How to Have Real Disagreements in the Age of Idiocy in Public Debate

This is an excerpt from a conversation between two people discussing the future of marriage.

The conversation was hosted by Krista Tippett and On Being, a podcast ripe with fascinating guests and perspectives on spirituality and what it means to be human. Highly recommended if you enjoy stretching your mind and your spirit.

photo credit: Paula Keller via On Being

The Voices in Conversation

David Blankenhorn is founder and president of the Institute of American Values. He’s also co-director of The Marriage Opportunity Council. Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of The Marriage Opportunity Council.

What’s compelling here is not just the points they bring to the subject at hand, but the way in which they recognize the importance of the other in challenging their assumptions, responding to the strengths and weaknesses of their ideas, and navigating the matter together without getting lost in extreme conclusions that leave nobody satisfied.

It matters what you talk about, and it matters how you talk about it.

Doubt and Civility Are Friends

BLANKENHORN: “…Doubt and civility are friends. They go together kind of like coffee and cream. They’re partners. By civility, I mean treating the other person the way you would want them to treat you. And by doubt, I mean believing that you may not be right even when your position is passionately held…

See, because if I don’t have any doubt, I don’t need you. I should be nice to you out of manners, but I don’t need a relationship with you. I may want you to be available to be lectured by me so that you can come to the correct view. And I may want to treat you politely for that reason, but I don’t really need you. As I grow older, I grow in doubt. And that’s good. And I feel like that’s a healthier way to be. And if I am not sure that I have the full truth of the matter, I need you.

Civility allows me to have a relationship with you. It feeds me what I need. When you’re in the public eye and you change your mind, well, that’s viewed as a sign of weakness. And then if you express doubt about something, that’s viewed as a sign of weakness today, especially in this hyper-partisan — everybody wants to be tough-minded…

Well, it’s not about being vanilla and saying, “Oh, I agree with you and I just don’t want to say anything you would disagree with.” … We called what we did achieving disagreement

See, because it’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say, “Oh, you’re a bad person and you’re stupid. You’re some kind of religious zealot or something.” I can just have a belief. But to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that. And part of achieving disagreement means identifying areas of common ground. It means finding out where we agree.

Otherwise, how do you know where you disagree if you don’t also know where you agree? And that, I’ll tell you, in today’s world of hyperpolarization and the sheer idiocy that is our public debate on most days, 98 percent of the time, the heart just cries out for this kind of serious effort to achieve disagreement.

MR. RAUCH: … I believe there’s an element of patriotism about this. I believe that there are higher values, ultimately, than what each of us wants as individuals.

I discovered in you, I thought, someone who understood that you’re a multivalue person and that as strongly as you felt about marriage, that you felt even more strongly that we have to share the country. And it is our duty as citizens to find ways to live together. And that that’s a higher value still. I equate that with a form of patriotism. When I see someone who won’t compromise, I see someone betraying the core purposes of our Constitution, which is to force compromise…And I saw in you someone who is willing to say being right about marriage is not as important to me as making a pact with my fellow Americans on the other side so that we can share this country.


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