Who is wise?

September 25, 2017

One of my favorite ethical teachings, attributed to the second-century Jewish sage Ben Zoma, asks “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” Humility is at the core of this teaching: One cannot be wise unless one is also humble enough to listen with an open mind.

In the editorial pages of The New York Times yesterday, columnist Bret Stephens shared the text of a powerful lecture he delivered over the weekend in Australia, entitled “The Dying Art of Disagreement.” Stephens’ lecture is a must-read for anyone who cares about the health of our democracy, and is a sobering reminder of how absent humility has become from the way in which we interact with one another.

Stephens first reminds us of the critical importance of disagreement to a free society:

[T]o 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. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky such are the ranks of those who disagree.

Stephens does not argue that disagreement is dead to the contrary, he points out, as I think we all recognize, that “Americans have rarely disagreed more in recent decades.” What has become dangerously dysfunctional, rather, is how we disagree. We shout at each other, we belittle each other, we refuse to look each other in the eye, but what we do not do is really listen to each other. And the result, Stephens argues, is that “our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds.”

To me, this is the absolute heart of Stephens’ critically important message:

[T]o 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.

Stephens points to two primary reasons that we are increasingly unable to disagree well.

The first is our increasing tendency to exist in echo chambers where our friends and even the media we consume only serve to reinforce our view of the world without deepening our understanding of it. In these echo chambers, Stephens says, “we no longer just have our own opinions. We also have our separate ‘facts,’ often the result of what different media outlets consider newsworthy.”

The second, Stephens argues, is the rise of identity politics, “in which the primary test of an argument isn’t the quality of the thinking but the cultural, racial, or sexual standing of the person making it.” Identity politics, with its attendant focus on form over substance Who was making the argument? Were they insensitive in any way? Did they acknowledge their privilege? has created “moated castles from which we safeguard our feelings from hurt and our opinions from challenge.”

I think Stephens is absolutely spot-on, both about the sad state of discourse in this country and about what that means for the continued health of our republic. But my own experience suggests to me that there is hope. People on all sides of the political spectrum recognize and are concerned by the extreme polarization and closed-mindedness that Stephens is concerned about, and I think most people want out. They just don’t know how to get there.

I’m a politically neutral person. Don’t get me wrong I have strong views on many issues, but they generally don’t align strictly with right or left, and I’m not a member of a political party. So to many of the people I know, I’m a Switzerland of sorts someone to whom they can safely confide their concerns about the state of political affairs without fear of triggering judgment or hostility. And what I hear from people on both sides of the aisle is that they yearn for this kind of open, nonjudgmental, meaningful debate, but they don’t think the other side does and they don’t want to be the first to engage only to be yelled at and condescended to. This is deeply troubling, of course. But because I hear the same thing over and over again from friends on both sides of the political divide, it also gives me hope.

The million-dollar question, of course, is how can we begin to find our way back to a middle ground? Stephens argues that significant responsibility rests with the media, which he describes as having a “fiduciary duty” of a sort to citizens. His lecture concludes with a plea to the media to “understand that their role ought not to be to push a party line, or be a slave to Google hits and Facebook ads, or provide a titillating kind of news entertainment, or help out a president or prime minister who they favor or who’s in trouble.”

Rather, he says, we need news outlets that “clarify the terms of the debate by championing aggressive and objective news reporting, and improve the quality of debate with commentary that opens minds and challenges assumptions rather than merely confirming them.”

I agree. But I don’t think that is enough I also think we all need to make a conscious choice to move past the partisan rancor and re-open our own minds. We can commit to trying to make our own spheres of influence however small places where open and thoughtful disagreement is encouraged and where people really listen to one another. We can model this behavior for others. Be honest: how often, when listening to another person talk, do you find yourself formulating what you are going to say next before the speaker has even finished what he or she is saying? We all do this, not even necessarily out of closed-mindedness or lack of interest, but because truly active listening requires a kind of calm and focus that can be hard to cultivate in our mile-a-minute society. But I think it is critically important to the kind of reasoned disagreement that Stephens calls “the most vital ingredient of any decent society.”

We can also commit to actively seeking out perspectives from media outlets that do not just confirm our own worldview. If you are a liberal, when is the last time you read the National Review? Or a conservative, The Nation? This is my challenge to you: This week, choose the one or two issues you care most deeply about, and actively seek out viewpoints different from your own. One easy place to start is at allsides.com, a site founded to combat the echo-chamber phenomenon: Organized by topic, it presents each issue with articles from the left, the right, and the center.

We can all, individually, make this choice, whether we are students on campus a place that should be the ultimate marketplace of ideas, where future leaders should refine their argumentation skills in the crucible of intellectual debate and disagreement or simply concerned citizens. Yes, our spheres of influence may be small, and we may feel as though we are fighting against a rising tide of polarization and intolerance. But I genuinely believe that we all have a role to play in ensuring, as Stephens concludes his lecture, that “our democracies can remain rational, reasonable, and free.”