I was talking recently to a friend, a guy I thought was pretty smart, about all the attention the Tea Party movement’s been getting lately. I’m far from a Tea Party conservative — far from a conservative at all — but I wanted to hear my friend’s opinion on a particular point and was disappointed that he reacted to the very mention of the Tea Party with such revulsion and disdain that it became impossible to talk further with him about it.
He had only one thing to say: the Tea Party movement is reprehensible, racist and completely ignorant. He would not dignify it with words; the only proper response was to spit or cuss. Our conversation ended there, and, for me at least, it wasn’t very fun.
Strangely, most conservatives I’ve tried to talk with about politics react the same way to liberal ideas. Not long ago, I found myself chatting on a train with a woman who told me she worked as a hospital bookkeeper. Hoping to liven up the usual boring train-ride chatter, I asked what she thought of Barack Obama’s health care plan. She reacted with disgust and horror, and when I told her that I was happy the bill had passed I instantly saw on her face that our conversation was over. She could barely comprehend that I could be sitting next to her. A few minutes later, I’m pretty sure I overheard her whispering to a friend on her cell phone about the upsetting encounter she’d just had on the train.
One disappointing experience like this after another has taught me a general truth: most modern Americans (and, as far as I can tell, most non-Americans as well) have little tolerance for differing political opinions. Today’s liberal/conservative divide is only one of many examples of this, but it’s a good example to study, because both liberals and conservatives seem to feel so strongly that their opponents are absolutely hopeless.
Speaking in the broadest generalizations, liberals tend to dismiss conservatives as uneducated bigots, while conservatives tend to dismiss liberals as morally depraved airheads. Thus, followers of both parties have truly convinced themselves that they are smarter, more clued-in, more aware, than their opponents. Their mutual disrespect may be their greatest common ground. Here’s a statement that would probably score 90%+ on one of those opinion polls we see so often on television news: “people who disagree with me are not worth talking to.”
This is very unfortunate. I began this weekend philosophy series on Litkicks because I care deeply about how well I think, and about how well the people who surround me and co-exist with me think. I don’t particularly care about academic philosophy, about what professors and experts think. My interest is in the common philosophies that most of us live by every day.
But I find myself constantly blocked, as I try to think of intelligent things to write here every weekend, by the sheer negativity I encounter when I try to bring up provocative or controversial topics in person with people I know. How can I believe that anyone will read the words I write with an open mind, when so many people I know — smart people, politically conscious people! — are so proud to display their closed minds in public when they talk? It’s hard for me to resist the temptation to simply give up. The “my opponent is stupid” meme, or virus, or whatever we want to call it, has taken a terrible toll on our public dialogue today.
The tendency to believe our opponents are stupid goes hand-in-hand with our tendency to believe our opponents are evil (whatever exactly that word may mean). Liberals may believe that conservatives are motivated by some kind of societal resentment or envy, and are thus implacably destructive to the world’s hopeful future. Conservatives may believe that liberals have lost touch with good, simple values, and present a real danger to their families and their ways of life. It’s hard to resist the passionate power of these highly-charged viewpoints.
But we must resist, if we are going to think clearly, and if we value truth. I’m going to try to lay down this basic principle here today, in the hope that this principle will stand as a pillar in future discussions: a true philosopher will always treat opposing ideas with respect. A person who cares about truth will not wear blinders.
The harder it is to treat an opponent’s ideas with respect, the more important it is to do so. If you are a liberal, you should try as hard as you can to really understand the conservative point of view in its best possible light. If you are a conservative, you should try as hard as you can to really understand the liberal point of view in its best possible light. The reward for doing so will be the greater understanding gained in the process.
If you think your opponents are not just wrong but truly evil and dangerous (and, in fact, many modern Americans do seem to feel this way about their opponents), then you have a harder challenge, but no less an important one. You must protect what you value — your ideals, your family, the rights of your neighbors, the security of your way of life — while still managing to treat your opponents with respect. The good news here is that, even if your opponent does turn out to embody the very spirit of evil, you will lose nothing by having treated this opponent with respect even while guarding against his or her influence.
This basic principle is hardly my own original idea. It was held tightly by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It’s because the Athenian philosopher Socrates always entertained opposing ideas with bemused respect that Plato’s dialogues are so fascinating and valuable today. Finally, it was Jesus, right there in the Gospels, who told us to turn the other cheek. This wasn’t idle advice 2000 years ago, and it’s not idle advice today.
A person who cares about truth will not wear blinders. With this principle in place, the work of philosophy can begin.