If you told your friends that you were entertaining some controversial view — perhaps that you doubted the existence of man-made climate change, or that you weren’t exactly clear on why stationing guards at schools would make them less safe, or that you could see how lower taxes for the rich might stimulate economic growth — how would they reply? I imagine you would be met with shock, anger, disgust, and, most likely, dismissal. I believe that such reactions are ill-founded. Liberals should instead entertain and discuss the heterodox views their peers hold to maximize the chance that their ideas succeed.
We have a series of strong social conventions about what we can publicly say and which political views we publicly hold. These conventions are a good thing — they are a powerful tool for building consensus. However, it seems that too many of our social conventions about politics have become too rigid, and this poses many risks to society. We risk creating misunderstanding of where it was that these dominant views came from and why they are true. We risk ceding our ability to build consensus among a broad range of opinions. We risk our ability to make progress. Instead, all sorts of political views should be entertained and discussed — everything from modest proposals to radical ones, from those of our friends to those of our enemies. I believe that if the views are truly wrong, they will eventually be buried.
“But, Sinan, surely you don’t think that we should enter into discussion with a Republican who wants to repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and strip away the rights of real human beings? Or to discuss with someone whose view is that systematic oppression doesn’t exist? Or to sit down with someone who defends the Burmese government’s actions against the Rohingya? These are people you cannot reason with.”
I disagree. While these people do hold severely and deeply incorrect views, I don’t think they are, for the most part, stupid, deranged, or vicious people. If the Republican thinks, for instance, that the U.S. government has a primary obligation to its citizens and that immigrants are bad for the country, then his conclusion about DACA would follow from his beliefs. Of course, our government’s obligation extends far beyond its borders, and immigrants are what made this country great. These facts make their belief false. But the fact stands: Most people hold their views only circumstantially. When people find themselves on the wrong side, it is often due to the fact that that is the view they have heard for their entire lives without hearing the other side, or that they haven’t seen the evidence that disproves their view, or that they haven’t thought their view through.
Systematic oppression exists, not just because we think it exists, but because it is the state of the world. If there are objective reasons for believing so (there are more than I can count), we should be able to explain those reasons to someone who opposes our belief. And presumably, if we are right, our opponent is wrong for objective reasons. We should be able to see where the flaw is.
Consider an example more personal to me. When somebody tells me that Islam is an inherently violent or oppressive religion, I feel troubled. This is a claim I seriously believe to be false. But it isn’t false because the view is bigoted. It is bigoted because the view is false. Of course, once you consider the wide variety of ways the religion has been practiced throughout history, as well as the way that religious scripture itself really has no bearing on where and in what form you would expect so-called religious violence to occur, it becomes clear that this charge against Islam is false. But it is not self-evidently false. If it seems so, that is because of our conventions. It is less self-evident to many people in this country. I imagine it would be more convincing if they knew about Sufism, the Ottoman empire, and religious practices in Indonesia. Many of them do not. While it’s true that too many people believe this false claim about a major world religion, it is also true that too few of us with the correct view are equipped to respectfully deconstruct the view of those who are wrong. They are not wrong because we think they are wrong. They are wrong because their view doesn’t match up with the facts.
Our social conventions have simply run out of steam. There are too many defectors from what was once the consensus, too many who think the mainline view is constructed, and too few who know where to go from here. When our social conventions become more and more rigid, we consider the views that those conventions purport as self-evident. What is the way to bring someone over when they don’t see things as we do or when the force of the convention simply gives out? I think we have to talk to them, show them evidence, and make them aware of their biases. Most importantly, I think we have to entertain their radical proposals.
If this all seems like little more than abstract intellectual discussion about the freedom of speech, I’d ask you to consider the very real and concrete alternative to engaging with those we disagree with. It’s obvious that at least part of the reason why demagogues like President Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Marine Le Pen gain traction at what seem like rather unexpected moments is that the above-mentioned defectors come out of the woodwork to support them. It is when consensus seems the strongest that members of that consensus are most ready to dismiss opposing views, angering those with heterodox views and creating political turmoil.
Sinan Ozbay is a junior studying philosophy from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.