How right are we? How wrong are our ideological adversaries? This question first occurred to me when I was a young child growing up in rural New England.
It was the early 1970s, and my father was on our local board of education,
where he fought against replacing traditional teaching techniques with the new-fangled approaches of the day. It was a contentious time, and the angry debate echoed through the entire community. Leading the opposition was a farmer who lived just down the road … and the father of my preschool playmate. Jackie and I didn’t talk anymore. Like me, she probably heard her father rant about his political adversary, and she knew the rift between our families couldn’t be mended. I used to lie in bed after the dinner discussions at my house and imagine the things Jackie’s father was saying about my dad… And why he was saying it.
You see, what struck me was that Mr. Lowe didn’t fight with my father because he was a bad man, or in any way ill-intentioned. He disagreed with my father because he believed he was right and my dad was wrong. It begged the question in my 10-year-old mind – if both men thought their own position was correct, who could say which viewpoint really was the right one?
The moral and theological implications of this question haunted me for years. But as each new polarizing issue took center stage – from war to abortion to social programs to every sort of politics – the answer became more and more clear. And the answer is this: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who is right – whether the moral superiority belongs to us or to our ideological opponents – as long as we continue trying to find a common ground and make our priority working together for the good of all.
This I believe: that a truly humanitarian society needs to foster the skill of respectful disagreement.
Sounds soft, huh? You assign the best of intentions to your adversary. Next thing you know, you’ll be thinking just like them, right? On the contrary, I’ve found that by respectfully disagreeing with my ideological opponents, I’ve actually become more vocal in presenting my own beliefs. Friends will tell you, the older I get, the less willing I am to back down from a debate. And to me, the healthiest organizations are those in which members own a variety of viewpoints and they’re willing to share them, even if it means a longer meeting or an occasional argument.
But it’s a black and white world we live in these days, and we don’t like the shades of gray that emerge when we look at an issue through another’s eyes. Too often, the complexities of our world result in conflicts so profound that they cannot be resolved. It may mean we have to agree to disagree. And we don’t like that. It’s not tidy. It leaves too many groups on different pages.
But isn’t that what democracy is about? A diversity of people, coexisting and respecting each other’s beliefs while working together for a common good?
I’d like to have a tidy ending to my father’s experience with the school board here. But the truth is, the hostilities never ended and the fighting was never resolved. I do believe the community benefited from the sacrifices my father and Mr. Lowe made in holding firmly to their beliefs, but I wish the two men could have found a way to acknowledge to each other – if only for one brief instant – that they respected each other’s motives, if not their ideologies. You may disagree with my opinion, and truth is, you may be right. But please, please, don’t dismiss it just because it isn’t your own. I’d much prefer a good argument.
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