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Progressive Values Stories: Stephanie Leaf on Open Mindedness

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 I met Stephanie Leaf at a Wellstone training workshop in Sacramento, California. She talked with me about her progressive values of tolerance for ambiguity and open mindedness, but also shared her frustration at how being open minded, puts progressives at a disadvantage when talking to closed minded conservatives. 

"A liberal is man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel. Robert Lee Frost"
"People are very open-minded about new things--as long as they're exactly like the old ones.  Charles Franklin Kettering"

Progressive Values Stories: Stephanie Leaf on Open Mindedness

Stephanie Leaf:  One of the things that frustrates me about the Democratic Party and about progressive people, and that’s been our biggest stumbling block in the winning of elections, is that one of the values that unites many of us is our tolerance for ambiguity, and our placing of such a positive value on dissent, and specially on our willingness to always listen to both sides of the issue. 

And the Republicans, the conservatives, they’re the antithesis of this.  There is one way to think, one way to be.  If they have differences of opinion, they do it behind closed doors.  They may have come to place lip service to diversity, but it’s not a kind of intellectual diversity that Democrats have traditionally valued.

In fact, sometimes people who consider themselves liberals, just frustrate the hell out of me, because they are willing to say “you  know there’s one side to this question, then there’s also the opposite side”.  And the consequences are number one, that we don’t present a clear message all of the time.  And that’s wonderful, because the issues are complex, and there isn’t just one answer to things.  But it’s also the source of our biggest weakness:  how do we reduce complex messages to simple terms that can resonate with people.  And to do that without selling out the kinds of things we value.  How do we continue to value dissent and ambiguity, and yet still – I hate to use the word – market ourselves to the larger public?

Edwin:  So, do you feel that way about ambiguity?  Is that a value you have, tolerating ambiguity?

Answer:  Well, you know, I’m a pretty focused person about the way I like to get things done, but I do believe there are always many layers to an issue, and that simplistic solutions are usually as phony as they are true.  This is a very complicated world we live in, and anybody who says I have a simple answer, automatically makes me suspect. 

That’s kind of a long-winded way of saying not because ambiguity is so wonderful, necessarily, but it’s a fact of life.  And if you deny it, that’s what religion is based on, people who can’t tolerate ambiguity.

Edwin:  Are there other words for ambiguity?  Maybe open-mindedness.

Answer:  They certainly have to go hand-in-hand. 

Edwin:  And how do they  relate?

Answer:  Once again, it goes back to the willingness to listen to other opinions.  I mean, sometimes I’m not the most tolerant person myself when it comes to other people’s views, but as a larger political issue, it has been a hallmark of the Democratic Party, and those who consider themselves the liberal spectrum of it – the willingness to not just tolerate, but to listen to other views.  So that certainly goes with open-mindedness.

I was raised by parents, my mother in particular, who placed a great value on always being able to look at different sides of an issue.  I was also raised in a home that valued intellect and intellectual attainment.  And that’s certainly a value that I still care a lot about.  In fact, I still have to admit that sometimes as a child and even as an adult, I would become very impatient with my mother’s sometimes extreme willingness to consider both sides of an issue, because there does have to be a point where you take a stand on something.

Edwin:  Do you remember an actual moment when that happened?

Answer:  Yes, but some of them are a little too personal to discuss.  I will tell you something else about open-mindedness. I was raised in something called Ethical Culture.  And this was our religion.  We were not Christians.  We were not Jews.  We went to Ethical Culture.  And in the main meeting hall of Ethical Culture there was an inscription over it, and the inscription over it said “The place where man meets to seek the highest, is holy ground.” 

Nowadays, I would think of that as very sexist, that it said it in terms of man, but if you can overlook that, that thought made an enormous impression on me, that the idea of pursuing the highest – not according to anybody else’s definition, not defined in terms of some simplistic god whose omniscient and omnipotent – but the idea of pursuing the highest, and pursuing what you believe is the best and most noble in terms of your own moral values.  That’s what makes something holy – not someone else’s idea of a creed.

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Founder of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. The Culture of Empathy website is a growing portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, (more...)
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