Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Needfulness of listening to opponents

[Update: I have written two other posts related to the subject of sound argumentation. If this interests you, see "The Scourge of Niceness," and "Frenetic, Distractible, Unfocused Minds."]

Are you happy with the way politicians handle the debates of our day?

I don't intend to blog much about politics. It is something every citizen should care about and should be involved in as he is able, but I don't see that I would add much to the already large number of voices writing regularly about the political scene.

However, I do want to make a comment about a general principle. I am very concerned that the nature of political discourse among the elected politicians of our blessed nation is getting worse from an already low position.

The American political scene (and this is true of any free, representative democracy), if it is to be capable of maintaining any measure of health, must be able to sustain a certain minimum level of sincerity and authenticity in political debate. There is a particular quality that is essential for the existence of politically healthy dialogue between opposing parties (whether these parties be individuals or groups). This is the quality of being sincerely open to and interested in the ideas of an opponent.

Among the more notable figures of history there are great thinkers who were not only great minds but good men. It is important for us today to notice that great and good men who had a great and salutary influence upon their societies, whether of more recent times (such as Abraham Lincoln) or more ancient (such as Socrates), have at least this much in common: they listened to their opponents and took them seriously. They listened because they desired to listen. They considered the ideas of their opponents with respect. A politician cannot be great, indeed, is likely to become a danger to society, if he does not want his own ideas to be publicly challenged. And a close and necessary companion to this quality of openness is to desire the best possible ordering of human society more than you desire your own political success. A politician who has a greater allegiance to his own political advancement than he does to seeking what is best for the common good deserves to be defeated by someone less self-serving.

What got me thinking of this topic? So often now, when I hear a politician speak in support of his (or her) party's position on an issue, it is clear that he has not bothered to listen to and take seriously the criticisms of his opponents. This behavior has no place in a democracy if we are to remain a free society. Men like St. Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, and Lincoln, listened carefully to the criticism of their opponents. One could almost say they were hungry for opposition; they soaked up contrary ideas like sponges. They worked hard to understand those critiques. They tried to represent the ideas of their opponents fairly and to verify that they understood those ideas before crafting a response. Then, after listening sincerely and really trying to see the opponent's point of view, they would do their best to address those criticisms openly and directly and as thoroughly as possible. This kind of noble behavior in disagreement is a consequence of genuine respect for the equal dignity of all persons and of a firm allegiance to such values as truth, integrity, justice, honor, and graciousness.

I am very concerned about how rare it is to find a leading politician (from any party) who seems to be sincerely open to the concerns of his critics. Often, I suspect such appearances are just that--appearances. We ardently need political leaders who understand that finding the best political solutions requires vigorous and honest argumentation among the best and most experienced minds. We need them to seek first what is best for our country through the means of forthright dialectic; we do not need them to seek victory for their side above all else. In other words, we need politicians who want and know how to have real arguments rather than ideologues who will do anything to shut down serious criticism.

Lord, please grant us such politicians in abundance.

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