Psychology For Democracy (Part I)

The following is adapted from the May, 2017 Jewish Baccalaureate Keynote the author delivered at the United States Air Force Academy.

Source: Dawna Capln/FreeImages

The Talmud presents a story about a rabbi who dissented from the majority of other rabbis in his community regarding a matter of Jewish law. The other rabbis were certain that they were right and he was wrong, but the rabbi continued to argue. Because everyone agreed that he was wrong, everyone also found him unpleasant. Before long, his arguments, and even is presence, became so frustrating and annoying, that the other rabbis could stand it no longer. They found him so intolerable that they finally excommunicated him.

Having eliminated the source of the unpleasantness, the community expected their lives to become more peaceful. But instead, all manner of troubles befell them.

Sometimes when one person pushes against a prevailing view, he is right, and everyone else is wrong. But that is not the moral of our story. In our story, it doesn’t matter whether the rabbi who dissented was right or wrong. The moral of our story is the importance of allowing dissent and disagreement. “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion,” wrote John Stuart Mill, “and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”* 

The topic today is “makhloket l’shem shamayim.” Makhloket means disagreement or argument. “Makhloket l’shem shamayim” means “argument for the sake of Heaven,” and it is qualitatively different than argument for the sake of anything else. It refers to the particular kind of disagreement that forms the foundation of the Jewish view of civil dialogue: argument for the purpose of finding truth together. This kind of productive disagreement is fundamental to both Judaism and democracy.

In makhloket l’shem shamayim, we seek intellectual challenge rather than confirmation of our existing views. This is especially important for leaders. Leaders must be willing to say things other people won’t like, and must be able to defend their arguments well. But this can only happen through understanding the opposition well enough to make a plausible case for their view.

Leaders also need to regularly hear from people who disagree with them in order to incorporate a full range of perspectives, and avoid becoming overconfident. Given our natural tendency to selectively perceive things that confirm our existing views, leaders need people around them who see things differently in order to provide information that would otherwise be missed. When our only contact is with people who agree with us, we not only miss the opportunity to learn about other perspectives, we become more convinced of the rightness of our views, and our views become more entrenched—and even more extremist. And of course, there’s always the possibility that we could be wrong. Without being willing to authentically consider different views, we’re unlikely to ever know.

Argument can be unpleasant, and having our views challenged can be uncomfortable, so many of us prefer to avoid it. But when we don’t learn to productively hear disagreement, it becomes easy to view people who see things in ways that are diametrically opposed to our own as fundamentally flawed in some way, irredeemable, or even evil. When we view someone this way, why would we listen to anything they have to say? In fact, why would we allow them to speak at all? As Mill understood, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”*

Productive disagreement requires the kind of intellectual humility that honors the dignity of the people with whom we are privileged to engage in makhloket. But this is not the way most of us have learned to argue. Intellectual humility is absent when we argue for the sake of proving to others that they are wrong, convincing others that we are right. And in our age of social media, many of our arguments are performed for the sake of elevating ourselves, or diminishing someone in the eyes of others. Abandoning the arrogance of argument for the sake of self, tribe, or ideology, and learning to engage with intellectual humility—learning to argue for the sake of democracy—is the fundamental problem of our time, and requires a new psychology for democracy. Certitude only leads to silencing unpopular views. But in acknowledging the dignity and humanity of our intellectual opponents, makhloket l’shem shamayim brings us closer to the truth; and it brings us closer together. ♦

Source: Thom Morris/FreeImages

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