People Who Disagree With Us Are No Less Valuable

visitors exhibition

Of all things I do not understand about our modern world and the outrage culture that seems to plague it, I think the one I find most baffling has to be the widespread refusal to extend even a modicum of respect to those with whom we disagree. I have little difficulty identifying people I consider brilliant, insightful, informative, talented, and thoroughly decent even though I disagree strongly with some of the positions they hold. This isn't something I've discovered recently, as I can't recall it ever not being the case. And yet, I don't seem to have much company.

I've encountered too many atheists to count on social media who will not acknowledge that a religious believer might possess any of these attributes. They insist that someone like Francis Collins is an ignoramus because he's a Christian despite ample evidence to the contrary. I'm fortunate enough to know many wonderful people who are far smarter than I'll ever be and who have many talents I lack who happen to be Christian. We disagree when it comes to their faith, but I respect them very much.

The problem is even more widespread when it comes to politics. I disagree strongly with someone like George Will on all sorts of things, but I'd never claim that he's less intelligent because he doesn't share my political views. And you know what PBS commentator I really like? Yep, David Brooks. I disagree with some of what he says, and I'm certainly not fond of how he sometimes pushes religion as an antidote to various social ills; however, I enjoy hearing his opinions and often find them thought-provoking. Most of the time, I'd rather listen to him than someone who mirrors my opinions.

I saw someone on Twitter several months ago blasting Chris Christie and one of the networks that pays for his commentary. I was never a fan of Christie when he was governing, but I have no idea whether his political analysis is any good. When I said as much, the response was predictable: he's a horrible person because of some of the things he did as governor and any network who would bring him on is horrible for doing so. I don't think that's fair. If he's a horrible commentator who contributes little of value, then he deserves criticism for it. But to not even give him a chance because one had prior political disagreements with him doesn't make much sense to me. I've seen plenty of political pundits who worked for Republican candidates I detested before becoming pundits, and some of them have had insight to offer (e.g., Michael Steele).

One thing I've learned over the years is not to write someone off just because we disagree on some things. Doing so may mean I miss out on something that would stimulate thought. I don't have to agree with someone on much to find their perspective valuable. In fact, it is often more valuable because I disagree with them. Another thing I've learned is not to allow others to do this for me. That is, I need to evaluate whether a particular person with whom I disagree is worth my time and not rely on others to do it for me. Failing to do this has, at times, led me to miss out.

But aren't there cases when I conclude that someone with whom I disagree really is awful? Absolutely! It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. The key here is that I have to find that out for myself rather than taking someone else's word for it or deciding it must be the case because we disagree about something. And so, when someone with whom I often disagree is accused of "racial terrorism," I must pause and consider my experience with him. When I've seen no sign of anything close to racial harassment (whatever that means), I can dismiss the accusation and move on.

Freethought is not synonymous with atheism; it requires far more effort, and it is not for everyone. It is important to me, and that's why I regularly go out of my way to listen to people with whom I disagree. When I do so, I do so with an open mind. This sometimes leads me to change my views. As far as I'm concerned, that is an important part of what it means to be a freethinker.