New Year's resolution: Seek the other side in political commentary
Thirty years ago, I got into the habit of consulting a political commentator with whom I might disagree, starting with William F. Buckley Jr. While only others can say if it’s made me a better citizen, I do know that it's been a great deal of fun, not to mention enlightening.
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Not everyone, I know, is as happy to greet political views that might challenge their preconceived notions of how the world works. I routinely field calls from readers who question not only a columnist’s views, but the author’s right to express them.Skip to next paragraph
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Chalk that up to a media culture in which, increasingly, people are simply following web sites, periodicals, cable channels, or radio shows that affirm what they already believe. Which is why, I suppose, I have red-state friends who cannot believe anyone would vote for Barack Obama, and blue-state friends who’ve never had a serious discussion with a Republican. That can’t be a good thing as Americans go to the polls next year to elect a president.
Political partisanship, of course, wasn’t invented in 2011, as John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political philosopher and economist, would surely remind us if he were still around. Confronting the politically myopic citizens of his own day, Mill advanced three pretty good reasons for listening to the other side:
If you seriously consult an opposing viewpoint and find it’s still in error, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your views have been challenged and survived. If, on the other hand, you determine that someone else is right or partly right, you have the equal satisfaction of correcting your opinions and feeling smarter for it. There’s a third satisfaction, too, in the possibility that after considering opposing voices, you might be able to correct them.
The only way to know the whole of a subject, Mill added, “is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.”
Mill’s argument suggests the practical benefits to politics and civic life in making a standing date with your opposite.
But such arguments, while important, can have an air of grudging civic duty, and they really shouldn’t, since my own experience on this score has been relatively painless.
If you’re a politically cloistered soul, resolve to regularly read or listen to a pundit outside your comfort level. If my case is any indication, you’ll probably not only endure it, but learn to enjoy it, too.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”