Monday, March 20, 2006

The Wisdom of Jonah Goldberg

Increasingly middle-aged family man Jonah G has something to say about seeking out viewpoints that oppose your own:
Here’s some advice, for what it’s worth. The way to tell if a liberal — or a conservative — is to be trusted is to see how fairly he or she deals with the other side’s arguments. Obviously, you can’t give a full airing to the other side’s point of view or you’d be spending all your time making the other side’s case. And not every column has to be a on the one-hand, on-the-other-hand affair. But, over the long haul, you can tell which liberals actually have the intellectual self-confidence to engage with the other side’s best arguments and not just their worst ones. Meanwhile, if you look at, say, Maureen Dowd, there isn’t even an attempt to be fair to the other side. It’s all bile, snark, and sneer — which would be a good name for a law firm in mordor. Lord knows, I don’t mind bile per se, but it can only be a single ingredient, not the whole thing. Dowd's stuff is closer to fiction writing than opinion journalism. I think a lot of rightwingers have a similar problem — and I wouldn’t recommend them to liberals trying to get a fair read on the conservative point of view either. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading. But entertainment is not necessarily argument.
Boy, is this on-target! Jonah is writing about columnists, but it applies equally to bloggers.

I have found a number of bloggers out there who are really good at presenting their own point of view, while also being intellectually honest about the views of people who disagree with them. There are also a lot of bloggers (of all stripes) who seem to be victims of the Moral/Intellectual Fallacy: the idea that anyone who holds Wrong Views must do so because of personal evil or personal stupidity. You find this a lot on college campuses; it's forgivable there, because the victims are usually people who are engaging in the life of the mind for the first time (and thus are going to fall into a lot of errors), and because part of the point of college is learning to get past the idea that there's only One True Way of looking at things.

The problem with the "you must be stupid or evil" position is that it limits our ability to learn. The extreme complexity of the universe, coupled with our own individual foibles, frailties, and fallibilities, mean that nobody living on Earth has the complete puzzle. We each only have one little piece. Even worse, the piece we have is usually worn and scuffed and chewed and has dog spit on it from when the little rascal got into the box. Through our own efforts, we can improve our piece. We can clean off the spittle, mend the cracks, perhaps polish the scuffs. But we still only have one piece of the puzzle. In order to really expand our understanding, we have to talk to other people.

And some of those other people are going to have very different understandings and worldviews than we do. It's an inevitability; the world is, as noted, complex. Things that work for one person don't work at all for another. There's just no way that a single philosophy or worldview is going to encompass all the truth that is out there.

There are people who are so stupid that their contribution to any possible discourse is limited to "didja catch Idol?" and there are people so evil that anything that has run through their brain needs to be considered toxic and dangerous. But these are a tiny fraction of the minds which we will encounter over the course of our lives. Nearly anyone with the cognitive capacity to boot up a web browser, and the moral integrity to stay out of prison, is going to have something to say that you can learn from - even if they seem to be wrong about many things.

Being intellectually honest about people we disagree with makes us smarter, in the long run, because we learn things that we wouldn't have picked up if we had insisted that those who disagree with us had nothing to contribute. I have definitely noticed in my life that the people who seem to know the most - those who have the most wisdom - are also people who really understand the positions of their political, moral or spiritual adversaries.

Snark is fun, but listening is the path to understanding.

6 comments:

nobody.really said...

What he said.

What really pisses me off is how, when I agree with someone, they automatically assume that I'm not evil or stupid. Talk about prejudice! It's not like you good & smart people OWN ALL IDEAS, ok? Evil and stupid people have the same Free Speech rights as anyone else, and just because you reached some conclusion first doesn't entitle you to deny the identities of those of us who needed a little more time to get there.

I mean, like, duh -- I'M STUPID! Of COURSE it's gonna take me longer to reach a conclusion. And evilness really doesn't accelerate things as much as you might imagine. So if everyone could kindly refrain from accusing me of brilliance or virtue just because I share their point of view on something, I'd be oh-so-grateful. Thanks.

(...bastardz....)

Robert said...

Hush, you evil moron.

nobody.really said...

...(sniff)....
You really do care...!

Robert said...

No I don't.

mythago said...

Mr. Goldberg seems to have a real problem with not noticing the mote in his own eye.

Robert said...

How's that, Mythago? He's always seemed pretty fair to liberal arguments to me.