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Free Your Mind Instead

Nothing is beyond interrogation

By Joshua B. Lipson

Given that this is the final installment of two years of Dining on Sacred Cow, I ought to be butchering a big one this week. But all that’s genuinely worth flaying is too much to broadcast in a publication that will carry my name for the rest of my life—such is the world, and such is the reason why nobody ever takes profound risks on these pages; grant me that—and if you’d like to talk about dangerous things, we can do so more intimately.

Contrary to what I had wanted, this column has not become much of a shock generator. Despite my occasionally impish wish to upset people set in their ways, I strive painfully for nuance. I’ve talked about some quirky things, certainly—eating insects, fro-yo commerce, OKCupid/job application snafus, radical life extension—but it turns out that the real page turners are relatively boilerplate: affirmative action, the one percent, “the death of the humanities,” hook-up culture, drone strikes. On such issues, wrote Ecclesiastes, nothing is new under the sun. I would any day rather aim for unique value-add—a near impossibility when debating abortion, gun control, et al—than for outrage.

Fanatical open-mindedness to uncomfortable arguments is simply less common than I’d hoped it to be—a problem that holds as true at Harvard as anywhere else. When writers on these pages and on the public profiles of perfectly intelligent peers sincerely advocate for censorship of thought and speech, it is impossible to have a genuine conversation about anything unnerving—which is practically everything that matters.

If the reader rejects this mindset because it belongs to a privileged 21st century Westerner, then he or she is already missing the point. I am doing my sincere best to take account of my biases and privilege, recognize the contingency of my culturally and psychologically mediated perspective, and hear others out. At the very least, hear me out.

In the interest of broadening my perspective, I ask my discussants to share their most alarming ideas with me. In turn, I only ask never to be shut down on the mere basis of how challenging my suppositions can sometimes be. If my limited circumstances remain so irremediably unforgivable, then I suppose there is nothing meaningful to be shared.

The name of the game is open-mindedness—not the open-mindedness of pop mantras, but the radical, occasionally unsightly, always unafraid, universally critical, well-meaning, detective-like thing that finds no cow too sacred. In the broad sense, it is a dispositional trait that correlates with intelligence, skepticism, tolerance, tattoos (I will never get one, though), and Burning Man.

As I’ve argued before, it is a variable on which liberals are (on average) clinically proven to have conservatives beaten. But at the end of the day, it gets to their heads. Harvard is but one of many places teeming with liberals who congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness, astonishingly sure that their sensitivities and thought-taboos can’t be counted against it. Reality check: our mainstream liberal majority, perhaps more than any other ideological cohort around, lives extremely comfortable, small-C conservative lives of the mind.

The friend who suggested the title of this column puts it most succinctly: you are open-minded if you’re willing to seriously entertain and accept that the truth isn’t what you want it to be. As a born libertarian tempered by the reasonable takeaways of both Keynes and Burke (figuratively; I am more interested in psychology than in political philosophy), I do my best to believe in things first and foremost because I think them descriptively true, rather than simply desirable. If you ever notice a blind spot, I urge you to let me know.

If you expected me to spill all of my ugliest hypotheses about society and the human experience in this column, I’m sorry to have let you down. But the message remains what it has always been: no perspective or conjecture is too absurd or too dangerous. No cow is too sacred to be tipped.

Until incremental strides are made from all sides toward this leveling principle, social and political discourse will remain stunted, two-dimensional, and cringe-worthy. I hope everyone gets the help they need in surmounting the awful barriers.

Joshua B. Lipson ‘14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House.

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