My Santa Claus Flip-Flop

I don’t remember when in my childhood I stopped believing in a flesh-and-and blood Santa Claus. But whenever that was, it was a colossal flip-flop.

At least that is was the political pundits on TV and Talk Radio might call it, for they seem to be saying that whenever you change your former belief about something, you are flip-flopping. For example, the media has been quick to give that pejorative label to John McCain for changing his former views on immigration reform, and to Mitt Romney for reversing his former support for ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and for distancing himself from President Obama’s health care initiative, when many features of that initiative are similar to the health care program that Romney supported when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

The problem with such easy and simplistic labeling is that it does not distinguish between good and bad reasons for changing one’s beliefs on the issue at hand. If a politician professes a change in belief without actually having changed his or her beliefs, to pander to a segment of the electorate, then that that deserves the flip-flop label, although I think “hypocrisy” is a more apt descriptor.

But whether or not you are a politician, if you change your belief because of something new that you have learned since professing your former belief, then I prefer to label that as “learning” rather than flip-flopping. I am then happy to commend you for a demonstrated openness to refining your beliefs on the basis of further study and reflection or engagement with others, with the understanding that the merits, or not, of your present or former belief must then be debated in conversation with others.

The moral of this story is that whenever you hear someone being accused of flip-flopping because he/she has changed a belief, you need to dig beneath the surface to ascertain the reason for that charge. It may be pure hypocrisy. But it may reflect something important that has been learned since professing a former belief.

I used to think that the above exhortation should “go without saying.” But given the tendency to resort to name-calling when disagreeing with someone, especially in the political arena, I now think it needs to be said, again and again.