MAXWELL:  Respect the right to disagree

9/24/1994 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” Voltaire said in the 18th century, when powerful currents of liberty were infusing the West. If Voltaire were alive today in the United States and tried to practice the principle of his words, he could easily find himself at the killing end of a 12-gauge shotgun. Few Americans will defend to the death the rights of others.

Even less nobly, few Americans have the ability to calmly listen to an opposing opinion. The nation is fast becoming a barnyard, teeming with barking, braying, clucking, growling, grunting, howling, screeching, snorting. The days of felicitous debate are dead and gone. No longer do we appreciate what journalist Walter Lippmann called “the indispensable opposition.”

Study an important debate at any level, national, state, regional or local, and you’ll find enmity so profound that reaching common ground is next to impossible. And for sure, if you choose to monitor an issue such as abortion, you’ll find the landscape littered not only with fetuses, but with the bodies of abortion doctors, too. You’ll find that freedom of speech _ America’s greatest treasure _ is under siege. When discussion is compromised or stifled, the potential for human understanding is lost.

And that’s the point of this essay: The freedom of discussion is vital to human understanding, and human understanding is achieved only when we can improve our opinions. How do we improve our opinions? We do so by earnestly listening to the other side, by respecting the other person’s right to disagree with us.

Lippmann tells us why we should practice such tolerance: “The end is to find the truth. The practical justification of civil liberty is not that self-expression is one of the rights of man. It is that the examination of opinion is one of the necessities of man. . . . When men are brought face to face with their opponents, forced to listen and learn and mend their ideas, they cease to be children and savages and begin to live like civilized men. Then only is freedom a reality, when men may voice their opinions because they must examine them.”

Today we run from other people’s opinions. We hide, for example, behind the shrill, self-serving noise of radio talk shows. We’ve apotheosized the likes of Rush Limbaugh, the nation’s most despicable and formidable opinion killer. By doing so, some of us have shut down an entire side of the national debate. We’ve become so enamored of our own opinions that our first instinct is to attack those who disagree with us. Rarely do we challenge our opponent on the merits of his or her arguments. Instead, we attack and belittle the person.

Writer Diana Hacker explains the folly of diminishing the opponent when seeking common ground: “People believe that intelligence and decency support their side of an argument. To change sides, they must continue to feel intelligent and decent. Otherwise they will persist in their opposition.”

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