On Listening to Our Opponents

Jamieson Spencer

It’s hardly headline news these days that we Americans are dividing more and more into warring camps. Our social media are partly to blame, driving us into mutually hostile and suspicious “siloes” of opinion. I have a genuinely modest suggestion of one practice for dealing with these “interesting times” of ours—that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” What I propose is some combination of thoughtful, calm self-reflection with some genuine and disinterested curiosity. For one thing, it’s always valuable to have to articulate our own views precisely and honestly rather than parroting the often-simplistic ideas the many self-important and limited voices social media bring to us. But we should do more. We should continue that challenging, often discomfiting, effort to seek out the other side’s point of view, not just click on some random screed. I’m rediscovering in (well, let’s be frank) older age the inestimable value of a thinking skill that was drummed into me in high school. A regular assignment required us to “compose a clear and detailed argument defending your opponent’s position.”

The great English philosopher John Stuart Mill was a brilliant and articulate spokesman for freedom of thought. He prized that democratic ideal because it recognizes the vital importance of considering (which means being able to hear) all sides of an issue. That approach promotes in turn a still higher ideal: the rights of our wider and diverse community to a full airing of opinions on all important matters of action and belief. Whenever we silence a hostile opinion, he reminds us, we are “[robbing] the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation, those who dissent from the opinion still more than those who hold it.” His vital point is that we, as well as our descendants (the generation to whom we will leave this messy, challenging world), can actually profit from the thoughts of those who reject our current views.

That adjective current is a gentle reminder that what we think at a given time on a particular issue can be in a permanent state of flux. Forcing ourselves to face the many sides of a matter also demands that we confront, fully and honestly, the full range of our own emotions and principles, some of them laudable, others not so much. We get to know ourselves better. That’s always a healthful result, no matter how wrenching or embarrassing the process.

Mill goes on to articulate a corollary critical judgment: “Too many educated people have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them” and therefore “do not know the doctrine they themselves profess.” That’s why, even though I find thirty minutes of Fox News both an emotional and a mental challenge, I’ll do more than defend to the death their right to be on the air and voice their views. I’ll go further and insist on my obligation to listen to them, and to listen attentively, in a conscious effort to come to a full and fair understanding of their positions, to come to terms with and appreciate the doctrine they are announcing. Such exposure forces me to “know the doctrine” that I think I “profess.” Having to answer others’ objections demands that I try to articulate my “doctrine,” my thinking, more precisely.

I think there’s been a crying need—and the tears have been especially plentiful and raucous since the 2016 elections—for all of us to start practicing this sort of nonjudgmental and genuinely disinterested openness to contrary opinions. We need to accept that, on that November day, “we the people” spoke. For some of us it was a day of unsettling despair, but for others—and there was and still is a wide swath of them—the moment was genuinely celebratory. Sure, we can quibble about popular-vote statistics and the imperfections of the Electoral College, but undeniably the American community weighed in that day. As a national community, “we” rejected the way things had been going and demanded new thinking and changed policies.

Liberal me had to accept, first, that an array of conservative positions that had been jostling for the people’s attention and respect were now, at long last, getting it. And, worse for my progressive spirit, not only were those positions being heard, they were and are being put into practice: policies and initiatives that are pro-life, are pro-gun, and welcome harsh police tactics. Beyond that, this administration also rejects continuing immigration (or demands a very selective version) and is at least sympathetic to the notion of white supremacy. It also firmly rejects the Affordable Care Act, which the members of its sizable and echo-y silo dismiss as “socialized medicine.”

Well, that early training of mine is now rendering me a service. It’s helping me recognize, admit, and concede that (darn it all) these various policies are firmly grounded in established and well-regarded philosophical traditions. They spring from genuinely libertarian views or from honest and sincere Second Amendment commitments, and from deeply patriotic impulses. It’s true that I can’t help judging many of these views and policies on a scale from unfortunate to misguided to cruel. But hard-headed and stubborn me also can’t help revering our democratic tradition. I accept its operation, even when the results it yields are distasteful. Yes, even abhorrent.

