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Change your mind — it’s a sign of strength not weakness

I’ve reversed my opinion on most of the big issues of our time, from social media to Corbyn to porridge. And I reserve the right to change it back again

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Was there ever a time of greater certitude, when so many were so utterly convinced of so much? Brexiteers, vegans, doomsayers, Putinistas, people of faith, people of no faith, terrorists, trolls, football pundits ...

From the occasional below-the-line firestarter, right up to the leader of the free world himself, minds are made up, closed for new business. No one, it seems, is open to the subtle arts of persuasion, discussion, debate, exchange.

No one, it seems, apart from me. I seem to be more biddable than ever. It may be unfashionable, but I’ve changed my mind about changing my mind. I do it all the time. Recently I’ve changed my mind about vases, tuition fees, surfing, houseplants, cinnamon, Portugal and the accordion. In some matters, I’ve changed my mind more than once: Social media (thumbs down, thumbs up, thumbs down); winter (love, hate, love); and porridge (hot, cold, just right).

And then there are the things I change my mind about every day, several times: God, crisps, democracy, the internet, euthanasia, Corbyn, alcohol, the free market. I didn’t even want to write this piece, but they talked me into it.

It never used to be this way. As a younger man, having plump, resolute opinions was a prerequisite for masking a whole range of insecurities. In those days, I was more certain about everything than I am about anything now. Globalisation, multiculturalism, education, fiscal redistribution, tolerance, equality and solidarity were articles of faith.

But how wrong I was about the euro, Boris Yeltsin and Chris Lewis! How dull it was to sit and listen to another human being with a mind shuttered and unreceptive. How arrogant to enter into that most confidential transaction known as conversation with your opposite number, unaware that you do not deem them worthy of a proper hearing.

How much more intoxicating to open up to the idea that some combination of wordage might come along that will flip a few neural switches and actually make you feel differently about something.

Of course it’s important to retain some moral bearings, some fixed values that will not shift alarmingly according to the opinion of the last person you’ve spoken to. I’m sure, if I think hard enough, there are things I will not change my mind about: Tax havens, paedophilia, bigotry, female genital mutilation, pimping, slavery. But almost everything else — who knows? John Maynard Keynes said: “When the facts change, I change my mind”. The facts change a lot over a lifetime.

And this is perhaps the crucial point. For our psychological balance, we are meant to change our minds. It’s absurd to think that we will believe the same things at 80 that we did at 18, that our worldview can really survive intact when constantly pulverised by the relentless tides of experience.

n Example 1: After a bout of clinical depression, I realised that mentally ill people are not dangerous, self-harming lunatics to be avoided at all costs, but ordinary people who have simply been unlucky. I also understood that they are not being cared for properly. I changed my mind about our society’s approach towards this scourge.

n Example 2: After becoming a father, I reconsidered the primacy of work in a man’s life and decided that parenting was more important. I changed my mind quite fundamentally about what I was for.

n Example 3: After interviewing a transgender person, I discovered the extent of damage ridicule and censure can do. Transgender people are human beings like any others, deserving compassion and understanding, not opprobrium. This always happens when I meet someone towards whom I harbour a lazy prejudice.

And so the logic is this: How can any of our opinions really be worth much, when a simple life experience can turn them on their heads? How, for example, can any faith be the true faith when adherence is almost always simply a function of circumstance such as family or geography?

This near-constant vacillation is not a good look for an occasional writer of comment pieces. People more definite than me have said there is a danger — in this age of hyperbole and CAPITAL LETTERS — that uncertainty comes off second best. No one ever won an argument with “I’m not so sure”.

But I’m not so sure. Showing a willingness to listen, evaluate, and alter one’s position where appropriate can have a reciprocal effect — and that’s what this series of pieces from Guardian writers on issues they have thought twice about can achieve. If we treat someone else’s views with due care and attention, perhaps they will do the same with ours. If I can remain open minded about their views on intergenerational strife or the Middle East peace process, maybe they will just hear me out about the mesmerising glory of Esperanza Spalding’s fourth album.

So please don’t try to talk me out of this. The last thing I want to do is change my mind about changing my mind about changing my mind.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Mark Rice-Oxley is the Guardian’s head of special projects.

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