January 24, 2011 Comments Off on Hobgoblin

I have been called out for how often I claim that something is my favorite. “Favorite” implies a single frontrunner, say my critics; you can’t have more than one favorite.

Why not?

What I have decided is that consistency and uniformity are overrated. People act as if your convictions need to be perfectly flat and smooth like porcelain tile, in such a way that you could write your ideas down in a code, and live your life by it. Or that someone else could live your life by it. “It says here you don’t believe in lending money to people, so don’t give Brenda the five bucks she wants for coffee.” But I don’t know why consistency is so very important. It matters in judicial settings, where fairness and consistency are part of having a dependable system, but why does it matter in your own private life? An intelligent, mature person can easily handle a continuum of responses to one issue without being weak-minded or indecisive.

The truth is that favorites make a good deal more sense if you acknowledge that they change from moment to moment. Think about someone asking you what your favorite book is. No one I know ever has a ready answer for this if what the person wants is the all-time most important and enjoyable and well-written and exciting book you’ve ever read. Invariably the answer you give ends up being a book you like a great deal that the person you’re talking to might also enjoy, or one that makes you sound smarter, or one they’ve heard of so you don’t have to explain the plot, or one with a title that doesn’t sound like a trashy romance (just try telling people Naked Once More is a sober, well-written mystery novel, or that Until I Find You is a serious work of literature). On the other hand, there is usually a book that you’re in the mood for or that you’ve just finished or that you’ve been thinking about a lot, and maybe on June 5, 2009, you were moved to call it your favorite book. It’s true at the time. And if, three years or a month or two weeks or seventeen minutes later you have a different favorite, then what gall, what impertinence to criticize you for it or tell you that one or both of your opinions isn’t or wasn’t true. What pedantic, close-minded fool decided consistency was a virtue? It is consistency itself, and not just a foolish one, that is the hobgoblin of little minds.

It is obvious to everyone who has ever noticed their own, earlier thoughts in a younger person’s mouth that opinions change. Why should it be any less acceptable to name two favorite ice cream flavors in a week than it is to change your stance on abortion over fifteen years? And, to come right down to it, why isn’t it acceptable to be generally pro-life, but make an exception for a fifteen-year-old pregnant by her father? Politicians probably should have more publicly and firmly codified beliefs than laypeople, and I think it’s a mistake to look at the criticisms politicians draw for changing their stances and assume it means that shaded or changing opinions are the sign of a weak mind.

I’ve decided to live by the words of Michel Foucault:

“When people say, ‘Well, you thought this a few years ago and now you say something else,’ my answer is… [laughs] ‘Well, do you think I have worked hard all those years to say the same thing and not be changed?'”

And Ralph Waldo Emerson, who I discovered after writing this post. As it turns out, I never understood the “foolish consistency” quote—I thought it meant that the consistency of the mind was foolish, the way it might have been gooey or rubbery. Now I know better. Apparently I would have known all this already if I’d read “Self-Reliance” when it was assigned in English 217.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. […]

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.


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