In fact, as a genuine (small-d) democrat I’m so deeply committed to our system that, frankly, I am disappointed that a man of (I’ll put this kindly and gently) poor expressive skills is the current spokesman for those unfortunate policies. The progressive me should be delighted at what a bad case President Trump is making for them. I admit, quite frankly, that I want “his” side to fail. But here again, Mill comes to my rescue. He proves indispensable. He reminds us how crucial it is not only to hear the other side’s views but to “be able to hear them from people who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest and do their very utmost for them.” Above all, one should hear them “in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

And that’s not what we’re getting. Our president’s vocabulary is neither very extensive nor precise and therefore fails to be fully persuasive. He may move or excite, but he does not convince. For one thing, he sprinkles his speeches with off-the-cuff superlatives (“the most,” “the worst”), and as a general rule, superlatives do not contribute to accurate or fair reasoning. Absolutes leave no room for subtle shades of opinion. Trump is also fond of short slogans (such as “lock her up” or “send them back”) that also discourage cool analysis. But still: I’m forced to concede that, no matter how simplistic or unreflective they are, these slogans do spring from understandable judgments. They reflect a legitimate analysis of the current political situation (even if it’s poorly thought out or, as the progressive half of me declares, “wrong”).

The opposition, however misguided I may consider its views and rationales, deserves a better spokesperson. Imagine if the Republicans could rent a voice and brain like Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s. He’s so articulate and persuasive, I bet he could achieve several impossibilities: sell Uzis to a Quaker meeting, talk Brigham Young into monogamy, and even persuade an evangelical Protestant to bless same-sex unions. And not just his own.

The current administration does have some good articulate voices available. Stephen Miller is a good example. True, he may be a zealot about immigration, but people with genuine zeal usually make a fine case for their issues. But he was soon put out to pasture. James Madison insisted that an ideal democracy requires a mechanism of regular and articulate opposition: factions should be in constant collision, moving through that fractious process toward some common moral or intellectual understanding.

I’d like to think (modestly again, not arrogantly) that this more tolerant, open frame of mind I’m urging might help us tackle some of the deeply controversial topics of our day. There’s no lack of them. (Trump and his associates have been generous in providing them.) But I’ll aim my sights at a limited few. Immigration, for example, is one that could profit from this more humane and balanced approach. In a recent letter to our metropolitan paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I tried to apply that “take” to another letter-writer’s concerns. She had feared the invading “mob” that she saw coming across the border. I consulted my own xenophobic impulses (I’m only human after all), and I had to admit that, yes, the swelling numbers of new arrivals is indeed a genuine concern. A large influx of folks who hail from another nation, and who were raised in a distinct social and religious culture, does pose a real challenge to any community’s willingness, much less its ability, to assimilate large numbers of “others.”

But I also instinctively feel for those immigrants as victims (that’s another, perhaps more admirable, human trait of mine). Most of these families are fleeing murderous violence that threatens them daily. That pair of conflicting loyalties guided me to what I felt was a balanced judgment. While we recognize the undeniable stresses these new arrivals pose, we should at least pay heed to our hearts, to our national mission, and to common religious teaching: a shared commitment to open doors for the poor and unfortunate. But our course should always be guided by wisdom, restraint, and caution. Above all, it must stop short of cruelty. Putting kids in cages, or threatening to deport the grievously ill, are actions deeply at odds with the generosity of heart that is an American tradition and habit.

