If you watch a lot of daytime–or nighttime–really anytime television, there is a phrase that will come up quite a lot, placed in the mouths of characters who are notoriously rakish and borderline whorish and yet have hearts of gold. It is: “I meant it when I said it.” These characters will say this, bleary-eyed if not teary-eyed, to whomever it is they wish to explain that they haven’t lied, but were merely passive victims to a subjective truth, and that this truth (usually the truth of love), amorphous and inconsistent, has played bloody hell with them. This also tends to be the thing to get them off the hook and onto another brief, heartfelt encounter with someone about whom they mean it when they say it. And on and on it goes, in destructive little circles, for as many seasons as their character arc lasts.
Sadly, it kind of works. On television, this kind of character has serious charm, if that charm is marred by predictability. What’s more interesting is when it enters the realm of real life. Or rather, the realm of politics–if in real life anyone tried the ‘I meant it when I said it’ line on anyone else I’m pretty sure they’d get reamed. But in politics, this concept is the subject of perennial interest and debate, where the ‘flip-flopping’ nature of politicians is used against them, described as a kind of weak trait rather than something intrinsic to the way politics work. There are issues, obviously, that have an obvious right and wrong about them. The Republican war on vaginas (my term) is proof of this. Then again, the political climate classically tends to change with the wind, where certain things that were inapproachable once (gay marriage), can 5 years or 5 months later can become the platform on which a campaign is built (Maggie Koerth-Baker cites this in her piece about flip-flopping for the Times last week). So why does the thought of someone changing their mind drive people insane with fear, as if a politician could say they stand for something and then a second after arriving in office announce that they’re in support of the opposite thing? Obviously this could happen, but if and when it does, it’s due to something we like to call lying, rather than a sudden change of heart. What’s more in focus in a discussion about the horror of ‘flip-flopping’ is the idea that for a politician to change their mind is more a bad than a good thing.
This is where the smooth tactic of ‘I meant it when I said it’ comes in. For all its slimy obnoxiousness, it can quite easily be true. We can have strong opinions and then change them in the face of solid enough evidence. A political stance can also a very personal, emotional one, as in the case of people who rally so strongly against abortion, gay marriage, or any political issues whose opposition is rooted in religious thinking. But emotions are often also at play in the case of changed minds or flipped opinions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a person–even a politician–who changes their mind about something is untrustworthy or false. Thinking of changing a person’s mind as a bad thing is also a serious move against complexity. And in the political environment, where weakness and complexity have often been conflated, personal complexity can only be listed as a grievance.
In election 2012, the deleterious ‘flip-flopper’ label, in full vogue during the 2004 debates in relation to John Kerry, has achieved the rare prestige of being able to be applied to all the parties involved. Not only Obama and Romney, but Paul Ryan as well, who made the switch from liking Ayn Rand to liking Thomas Aquinas (as if the two tastes couldn’t possibly coexist) and who as we well know will have to amend his ideas about what the definition of rape should be if he wants to be taken seriously. As well as the statements about the safety net-as-hammock that are lending him the nickname “Ridiculous Ryan”.
Does it matter that Ryan will probably be seen to undergo a few more ‘sea changes’ by the time we get to the polls? Not really. What we should probably look into instead is what the exact value is of staying true to one (ridiculous) opinion even as an astonishing amount of evidence mounts against it, as the Republican party is famous for doing? Is this weakness, or logic? And if we truly can’t see it as other than weakness, what is there to make of almost every story of merit ever told in film or fiction, whose shape adheres to the basic formula of ‘character starts out one way, is changed by life experience, ends up himself at the end but with his ideas slightly changed’? Compromise, changing options, and a shifting emotional landscape are the things that make a human being complex and therefore worthwhile. But of course, here I’ve answered my own question. Complexity has no place in politics.