I just got a message from a friend who nearly always disagrees with
me. His disagreement usually takes the form of an irritable accusation:
to wit, that I can’t really mean what I say.
I know how he feels. It’s irrational, but we all tend to get
angry when others disagree with us. That’s because we are so
right that nobody in his right mind could honestly deny it, isn’t
Accepting disagreement as sincere is one of the severe tests of maturity.
I always think of George Orwell, one of my literary heroes, who recognized
in himself “a rare capacity for facing unpleasant facts.” One
of these facts is that other people are as sure of their convictions
as you are of yours, and they are as sure of your dishonesty as you
are of theirs.
It took me a long time to face this. It was so tempting to believe
that deep down, my opponents agreed with me but perversely refused
to admit it. Finally it sank in: They meant what they said just as
much as I did. I had to face the test of truth just as much as I wanted
them to. If I was right, I must be prepared to demonstrate it to unbiased
people (if I could find any).
A silly old adage has it that you should never argue about politics
and religion. But as G.K. Chesterton retorted, politics and religion
are the only subjects worth arguing about. If only we could all do
it as cheerfully and as charitably as Chesterton does!
I certainly can’t. But I’ve trained myself, at long last,
to suppress my annoyance at disagreement, and even to take a friendly
interest in it. The other fellow must have some reason for thinking
as he does. As William Blake says, “Everything that is possible
to be believed is an image of truth.”
When it comes to the hot topics of religion and politics, it’s
true, most people believe what they want to believe. Their “beliefs” really
flow from wishful thinking, not reason. And in a way they admit this
when they assume that my beliefs must also flow from mere wishes. They
assume that all of us believe what we want to believe, just as they
I can say that this isn’t true in my case, because, like Orwell,
I’ve steeled myself to face those unpleasant facts. I now believe
many things I’d much rather not believe. I’ve also had
to give up beliefs I once cherished, at some cost in comfort, recognition,
and dear friendships. Not to mention money.
For example, I was sitting pretty when I was a mainstream conservative.
I miss those days. But there’s no going back. Finally, it’s
a matter of self-respect: I just couldn’t keep saying things
I could no longer say with conviction. I have to endure a certain amount
of isolation and even ostracism. But as John Kerry’s dying mother
so memorably said, “Remember — integrity, integrity, integrity!”
On a slightly less lofty matter, I’m sometimes accused of “snobbery” for
arguing that “Shakespeare” was really the 17th Earl of
Oxford — which implies, again, that my wish was father to the
thought. But I’m about as snobbish as a mongrel pup, and I was
happy to believe that Shakespeare was an ordinary young man; it took
an effort to realize that he was really a bisexual lord. This was far
from what I wished to discover.
The truth, I think, is the reverse: Believers in the Stratford man
want to believe he was the great poet, in spite of the evidence. They
like the dear Horatio Alger story of the country boy “warbling
his native woodnotes wild,” and a charming story it is. But I
can’t believe it. I have to force myself to realize that many
people still do.
Another kind of wishful thinking is the desire to think the worst
of our enemies in every possible way. This is common in politics, as
when Republicans, not content with savaging John Kerry, also savage
his wife for pretty harmless remarks. I don’t mind that they
are ungallant, but that they are so desperately petty about it.
If you want to know how wise and honest a man is, observe how much
he is willing to credit to his opponents.
This column was originally published by Griffin Internet Syndicate on
October 28, 2004.
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.
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