Remember the Monty Python sketch in which a man comes into an “argument clinic”? Everything he says is contradicted by another man sitting behind a desk. Finally in frustration, the first man declares:
Increasingly, our public life sounds like this sketch. Political polarization not only involves disagreement but a certain mutual dishonesty and refusal to accept any of the truth of what the other side is saying. Every concession seems like giving up too much, and so each side often simply denies any validity to the other. Here are some contradictions to listen for.
1. Equality and freedom: The push for full equality inevitably impairs freedom. You cannot insist that everyone get the same without taking from some who have worked for what they have. On the other hand, freedom inevitably hurts equality, as some will pull further and further ahead, and each generation will compound the gap. With bromides like “class warfare” or “lack of compassion” both sides try to render the other’s argument invalid. But each has a powerful point.
Society is built on a balance. When people argue that freedom is all that is required for everyone to prosper, or conversely, that managing everyone’s rewards does not compromise freedom, each side is being dishonest. Tradeoffs are what mature individuals and societies recognize they are engaged in all of the time.
2. Competition and cooperation: Team sports teach a certain kind of cooperation, but only with your team. When we expect the most ruthless competitors to also be the most gracious and scrupulously rule-abiding people, we simply fail to acknowledge the tension in the system. Some societies are more inclined to increased cooperation. Others, like our own, are more inclined to favor competition.
With our exaltation of sports, we tend to ignore the reality of what we are learning. To win is a supreme value, and we live that even as we tell our kids to be kind and empathic. The ethos of triumph is not a bad message, but it’s contradictory to what we often preach in schools, synagogues, and churches. Honesty requires that we embrace the messy nature of human life and not force it into an ill-fitting straightjacket.
3. Republicans and Democrats: The polarities that run through politics are well known: spending on foreign issues versus one domestic ones, emphasizing a candidate’s character versus experience, spending versus saving, tradition versus change—each have their advocates who sometimes speak as though we live in a one-dimensional world. How often have you heard someone suggest that Republicans are racists or Democrats are without values?
Our inability to credit the arguments of the other is not just an intellectual failing; it’s also a moral peril. Being open-minded does not mean one is incapable of arriving at a decision. It means that you can speak to those who oppose your decision with a measure of tolerance and understanding that might induce them to understand, in turn, why you have arrived at the place you did. The degree of rhetorical overdrive in our world is disheartening, and it’s dangerous.
The ability to believe someone wrong without simultaneously believing them stupid or evil or ignorant is a valuable quality in a person and indispensable in a polity. The passion with which a belief is held says nothing of its truth, and the vehemence with which its opponents are attacked doesn’t either. We need thoughtful weighing of different ideas by people who are unafraid to be wrong.