Signs of Intelligence — Str8 Talk on Changing Your Mind
Jill Soloway changed my mind. I wasn’t seeking enlightenment when I watched the Transparent writer/director’s interview with Ari Melber, but it arrived anyway, literally over the airwaves. Briefly, Ms. Soloway, who self-identifies as non-binary in that they prefer the pronouns they/their/them to she, was discussing families and programs that portray family dynamics. Jill mentioned that she was “obsessed with the Kardashians.”
That’s what I did. My brain stopped. Had she actually said, “I’m obsessed with the Kardashians.”? I rewound and watched it again. Yup. She said it. Under a gentle prompt, Soloway went on, “In the world of feminism, they call this fem phobia (Is that phem phobia?) or fem shaming…Do all women stand for each other or are there some women we don’t stand for?”
As a mom who tried to convince her 10-year-old daughter that being a heavy-equipment operator was a possible career choice, I consider myself a card-carrying feminist, but without the card. My daughter, by the way, just looked at me and said, “Mooooooom!” Feminism, in my mind, occurs in a world where no woman is prevented, discouraged, or impeded in her life choices on the basis of gender. These disjointed thoughts raced through my mind in a nanosecond as I tied the current inquiry to a family of round-tushed, perfect-boobed, always-coifed beauties, who, it must be admitted, are also multiple-business owners, artists, and spokespeople.
Something shifted as the Plinko puck moved down the board. The Kardashian women are best known for their bodies, to the degree that each one has become an industry. Is that fair? Should women use their bodies to make money? Isn’t that exploitation, body-obsession, and diminishing to the world of woman?
What about Brad Pitt, male and female models, or better yet, Arnold Schwarzenegger? Arnold’s body was his ticket to America, literally. Proud, oiled, intricately and powerfully muscled, Mr. Swarzenegger became an Austrian champion powerlifter and bodybuilder in the 60s and parlayed that fame into a prestigious film and political career. Did anyone cry “Foul” as he strutted across the stage at Mr. Universe or Mr. Olympia competitions? Did the press malign his use of his looks and muscles when the studio released Predator to great reviews and millions in earnings? Schwarzenegger himself admitted the pleasure he took in each audience’s reaction to his physical perfection. “The applause had an effect like I’d never imagined.” Was there a Greek chorus lurking in his shadow waiting to shout, “Boo! Your body is not a talent!” I’ve been listening, but not a whisper is coming through.
So, how are the Kardashians any different? They aren’t, but because they are female, and because they acknowledge and monetize their sexuality and sensuality, thus “giving in” to atraditional male patriarchy that objectifies women, I had dismissed each and every one. Until I heard Jill Soloway.
Changing one’s mind can arise out of at least three disparate cases: 1. the first in which culture, family, religion, or special circumstances have resulted in an “I believe” determination, 2. a second occurs when a previously unheard of bit of information, discovery, innovation, or research catches public awareness, and 3. the third, when choice had never even been an option, the issue having been so engrained as to be “choiceless”. Binary personal identifiers are among this last group. English pronouns exist for masculine, feminine, and neuter antecedents, each in the singular or plural. A narrow band of nomenclature has followed humans from the veldt to Van Nuys as though it were TRUTH. Now, truth has been sacked in favor of choice. English has one quirky and welcome feature in that they, their, and them, as plurals, are gender-free. Creative folks in the LGBTQ community have added new words to the gender lexicon with cis, trans, gender-nonconforming, non-binary, gender-queer, etc.
Am I right or wrong to have changed my mind about whether to value the achievements of a family of media-emblazoned beauties? Could be either, but the crux of the shift lies in what it says about the person and the mind. Jeff Bezos, for example, looks for people who can be wrong, admit it, and change their mind. Speaking several years ago to Jason Fried at his Basecamp operation, Bezos gave Fried and the staff a sort of 90-minute “Success Lookout 101” talk that included a description of the people he’d prefer to work with. Said Fried, “He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.”
Bezos isn’t the only one to advocate for mental flexibility. Changing an opinion, belief, or pattern long-held, perhaps unquestioned, likely unexplored, requires a fair amount of cognitive agility after first recognizing an issue. All that Plinko work discussed above also demands tapping into the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in order to then analyze the belief, evaluate the belief, and create anew. What’s so hard about that? Why use the phrase cognitive agility? Because any belief, opinion, or preference a person holds strongly, comprises hundreds, if not thousands of synaptic connections in the brain. In fact, this is a web strong enough to withstand multiple arguments, which is why it is difficult to change a person’s political or religious beliefs. Those political and spiritual opinions are not just held, they are inexorably bound to the individual and resist any effort to separate the two.
Gerard DuBois’s illustration for a 2017 article in The New Yorker entitled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” show a bearded, business-suited man standing, head bowed. Draped around his head are ropes tied to anchors resting on the floor. The message is that a mind burdened by fixed ideas can’t move on. No mind can evolve without space for something new, something altered, or something transformed. Dozens of research experiments have proven that even when faced with a truth, a fact, or another perspective, the average human maintains his or her flawed opinion. Researchers in one study acknowledged that, with many research subjects, even when every reason “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.”
Are we stupid? No, it is just that reason, evidenced by the ability to analyze and evaluate, is an evolved trait. It isn’t automatic. It isn’t present at birth. If reason, logic, rationale are not intentionally developed, they won’t be there when the situation demands critical thinking. Strangely, the capacity to reason wasn’t developed to make Solomon-like decisions. The New Yorker article explains that, since humans started out as communal beings, “Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.” Over the millennia, reason, with its attendant questions, sorting, seeking, and answers has enabled innovation, discovery, and invention and come to recommend itself to a positive form of evolution.
In short, when we change our minds, we are stretching our brains, increasing opportunities for tolerance, rising above our genetic propensities, and literally growing.