Friday, February 29, 2008

Disagreeing with Smart People

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Charlie Rose, as he is wont to, did a retrospective on William F. Buckley Wednesday night, running together conversations from the many interviews he had done with him over the years. The show, and the passing of Buckley, made me reflect on my own dilemma: How do I think about people who are both brilliant and insightful while at the same time embracing ideals that seem to be an affront on common sense.

Listening to Buckley talk is an absolute delight, but thinking of him as the intellectual father of modern American Conservatism is frightening, made ever so much more so because he, apparently, was proud to be seen that way.

The more urgent dilemma, however, may be why there is a dilemma at all. When stupid people say stupid things it does not bother me. I shrug it off as a curiosity or, if I am feeling particularly empathetic, try to understand how they might have arrived at those views. But when smart people say stupid things it bothers me. Instead of trying to understand how they arrived at their views, I try to understand what mistake they made in arriving at their views.

That intolerance is more than a product of getting grumpy and set in my ways. Public discourse, especially political public discourse, more and more looks for a one dimensional rating system. When Hillary Clinton claimed that Barack Obama was to the right of George Bush because he did not support freezing interest rates on subprime ARMs, I was astonished. I just can’t fathom in what sense picking a position on the best way to deal with foreclosures is a left-right choice, I would have hoped there would have been some talk of effective versus ineffective.

In the face of this one dimensional worldview, I think it is more important than ever to listen to the people you disagree with, especially when they are talking about the things you disagree about. It is true that some disagreements are big enough that all the understanding in the world won’t change anything. But there are lots of disagreements that are not like that and by listening more thoughtfully, we might get closer to the truth. If in doing this we end up needing seven dimensions by which to identify ourselves so be it.

So thank you Mr. Buckley for everything you have said that I disagree with. Perhaps it is time for me to read more of your 55 books.

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