Another hot issue here in St. Louis has been the Confederate memorial in our spacious and welcoming Forest Park. That makes it an intensely local, even parochial, matter, but it’s also one with a deep and self-evident national relevance. I abhor the narrow, regional loyalties that the memorial celebrates. No question. But we should recognize that a sympathy for the Confederate cause has played a genuine role in our city’s, our region’s, and our nation’s history. I know I am not alone in rejecting what it celebrates, but I would still insist that the statue can perform a vital service. It can remind us to respect, even treasure, the wide diversity of views we as a diverse people have come to—honestly, and through a lengthy historical experience and thoughtful (if often emotional) reflection. Naturally, many of us recognize and lament the deplorable behaviors those views have inspired (racial prejudice, narrow sectionalism and states’ rights, even an actual civil war). Still the memorial, as a very real three-dimensional object in a public space, testifies to our messy, often jarring, and still incomplete American experiment.

The statue might serve to generate humility, an emotion that’s now in particularly short supply. We modern enlightened souls, liberals included, can often give in to self-righteousness (yet another human failing). Too often we fondly imagine that we’ve achieved a final clear understanding of our nation’s past. We are confident that we’ve internalized a finished vision of its purpose, one that needs no further reconsideration. (And, yes, sometimes we indulge our egos by penning letters to editors or submitting long essays to outstanding journals proclaiming our impressive understanding.) We forget that our Founders sought merely a more perfect union—never its completion. Their goal was and is admirable and worthy, but it’s a humble one. So it’s vital that our dangerously confident understandings should be regularly challenged and forced to face and accommodate (or articulately reject) subsequent objections.

There’s a further issue that remains deeply controversial: same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges judgment, a liberal decision, was ground-breaking, even daring, in allowing such unions. But its later Masterpiece Cakeshop decision also did, to my mind, an admirable job of balancing that progressive decision with a more conservative and libertarian affirmation. It favored the baker whose deeply held religious faith and conviction urged him to obey his conscience and refuse to provide a cake for such a wedding.

It should be no surprise that I, as a disciple of Mill, applaud this split decision. Both sides draw me. I like to think I’m proactively tolerant. I’m open to considering the merits of new, challenging, or unusual marital arrangements. Love is so rare that people should be permitted to pursue that precious and bonding emotion when they find it. But the conservative in me (a very small voice, admittedly) also preaches that in due course they should make their bond permanent, approved and certified by the law. A loving and permanent commitment, unlike repeated one-night stands (uh-oh, my inner puritan is now heard from), promotes important virtues, both personal and civic: loyalty, sacrifice, and compromise.

I do respect the cake company’s religious scruples. Its refusal to supply a celebratory centerpiece for a union its owner considered illegitimate, indeed sinful, represents a faithful and honest effort to apply their religion’s doctrinal recommendations to our world. Yes, yes. Granted. But my more iconoclastic side laments the sorts of strict religious beliefs that have encouraged the baker’s reactionary, ungenerous, and judgmental stance. That fact can even prompt the thoughtful (but sarcastic) side of me to observe that one’s faith can offer a wonderful emotional convenience. It can declare certain behaviors “wrong” and let us enjoy the pleasure of condemning one’s fellow Americans with a clear, God-given conscience. (My tongue is reaching for my cheek here, but I do at heart respect a faith’s devotion to its principles. I’m divided as usual.)

Well, let’s see now. In this effort to urge a kind, tolerant, open, and balanced approach, it looks like I’ve also managed to find fault with a wide range of my fellow Americans: libertarians, gays, religious believers, the gun lobby, and even my fellow liberals. Hmm. Anyone I haven’t offended? Or at least challenged?

No? Then I guess my work here is done.

Jamieson Spencer

Jamieson Spencer is a retired professor of English at St. Louis Community College. He has written book and music reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he is the author of two books: Fictional Religion (a study of religious ideas in great literature) and Modified Raptures (a contemporary romance novel.)


It’s hardly headline news these days that we Americans are dividing more and more into warring camps. Our social media are partly to blame, driving us into mutually hostile and suspicious “siloes” of opinion. I have a genuinely modest suggestion of one practice for dealing with these “interesting times” of ours—that old Chinese curse, “May …

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