The Value of Disagreement

A photo from an Obama-McCain debate in 2008. Just to add some requisite humor to this otherwise serious post.

I am a liberal and I go to a liberal school. Sometimes this makes me feel happy and comfortable, because I have so much in common with others here in terms of politics. I can complain publicly about Americans’ lack of belief in climate change, or about something Glenn Beck said. I can ask my friends if they’ve seen the latest episode of the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I can rant excitedly about some famous person coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. And I can do all this without worrying that I’m going to offend someone, or that someone is going to argue with me.

But two recent incidents made me ask myself if this is really such a good thing.

One was a conversation I had with a friend about a mutual friend of ours. We’re all really close and hang out a lot, but when I suggested to one that he go have a conversation with the other, he said that they don’t really have anything serious to talk about. I asked why, and he said that they always just agree on everything and there’s little to discuss.

The other was the killing of Osama Bin Laden. When this happened, my Facebook feed suddenly exploded with such a variety of opinions that I didn’t even know existed at Northwestern. Some people were screaming “USA! USA!” Others were really happy that Bin Laden was dead, but didn’t want to celebrate so gleefully. Others were ambivalent, wondering why this really mattered, or whether or not he should’ve been shot dead. Others still were furious that he’d been killed on the spot, arguing that he should’ve been tried by the American judicial system instead. Some were religious Jews or Christians, happy to have gained this victory against radical Islam. (Unfortunately, I don’t know many Muslims, but I would’ve loved to hear their perspectives.) Some were atheists or agnostics, wishing that we didn’t have these religious wars to begin with. And so on and so forth.

Immediately, tons of arguments and debates started up. I got into quite a few myself. As a result, I changed certain parts of my opinion, began to understand other parts more clearly, and generally started articulating my views a bit better. And, also, I learned a lot about many of my friends.

After that, I started to realize how much we’re missing here in terms of political dialogue. I used to be very conservative, but back then I lived in Ohio and everyone around me pretty much agreed. Now that I’m much more liberal, I’m once again surrounded by people who share my views on almost everything. Except for those times when my friends and I start getting bitchy and arguing minutiae, I rarely get to have a good political debate.

What to do about this? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how to get more conservative or libertarian students to attend Northwestern. Like it or not, this is a liberal campus.

One related issue, however, is a bit easier to solve, and that is the tendency of people to want to shut down those who disagree. (I addressed this briefly in the previous post.) The internet makes it much easier to do this because you can literally avoid “conservative” or “liberal” websites, but I see this in play even out in the real world. When I lived in Ohio, despite being conservative, I had the uncomfortable feeling that conservatives always wanted to shut liberals up. Luckily, I didn’t have to feel guilty for long, because when I came to Northwestern I found that liberals do the exact same thing. The way we respond to alternative viewpoints is often anything but respectful and curious–it’s snarky and dismissive.

For instance, when discussing people who oppose the right to abortion, liberals like to refer to them as “anti-choice” rather than “pro-life,” which is what they call themselves. This is, in my opinion, ridiculously disrespectful. Pro-lifers place the sanctity of life above the freedom of choice, but that doesn’t mean they oppose choice. It just means they value life (and they define life as beginning at conception) more than they value choice. I disagree with this position entirely, but I respect it and can see why some people would think that way.

Similarly, conservatives will purposefully refer to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” (to highlight his “Muslim” middle name) or as the “Obamination” or as any number of other highly disrespectful monikers. Why? Why talk like this about the President of the United States just because he is a liberal?

This needs to stop. From both sides. Silencing the opinions of others benefits nobody. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong. If they’re right, then you should know the truth. If they’re partially right and partially wrong, you should take this opportunity to fine-tune your own views.

In fact, in order to put my money where my mouth is, from now on I’m going to seek out intelligent conservative blogs and read them. If nothing else, it’ll help me learn how to defend my own views better. Unfortunately, I don’t hear many conservative opinions here on campus, so I’m going to look for them elsewhere.

The Value of Disagreement

7 thoughts on “The Value of Disagreement

  1. 1

    Good points. One of the issues I’ve been looking at is the concept of moral panic. This is closely followed by compassion fatigue. Out politicians are using asylum seekers as a political football these days and I hate it. The misinformation that gets spread is horrible. This causes me issues at work where we have one guy who insists on ranting about how the asylum seekers get so many hand outs. They don’t. I married one, I know for a fact what they get!

    I make sure I am always armed with the “myth busters” so I can present the defence argument!

    1. 1.1

      Hmm…I take it this is a hot-button issue in Australia?

      It reminds me of the issues of welfare and immigration in the US. Immigrants and people on welfare are always being accused of stealing valuable resources–despite the immense difficulties they have to overcome.

      1. Very hot topic, Miriam. Infuriating really, because we take fasr fewer regugees that we are supposed to under the international agreements in place. A refugree is an aylum seeker until the asulym seeker is granted a protection visa (or comparable visa) at which point the persona’s status becomes refugee.

        The barely survive on what our government provides, besides we lock most of them up – also against the international agreements.

  2. 2

    Oh this should be fun. I adore debate. I see you subscribed to my blog. I hope you read over my debate with the “Word Guru”. When faced with questions he couldn’t answer he simply said I was “so far off course there was no reason to debate”. That was fun.
    As a Transsexual Christian who watches Fox News, doesn’t like Glen Beck, but still enjoys Bill O’reilly, yet believes in the right to an abortion under certain circumstances, all the while owning a blog fighting feverishly for equal rights for the L.G.B.T.T.Q community, I am a bit of a paradox. I don’t know, I guess I’m a little like Ted Olsen. I believe in whats right and whats fair in my own opinion. I loathe religious bigots and Hippocrates and often challenge any christian to debate me on the idea that all people in t he LGBTTQ community are going to hell. Anyway, I look forward to reading your blog!


    1. 2.1

      Thanks for reading, LiVia! I’ll definitely read the post you mentioned.

      Your position is definitely unusual with regards to American political culture, but ultimately it’s the traditional position, not yours, that makes little sense. Why should one’s views on the appropriate role and function of government (which is what I understand conservatism is mostly about) also cause one to think that being LGBTTQ is morally wrong? That’s what bothers me about American conservatives.

  3. 3

    This is a really interesting post. I go to a similar college as yours, quite liberal, and there are times I feel that I could be more challenged were it more diverse. At the same time, I don’t know whether anything would really change if I went to a more diverse school because it seems that where I go at least people tend to self segregate into groups, be it by race, sexual orientation, religion, politics or even by major. So I wonder how much more inter group interaction there really would be even if my college was more diverse. Just a thought…

    1. 3.1

      That’s true, people definitely do self-segregate. But even with that, it’s hard to avoid being exposed to differing opinions. After all, people (thankfully) don’t sign up for classes based on which types of people are going to be in the class!

      Thanks for reading!

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