Nation has lost its ability to disagree civilly

Thomas Jefferson, in an official portrait as President of the United States by Rembrandt Peale.

Thomas Jefferson, in an official portrait as President of the United States by Rembrandt Peale.

My Dad used to say that it’s better to keep quiet and let people think that you are stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.  Sorry, Dad, I didn’t follow your advice.

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, helps illustrate the problem.Disagreement on values and ideas can be emotionally stressful.  Life is about choices, and we have no text book with answers in the back.  People rely on faith, reason, and elders, among other sources, for guidance.  No one can ever be one hundred percent certain, creating scope for doubt.

Agreement boosts our confidence.  After a math test, it is reassuring if other students got the same answer.  Agreement suggests that you were doing the problem right and eases self-doubt.  And if everyone got the problem wrong, there may be a curve.

The expression of dissent can additionally destabilize institutions.  Many people might share doubts in silence; voicing a shared desire for change can spark change.  It is no accident that churches and governments have long silenced opponents and heretics.

You might think that professors would relish debate with colleagues holding fundamentally different views on society or how to study our subjects.  Yet we also find disagreement discomforting, and the most useful research discussions are often with colleagues who think similarly.

Intellectual disagreement poses another challenge, which is where Mr. Jefferson comes in.  The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Jefferson’s words inspired America’s fight for independence, and millions of people across the globe since.

Mr. Jefferson contends that these truths are self-evident, which means obvious or not needing explanation.  Yet in 1776 kings ruled most countries, the Declaration did not recognize equal rights for women, and Mr. Jefferson held slaves.  It seems like the principle of political equality needed some explaining.

We still often consider our ideologies and beliefs to not only be true, but obvious to any thinking person.  For instance, I think that voluntary exchange obviously makes all parties better off.  Yet this can’t be self-evident because many professors believe that businesses exploit their workers and customers.

If our ideology is self-evidently true, how do we interpret professors who disagree?  One possibility is to dismiss them as not bright, to answer my opening question.  Professors’ test scores and grades prove we are all intelligent otherwise.  A professor’s stupidity here is like being unable to recognize a simple arithmetic mistake at the start of a long math problem.  Liberals probably wonder why free market economists like me can’t understand that advertising manipulates consumers into buying things they do not want or need.

Alternatively, a dissenting professor may be insincere, arguing something he or she does not truly believe.  Some people (especially professors) enjoy being contrarians, while others might deny the obvious out of self-interest.  Insincere professors are often seen as apologists or possibly even shills.   Professors have enough points of sincere disagreement that we do not need to waste time debunking arguments which no one truly believes.

Surveys routinely document that liberals far outnumber conservatives on the faculty in many university departments.  Liberal dominance increases the value of disparaging dissenters.  Disparaging the handful of faculty conservatives as stupid or shills, allows unanimous support among all who matter for liberal proposals like universal government-guaranteed basic income.

Incivility is a hallmark of discourse in America today. I believe that the belief that views about the organization of human society can be self-evident contributes in in some meaningful way.  If we recognize that reasonable people will disagree over complicated issues, perhaps liberals, conservatives and libertarians will again talk and listen to each other.