Curiosity, closed minds, and manners: The (Richard) Dreyfuss Affair
American actor Richard Dreyfuss recently attended a rally by conservative candidate for the Republication presidential nomination Ted Cruz (see report in The New Yorker). Presumably as he is an actor, and thus almost necessarily liberal (though Clint Eastwood and Ronald Reagan should serve as a reminder this connection is not binary), he has received a lot of ‘heat’ for this misdemeanour, to which his son, @HarryDreyfuss, has responded in an impassioned piece on Medium. I’m not sure this is even ‘a story’ but, nevertheless, the points he makes about the importance of listening to ideas one doesn’t like are key to much contemporary politics in the West (at least in the UK and the US).
Liberals often, rightly, criticise conservatives for not wanting to hear other points-of-view, but often they are as guilty of not wanting to hear arguments that grate with them. Their response is to dismiss them, or engage in ad hominem attacks on the advocate or, worst of all, call for them to be banned — from the UK in the recent case of Donald Trump and Muslim immigration.
More sophisticated liberals may dismiss views they disagree with as being out-of-date, about arguments that were settled ages ago. This could be characterised as the Flat Earth dismissal, which is fine in principle, though often such arguments are not just re-hashes of old worldviews. And the Flat Earth dismissal is also used indiscriminately against arguments that haven’t been settled.
More often arguments are dismissed by people who hold a point of view they feel is right instinctively, but they can’t rationally defend. Or, at least, they might have been able to once, but they have forgotten the arguments — or they feel those arguments are not longer valid. (For the records, we used to ague that racism was wrong as it divided ordinary people; the state, our bosses, and others with power used it as a wedge to undermine our interests; and no one could liberate themselves if they accepted the subjection of other men.)
At worst such issues have become a matter of manners, as is the case with anti-racism, hostility to anti-homosexual discrimination, and rejection of religious intolerance. Many people today seem to be more concerned about not being considered ill-mannered by saying something offensive on these subjects than they are about resolving injustice and discrimination. (This is a function of the way in which issues of prejudice and discrimination have become intellectually separated from any understanding of economics, society and the state.) As Peter Hitchens noted, in-conversation with @OwenJones84, ‘Our tolerance is really manners’.
Today we laugh at the apparently stilted conversations of earlier ages in which ‘the right thing’ — or nothing — was said about subjects such as women, religion, race, empire, and other nationalities. But often our conversations are just as stilted, with as many minefields to be tiptoed around. (David Mitchell well observed modern British manners in Behaving Ourselves: Mitchell on Manners on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year.) I see it most with my kids, who know nothing of past battles against racism, oppression and prejudice, but who — from their schooling and, I guess, from us — know everything about ‘isms’, and about prefixing statements with ‘No offence, but’. And, no doubt, many worry that at some social gathering our progeny will say something that is not ‘right thinking’ and embarrass us for not having brought up our children with good manners. Not that manners are bad per se. But the content, the insight, and the anger that used to motivate people to fight for equality, freedom and justice has been evacuated and replaced with learned behaviours that change nothing, and actively inhibit debate about new ideas.
As I noted in an earlier Medium post (‘The Charlie Hebdo attack, free speech, and the personalisation of politics’):
In the West we too have personalised politics. When I was growing up political ideas were contested in an open, informed and good natured — if fiery — manner. While as individuals we were closely identified with our ideas and beliefs, they weren’t our identity. Today, beliefs — and they are largely beliefs — are often so closely held that any questioning of them tends to create an almost existential crisis in the person being questioned, and results in a visceral hostility to the questioner
I feel this visceral hostility sometimes. But I believe I am more confident in my views as I force myself to read and listen to countervailing points-of-view. (God knows it’s not hard to find them: I disagree to some extent with almost every view I come across.) Rare is the comfort of the ‘filter bubble’ of like-minded souls, as they are too few in number to create herd immunity from outside ideas.
As Dreyfuss Jr. concludes, one should ‘Exalt curiosity. Exalt the ability to hold someone else’s belief in your mind for a moment [and if you feel even more you are right] after actually engaging with an opposing opinion [this] is the closest you’ll ever come to being right’ [my emphasis].
If we are interested trying to get to the truth of things, and the progress that ensues, we owe it to ourselves to be curious, and to try to perceive the humanity in any viewpoint.