to think and behave with honesty and integrity and remember that someone who has reached the opposite conclusion on any given issue may well have done so with equal honesty and integrity, but approaching from a different perspective.
I was well into my 30s before I realised how many of my opinions were imported holus bolus from my mother. Of course, I knew we agreed about almost everything, but I genuinely believed I had thought things through for myself and just happened to end up thinking what my mother thought because she was right. As I began to detach from her psychologically and emotionally, it became clear to me I’d been fooling myself, that I had trained myself to agree with her because it was the most self-protective course of action. My mother has a strong sense that those who don’t see the world exactly as she does are weird, inferior, possibly deficient, usually rather unpleasant, to be pitied or despised.
What I’m trying to do today is to encourage you to examine your beliefs and opinions and make sure they are really your own. A good way to do this is to get talking to people who hold beliefs and opinions that are different from yours and keep an open mind as you discuss things with them. If you’d like to do this in a safe environment, I recommend a debating society or some sort of discussion group that is chaired and where people don’t resort to personal insults. I’ve been going to a couple of these groups for about eighteen months now and I can tell you they have done me no end of good. I’m learning so much from listening to other people and it’s also immensely reassuring and empowering to know that, although many members of the group may fundamentally disagree with my stance on any given subject, I always feel welcome there. Holding ‘incorrect’ views has historically been an existentialist issue for me and it’s been an absolute liberation to discover there are people to whom I am acceptable even if I think differently from them.
Prejudice is something we take in with our mother’s milk and we cannot be blamed for that. It’s the same, to a greater or lesser extent, for every single person who has ever been born. However, what we can be blamed for is allowing those prejudices to persist, by avoiding or dismissing information that challenges them. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to learn as much as possible and always to keep an open mind. This doesn’t mean we should go through life never forming a solid opinion – far from it – but it does mean we need to keep listening and re-evaluating.
Challenging and changing your views can be quite a disorientating experience but it can also be an exhilarating ride, as you shed your baggage and find out what you really think. In certain areas, you may unearth a truth that blinds you as soon as you uncover it; in other areas, you may decide you were right all along; in yet others, you may go on fine-tuning your views over decades. To me, this is all part of the interest and the growing. You can never be your own person until the views you hold are your own.
And remember that all this cuts the other way too: if your views are based on your own knowledge, experience and open-minded debate, you are on firm ground. There will always be people who disagree with you but, as I was saying last week, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong. Actually, there is great strength in being able to admit when you’re wrong or you’ve changed your position and if you can get used to doing that with grace and without fear, you’ll get a reputation as someone measured, reasonable and probably even wise. Then, when you are unshakeable on a particular topic, you’ll have more authority and – who knows? – you may even change the minds of some of your listeners.