Excellent NYTimes op-ed by Bret Stephens worth the full read, but here are some key passages.
To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.
But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere.
What a lovely way to think of it.
Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.
These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries.
Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.
In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.
According to a new survey from the Brookings Institution, a plurality of college students today — fully 44 percent — do not believe the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects so-called “hate speech,” when of course it absolutely does. More shockingly, a narrow majority of students — 51 percent — think it is “acceptable” for a student group to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. An astonishing 20 percent also agree that it’s acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking.
Well that’s bitterly disappointing.
That’s because the case for same-sex marriage is too often advanced not by reason, but merely by branding every opponent of it as a “bigot” — just because they are sticking to an opinion that was shared across the entire political spectrum only a few years ago. Few people like outing themselves as someone’s idea of a bigot, so they keep their opinions to themselves even when speaking to pollsters. That’s just what happened last year in the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, and look where we are now.
Shaming people doesn’t generally change their minds; it only makes them more difficult to identify, predict, or actually persuade.
One final point about identity politics: It’s a game at which two can play. In the United States, the so-called “alt-right” justifies its white-identity politics in terms that are coyly borrowed from the progressive left. One of the more dismaying features of last year’s election was the extent to which “white working class” became a catchall identity for people whose travails we were supposed to pity but whose habits or beliefs we were not supposed to criticize. The result was to give the Trump base a moral pass it did little to earn.
It’s a game two can play but it’d be great if no one did.