Americans like to be right. I would assume that is a phenomenon shared worldwide, but I am most familiar with my home country, so I will keep my commentary local. We love to be right, and we love when other people know that we are right (trust me, I built an entire blog about why I think I’m right). We are declarative and sure in our arguments, at times almost hoping someone will question us so that we can verbally knock the poor soul back into a pit of wrongness. On some level, certainty in our beliefs is absolutely a good thing, but I wonder if we are going about it all the way we should be. With that in mind, I have a couple of questions for America (and myself).
Why are we repulsed by the idea that someone might think differently than we do?
In my mind, the answer is partially found in the theme of this post: we like to be right. But why is it that we feel so strongly about the things we believe? I think it is because since our nation’s founding, Americans have had an eye for justice (the Bill of Rights exists to ensure that government treats its citizens justly). We have this collective and unspoken belief not only that we are right, but that our rightness makes us good, makes us just. But does it?
Is our priority engaging the people who disagree with us (and potentially convincing them of our argument) or is it rallying the people who already agree with us?
I have not yet met a person who is not tempted to maintain a “rally the troops” sort of mindset, and I make no claim to being immune to it myself. The affirmation is part of what makes this whole politics thing fun, particularly if the opinion we hold is not shared by the majority. We set it up so that discussion is impossible: if someone questions us we become ideological martyrs, and if other people agree then we have found somewhere new to place our identity. And whether we like it or not, tone matters here. If we are constantly scolding those who do not see the world the same way that we do, we are doing nothing more than groveling for the applause of our own camp. What does that achieve?
One of my favorite quotes comes from the writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who worked under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre. In her biography of Voltaire, she paraphrases him this way: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” So I will close with one final declarative statement : how we disagree is as important as the things we disagree on. Dissent well, often, and with the dignity of your opponent in mind.
The photo at the top of this post was taken by my good friend, Rachel Saffron.