Can we disagree like free men?

Stephen W. Browne

“The spirit of liberty is one which is not too sure it is right.”

– Judge Learned Hand

This is something I posted on a Facebook discussion thread vis-a-vis our political differences in this country:

“Has it ever occurred to you that the other side might be merely wrong?

For example that they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the measures you think necessary for the welfare of poor and working class people are in fact actively bad for them?

The right-wing equivalent is the belief that people on the left want to impose a totalitarian dictatorship on the American people.

This is what I'm talking about – there seems to be a deep felt need in a great many people to believe that those who they disagree with are not just wrong – but evil.

I saw this when I was young and hanging out with the anti-war movement in the '60s. There were young people then who would tell you straight up that a great many people in this country had to be killed to achieve a just society.

All of this looks very familiar to me.”

The reply contained the comment “you can't see…” concerning what the writer called my “false equivalence.”

Perhaps I see too much. And what I see is beginning to scare me.

Though there is really no politician or party with which I agree 100 percent, yes I think one side is right on more things, or rather has a viewpoint more in accordance with reality than the other.

But I could be wrong, and I've changed my mind on some substantial issues in my lifetime.

Moreover I think most people never consider it's entirely possible that on some pretty contentious issues that both parties could be right.

The example I use sometimes is the social welfare issue.

On the left people argue that private charity is not enough to meet the needs of the chronically poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill and that the failure to maintain social welfare services will produce social instability.

On the right they tend to argue that the welfare state has created learned dependency, destroyed initiative, forced us into unsustainable spending, and weakened social capital.

I have not met anyone willing to concede these might both be true, that the choice might be between bad and less bad alternatives. It goes against the grain of the American world view that there might be problems with no completely satisfactory solution.

That's why we have people saying, “you can't see,” which all too easily becomes “you refuse to see” implying malice or self-interested motives.

I think this is why each side sees, not what the other side believes, but a caricature of it. And yes I think it's more pronounced on one side than the other, but that could be sample bias.

There really are people that believe roughly a third of their fellow-citizen actively want poor people to starve in abject misery, want women to be semi-chattels, want rich oligarchs to make war in distant lands to enrich themselves over the bodies of their children.

Too many people these days do not seem to get that disagree is what free men do.