Toward the end of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were estranged. Years of political tensions, ideological disagreements, personal rivalries and perhaps bit of misunderstanding had all but snuffed out one of the great friendships in American political history. But one day, Adams’ physician and fellow Revolutionary, Benjamin Rush, suggested that his aging patient write to Mr. Jefferson, ceasing decades of silence. For reasons still not entirely clear, Adams did write, and the result was the beginning of what historian and Adams biographer David McCullough descibes as “one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history.”
The Adams-Jefferson letters are remarkable, but not because of their powerful rhetoric or political genius. Rather, the private conversation of the second and third presidents’ reveals a profound respect and affection for one another, even as the two patriots were decidedly in opposition on many issues. These letters did not settle such disputes; they were never intended to. To their dying day (both Adams and Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826) the men argued and debated everything from religion to revolution. But their respect and good faith in each other was rekindled, never to wane again.
Adams and Jefferson exemplified the art of disagreement. We would do well to contemplate their example, for it seems that contemporary American culture is rapidly forfeiting this art.
Consider the recent grandstanding from a gaggle of American governors, who have issued “non-essential travel bans” to North Carolina. The reason? Voters in the Tar Heel state recently moved to preemptively prevent litigation from creating mixed-sex, public restrooms. This is apparently enough to warrant a rhetorical persona non grata from state executives who disagree.
Our sexual politics have become so intensely value-laden that every movement away from legal and cultural orthodoxy triggers ostracism and shaming. The prevailing notion seems to be that transgressions against very novel doctrines of gender ideology and sexual psychology should be subjected, not to debate and persuasion, but to punishment. Our public square is shrinking to exclude all who question majority thought.
The loss of good faith in public dialogue isn’t exclusive to one side of the aisle. Crank conservatism has found a patriarch in the 2016 Republican frontrunner, whose relentless personal attacks on any and all who challenge him are exposing a deep and systematic animus in right-wing politics. You don’t even have to explore what he says about immigrants and minorities to see this; a look at how he treats journalists and even party cohorts is jarring enough.
Politicians often love to mention how “divided” the country is, and how it Just Wasn’t Like This when the party opposite was in power. This may be a reliable talking point for stump speeches, but there’s no small amount of partisan opportunism in it either. “Bringing the country together” is admittedly often a shorthand for eliminating as much as possible the idea that the opposing party was on to something.
Yet as dubious as the motivations behind this rhetoric may be, there’s an important element of truth here. The ritual of honest, principled disagreement between people who respect one another and mutually assume the best intentions has done an astonishing disappearing act in much of our culture. Instead, our religious and political dialogue is either unhinged and bitter, passive aggressive and condescending, or else completely neutered to the point of meaninglessness.
We shouldn’t assume that politicians are the worst offenders. The digital age has fostered such online animus and abuse amongst ordinary Americans that many digital journals and newspapers have responded by disabling on-site commenting, considered just a few years ago a dynamic way of promoting publications and driving conversation. Abusive online behavior is epidemic, as is the “shame culture” of social media.
Trolling is relatively straightforward, but not all evidence for the lost art of civil discourse is so obvious. The inability to disagree well in American culture often takes a more passive aggressive form. Consider the trends now at work across university campuses, what sociologists have dubbed the “coddling of the American mind.” The appearance of expectations of college administrators to protect students from ideas they dislike or literature they find uncomfortable is a less unhinged but not less serious manifestation of an intellectual paralysis when it comes to disagreement. Students now demand “safe spaces” from institutions that were created for the explicit purpose of not providing such things. Whereas the university has traditionally been considered a place where learners are confronted with realities and then expected to make sense of them, contemporaries insist that schools accommodate the expectations and worldview of the students—provided, of course, that the students’ belief systems are congruent with secular forms of progressivism.
Principled, civil disagreement requires a moral imagination able to empathize with an opposing point of view, to understand how it is possible for a person with good intentions can nonetheless arrive at an opposite conclusion. Adams and Jefferson never reconciled many of their political opinions, but they were able to throw aside the cynicism and suspicions of evil intent that had crept into their friendship.
It’s this willingness to accept the possibility of disagreement between two parties that both intend good that seems lost in much of our culture. The effect is double-sided: Many conversations that deserve nuance and good faith never happen, and demagogues who actually merit censure sound more “authentic.”
Both of these trends, the virulent nastiness and passive coddling, might seem to be restricted to a very select portions of American culture. But the popularity of bullish, epithet-laden political campaigns suggests that they signal a much wider cultural malady. Efforts at self-justification that emphasize “honesty” and glow about “telling it like it is” are merely shibboleths. They mask the decay of an important ethic: The willingness to accept one’s own fallibility and live in light of it.
The art of disagreement is crucial not just to our own personal lives but to the health of the public square. If we cultivate suspicion and conspiracy theories instead of good faith, we will eventually crave those attributes in our leaders. On the other hand, if we practice the public virtues of courage, conviction, and kindness, our ideological differences will help us sharpen our own thinking as learn from–and try to convince–one another.
Honest, empathetic disagreement may not make for exciting talk radio or high cable ratings, but it is essential both for civic liberty and Christian mission. Persuasion is, after all, harder and less titillating than bombast, but without it, our heralding of both spiritual and political truth is undermined. We must not stray irretrievably far from the spirit of Adams and Jefferson. To do so would be to lose much more than an election.