All too often we stick with our tastes and opinions for no better reason than we never bother to re-consider them.
Mother: ‘Why have you left your mushrooms?’
Child: ‘I hate mushrooms!’
Mother: ‘No you don’t, you love mushrooms, we had them last Friday and you ate them all, you said you loved them.’
Child: ‘Well I hate them NOW!’
When do we lose the child’s easy ability to change our mind, when do we finally settle on being a mushroom lover or a mushroom hater? When did I decide that hummus was such a disgusting texture and taste as to be inedible?
We are expected to make our choices in life at a really quite early age and then stick with those choices, come what may. Only gradual change is grudgingly accepted, and only then if it’s barely detectable. A sudden shift of opinion or outlook, however long considered, is a shocking thing, something to be frowned at, quirky behaviour at least, even a possible sign of mental instability.
In part, probably a big part, it is because the world of commerce wants to label us, to know our likes and dislikes – our ‘lifestyle preferences’ in media-speak – so that they can better sell us their wares. In the extreme world of advertising even the dislikes are deployed to reinforce the message. ‘Love It Or Hate It’ runs the Marmite ad, allowing no space at all for those who hold no opinion on the matter, and there’s no attempt to persuade the undecided of Marmite’s pungent delights.
The more we are expected to stick with our likes and dislikes the more we do, whether it is food or television programs, politics or newspapers. Our views and opinions become more habitual by the day and much of our world is constructed around those habits. Imagine taking a different newspaper every day of the week, being confronted with opinions and prejudices at odds with your own. Imagine adopting a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to Marmite. Imagine waking up one day and supporting Arsenal. Or changing career from medicine to estate agent. Oh no, if you are a Telegraph-reading, Marmite-loving, football-loathing, hospital doctor you’re expected to stay that way.
Changing our minds is almost universally portrayed as being a weakness, whereas maintaining long-stated positions (however ridiculous or outdated) is lauded as a virtue. We might just conceivably change our mind about something because we are tolerant and open to reasoned argument, but anybody else shifting by an inch is weak and vacillating. We crave certainty when, apart from the proverbial death and taxes, the world is increasingly uncertain.
But re-thinking can be therapeutic, as recent, apparently trivial experience illustrates. Assistants in the big-box stores are frequently characterised as bored, unhelpful and disinterested – oh and young, they are usually very young, ‘spotty youth’ is a favourite derogatory term. Many of us subscribe to such stereo-typical views and worse, continue to hold them even when presented with evidence to the contrary. On at least three occasions in recent times I’ve been served by helpful, interested and knowledgeable assistants in such stores. Did something change in the world while I wasn’t looking? Did it have to happen three times in quick succession for me to realise a long-held opinion, a stupid generalisation, was simply wrong?
The deep problem of entrenched and habitual positions is that they reinforce the status quo, frequently making change both difficult and prolonged, reconciliation or compromise quite impossible. Yet when gradual change does occur in either ourselves or the world around us, it goes unnoticed and the old attitudes persist, long after any justification has gone.
If we, as individuals and societies, were to encourage a habit of reviewing some of our more cherished opinions it would be a start. If we began to judge by experience and observation instead of by rote and prejudice it would be a good habit to fall into.
And in case you are wondering, yes, I tried hummus again recently.