For many years I taught a course titled “Current Controversial Issues and the Constitution.” Students often had radically different interpretations of the Constitution, and so, because I thought open debate was the best way to resolve disagreements, I strongly encouraged debate in the classroom.
But I had one hard-and-fast rule, “Whatever your position, however passionately you feel, you may not get mad.” Whenever I saw a student’s face get red or his or her voice get louder, I jumped in to keep the debate on an even keel. The rule worked. Disagreements were civil.
This got me to thinking: Why do bright people have such strong disagreements? Wouldn’t bright people generally agree? The answer is: often no.
Two intelligent individuals can discuss, say, 10 topics, agreeing on nine of them. But when it comes to the 10th, if it’s political, they diverge passionately. That is because rationality ends and passions kick in. They look at, say, 20 facts, then argue in retrospect — that is, the liberal focuses on 10 liberal views to the exclusion of conservative views, and the conservative focuses on 10 conservative views to the exclusion of liberal views.
Each side thinks it’s being fair and objective. That’s why John Stuart Mill was brilliant in stating, that truth can only be arrived at by the “violent collision of adverse opinions.” It is virtually impossible to find an individual who is entirely objective. Writer E. B. White wrote, “I have never seen a piece of writing, political or nonpolitical, that doesn’t have a slant. It slants the way a writer leans, and no man is perpendicular.”
I am not wise enough to know why some people are right-wing and others left-wing. Some conservatives are poor, some liberals rich. Some CEOs are liberal, some blue-collar workers conservative. Some women are one way, other women the opposite.
But we know some reasons for people’s political views. Kids’ political biases often come from their parents. Or from their peers. Or, later, from business colleagues, or unions. Political views become passions and then tribal.
Language, too, often becomes tribal and cheap. For example, in today’s political world, the terms “hate speech,” “racist,” “fascist,” “socialist” and “commie” have become too-loosely used and virtually worthless. They are mechanical, empty clichés that replace thinking.
Even the American national anthem has now been declared racist hate speech by a group in California. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have been condemned as slave owners. A group of faculty and students at the University of Virginia protested that Thomas Jefferson should not be mentioned as founder of that university. I won’t really be surprised if someday the Bible is charged with racist hate speech and fascism.
So what can we do about the passionate, angry feuds between people of opposing political tribes? John Stuart Mill put the process of reconciliation and resolution perfectly, demanding honest, open free speech and thoughtful debate. He wrote what I think is the most brilliant analysis of what is necessary for opposing tribes to live together with some degree of harmony, allowing all views to be heard, “First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
“Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth, and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
Albert Camus put it in a different way: “There is no truth; only truths.” Mill added, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
But, of course, my views here are in a Walter Mitty world that doesn’t exist — and likely never will.
So back to the fighting.
Ronald L. Trowbridge is a policy fellow at the Oakland-based Independent Institute and a former director of the Fulbright Scholars Program. He later served as chief of staff for former U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger.