Balk: A defense of flip-floppery


Tim Balk, Opinion Editor

It might have sunk John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. And it’s a familiar charge against current Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In America, we accept plenty of flaws, but there is one thing we really can’t stand: a flip-flopper.

Changing one’s mind is looked down upon in our society.

It is an outrageous way of thinking to which we all, to some degree, seem to subscribe. Consistency is almost unquestioned as one of the great virtues a person can possess.

Ezra Koenig, the lead singer of the band Vampire Weekend who made a bizarre stop in front of the Fiji house at the end of Winter Quarter, is a big Bernie Sanders fan. In January, Koenig told CNN that going back to the 1990s, he sees “a consistency in (Sanders) that’s rare in most human beings, let alone politicians.”

Now, I love Koenig. And I like Sanders, too. But that should not be all that great a compliment to the Vermont senator.

I’m not suggesting that you should not — or should — support Sanders. What I do believe, though, is that it is odd how our thirst for consistency manifests itself in the political arena. We expect our politicians to be constant and unchanging.

This is strange because as people gain information and experiences, their opinions should, in fact, naturally change and evolve. Even those of politicians.

I will absolutely concede that the hostility to flip-flopping politicians does have an underlying logic: We do not want to elect politicians who are insincere or will say anything for a vote. But we should still be open to the evolution of ideas.

Unfortunately, resistance to this change is not just a political phenomenon.

We are all victims of it. Perhaps it is because our thoughts and opinions make up a key part of who we are and what we represent. Perhaps it is because we more easily understand people if they are consistent. Or perhaps it is because we are nostalgic beings and are often averse to change in all spheres.

I often feel this pressure to be consistent. In my time writing columns at The Daily, I have never written a column I would now disavow, and when I write, I worry, “What if I change my mind about this later?”

Once we express a certain view, we are often expected by others to hold it permanently. It is a subtle, nagging pressure we all feel.

When I look back on my opinions and relative lack of knowledge when I entered college as a freshman, I see a huge gap between then and now. I am sure 30-year-old me will feel the same way about 20-year-old me.

As we absorb knowledge, we change our minds, reconsider and retool our opinions. It’s natural. Just expressing our opinions can change them. It exposes them to scrutiny and forces us to justify them.

Atheists can become believers. Capitalists can become socialists. Yankees fans can become Red Sox fans. Pacifists can become soldiers. And vice versa.

Barack Obama and Clinton can accept gay marriage. And it’s natural and should not be acrimoniously labeled flip-flopping.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, once said Steve Jobs changed his mind on a daily basis. “This is a gift, because things do change, and it takes courage to change,” Cook explained.

The truth is, taken on a broad scale, our society is changing its mind for the better. Take gay marriage: according to Pew polling, in 2001, 35 percent of Americans favored it, but by 2015, 55 percent did. In 1958, four percent of Americans approved of black-white marriages, but by 2013, 87 percent did, according to Gallup polling. The list goes on. This positive change does not occur without flip-flopping. And it happens with individuals all the time; as they grow and learn they develop better, more nuanced, more sound views. Society is growing up, and we are too.

Particularly at key times such as college, when we are absorbing knowledge at an incredible rate and have unique opportunities to gain insight into new and different ideas, we should be open to changing our minds. Eighteen years of life is not nearly enough time to develop strong, well-developed opinions about all that many issues.

So reconsider deeply held beliefs or argue them vigorously and see if they last.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was onto something when he wrote, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.