Most people associate the term “narrow-minded” more with conservatives than liberals. This is partly because of the history of those terms. The word “conservative” comes to us straight from Latin, where it referred to the practice of conserving (or preserving) the past. This implies the act of resisting change as embodied in new, non-traditional, or unfamiliar ideas. Thus conservatives are by definition more narrow-minded than others -- it’s what the word means, historically.

Likewise, the word “liberal” is by definition open-minded. Its root “liber” comes from the Latin “free.” If you look up the meaning of the word “illiberal” in any dictionary, you will find that one of its (centuries-old) meanings is exactly “narrow-minded.” However, whether this open-mindedness is a good or bad thing is a matter of debate. Over the centuries the word “liberal” has been used to signify both noble generosity (the freedom of selfless compassion) and unrestrained lawlessness (the freedom of selfish anarchy).

Some religious conservatives are happy to claim the term “narrow-minded,” because they connect it to the “narrow path” (or gate or door) mentioned in the Bible as the sole means of salvation. In this view, having a narrow-minded view is not only reasonable but laudable. It is those who lack the courage to fully commit to their beliefs who fall short.

In recent usage, however, the term “narrow-minded” has taken on a nearly universal pejorative slant. It means something close to biased, ignorant, perhaps even delusional. A narrow-minded person is seen as so inflexibly committed to one view as to deny others any reasonable chance to be heard or respected, and to deny oneself any reasonable chance to learn from new experiences. Many conservatives bristle at being called narrow-minded, and point out (quite reasonably) that there are many examples of liberal narrow-mindedness, especially in the area of political correctness. In some liberal bastions, such as certain universities and towns, it’s hard to argue that any historical connection between liberalism and open-mindedness remains.

The word “libertarian” shares its “liber” root with “liberal,” but when it was first coined (around the 1790s) it got the rest of its structure from contemporary terms like “utilitarian” and “unitarian.” In general usage today, libertarians are even more strongly associated with freedom than liberals; and the same selfish-selfless interpretations apply. Many libertarians take “open-mindedness” to a degree that makes many progressives uncomfortable. For example, libertarians are often open to the legalization of all drugs, prostitution, organ sales, doctor-assisted suicide, innovative medical procedures without FDA approval, and so on.  From a libertarian perspective, however, progressives are only slightly less narrow-minded than conservatives.

And of course, some people believe that finding a middle ground between the benefits (and perils) of narrow-mindedness and open-mindedness is the best way forward. The joke “Be open minded, but not so open that your brains fall out” is a common call to moderation in openness to new experiences.


- Are you narrow-minded? How can you tell?

- Would you rather be accused of too much narrow-mindedness or too much open-mindedness? Why?

- Have you ever met someone who struck you as being particularly narrow-minded or open-minded? Were they that way about everything? Or can you think of some topic on which they felt differently?

- Find a friend or family member. Each of you: list three things each person is narrow-minded about and three things each person is open-minded about. Show each other your lists. Discuss what you wrote.


Michael Strong, Cynthia Kurtz

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