One of the persistent myths of modern civic life is that well-meaning people can always work out disagreements if they’ll just sit down and talk about things. There’s this odd notion that as long as we have free speech, there’s a “marketplace of ideas” and the best ideas will win through high-minded discussion among intelligent people.
That’s sheer fantasy. It’s not how the real world works and it never will be.
The idea seems to be that intelligent, rational, well-meaning people are naturally going to gravitate to the same answers, because … well … there’s obviously one right way, if we’ll just be smart enough to find it. That’s an idiotic idea, and it leads people to be angry with one another and think other people are stupid. We all think our ideas are obviously right, so if other people don’t agree with us, they’re clearly stupid or dishonest. Right?
I’m reminded of this again because of a flood of people here on the site from the Christian Left who ran across an article I wrote recently about them. Starting Friday night, thousands of people were suddenly reading that article from a couple of weeks ago and it was suddenly hit by dozens of comments, some polite, some angry, some disparaging, but all vehemently disagreeing. A few people with views more similar to mine responded, but there wasn’t any real dialogue. I was writing at the time and didn’t have time to try to engage, so I mostly observed. It was interesting. (You might want to take a look at the article and especially the comments as context for the rest of what I have to say.)
According to all the high-minded theories, those folks and the people who agree with me should be able to work out our disagreements about these basic ideas. That’s not going to happen, though, and I’m not terribly concerned about trying. It’s not because I like having people angry with me or disagreeing with me. It’s simply that different people are always going to have different values, assumptions and experiences, so they’re going to come to different conclusions, no matter how honest and intelligent they are.
When you further factor in human nature, you see that it’s almost impossible for people to honestly understand each other. There are few things as terrifying to most human beings as a new idea that challenges what they already believe. That’s why they usually react in anger and indignation rather than curiosity when they encounter challenging ideas they’re not familiar with. This tendency might create an odd form of stability, but it makes positive change very difficult.
Then layer on top of that the relative impossibility of properly communicating an abstract message through all the filters of the two human minds involved, as I wrote about a couple of months ago. (And you might remember that someone badly misunderstood what I said in that article and his misunderstanding came out when he tried to refute it.)
It’s sometimes true that the people we try to have conversations with are idiots. It’s sometimes true that the people who disagree with us have bad intentions or they’re being dishonest. But more often than not, their intentions are good and they’re doing their best to communicate with us, just as we are with them. In our frustration with their seeming lack of their ability to understand us (and agree, of course), we attack them and call them names. And both sides believe they’re the ones being fair, smart and honest.
The people who wrote comments about my article last night seemed (for the most part) like well-meaning, intelligent people who were outraged at someone holding a view so contrary to what they’re sure is true. As I read what they wrote, though, it’s clear that they don’t understand my position or the underlying philosophy of my position. Some were honestly trying to understand. Others were intellectually lazy and simply tried to lump me in with some other group they disagreed with. But while I realize that they don’t understand me, I also realize that they also believe that I don’t understand them.
And this brings me to the real point. We have the notion in this country that there is one true way — a “one size that fits all.” It’s not true and it’s never been true. The problem with these United States is that they’re not united and aren’t going to be. We’re a collection of people with growing intellectual, cultural and spiritual differences. The old civic myth that says we can be united and all live under the same set of rules has always been silly, but it’s getting sillier every day.
We are going to disagree about the way society should be structured. There’s no reason for us to all be forced to live under the same basic rules. The more we learn about each other, the more it’s obvious that we radically disagree on core issues. At one time, most differences between people were regional. With the growth of communication technology, the people who are united by certain beliefs are spread out — and the fissures are growing as we try to live among each other as a result.
It’s time for us to quit pretending that there is a “one size fits all” way that we all have to live. If some people want to live under a socialist regime, they should have the power to establish cities or enclaves for people to voluntarily live under their rules. If others want some kind of theocracy, that should be their business. If others want a strictly free market system, they should be able to establish their cities or enclaves. These places should be able to compete for customers, and people can vote with their feet about what rules they prefer to live under.
In the same way that the feudal system and various others have died in history, I believe we’re very near the end of the nation-state as we know it today. What replaces it will be great for some people and lousy for other people, depending on the choices they make now — in the years or decades before the restructuring takes place. Economies are going to collapse and civil societies will break apart. What replaces it shouldn’t be monolithic. It should offer individuals and groups the chance to set up their own cities with their own rules.
Intelligent and well-meaning people are going to disagree. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need to quit pretending that we all have to come to the same conclusion. We need to be satisfied to let each other go our own ways instead of trying to force others to agree with us.
I don’t care what you believe or how you choose to live — just as long as you don’t try to force others to live under your rules. I won’t force you to live as I choose. Please don’t try to force me to live under your rules.
Note: The bicycle at the top of this article is a piece of art called “Irreconcilable Differences,” by Leonardo Giles Fleur. It’s part of an exhibition showing right now at the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Museum of Art and History.