Creative Destruction

March 20, 2006

The Wisdom of Jonah Goldberg

Filed under: Blogosphere,Navel Gazing — Robert @ 8:41 pm

Increasingly middle-aged family man Jonah G has something to say about seeking out viewpoints that oppose your own:

Here’s some advice, for what it’s worth. The way to tell if a liberal — or a conservative — is to be trusted is to see how fairly he or she deals with the other side’s arguments. Obviously, you can’t give a full airing to the other side’s point of view or you’d be spending all your time making the other side’s case. And not every column has to be a on the one-hand, on-the-other-hand affair. But, over the long haul, you can tell which liberals actually have the intellectual self-confidence to engage with the other side’s best arguments and not just their worst ones. Meanwhile, if you look at, say, Maureen Dowd, there isn’t even an attempt to be fair to the other side. It’s all bile, snark, and sneer — which would be a good name for a law firm in mordor. Lord knows, I don’t mind bile per se, but it can only be a single ingredient, not the whole thing. Dowd’s stuff is closer to fiction writing than opinion journalism. I think a lot of rightwingers have a similar problem — and I wouldn’t recommend them to liberals trying to get a fair read on the conservative point of view either. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading. But entertainment is not necessarily argument.

Boy, is this on-target! Jonah is writing about columnists, but it applies equally to bloggers.

I have found a number of bloggers out there who are really good at presenting their own point of view, while also being intellectually honest about the views of people who disagree with them. There are also a lot of bloggers (of all stripes) who seem to be victims of the Moral/Intellectual Fallacy: the idea that anyone who holds Wrong Views must do so because of personal evil or personal stupidity. You find this a lot on college campuses; it’s forgivable there, because the victims are usually people who are engaging in the life of the mind for the first time (and thus are going to fall into a lot of errors), and because part of the point of college is learning to get past the idea that there’s only One True Way of looking at things.

The problem with the “you must be stupid or evil” position is that it limits our ability to learn. The extreme complexity of the universe, coupled with our own individual foibles, frailties, and fallibilities, mean that nobody living on Earth has the complete puzzle. We each only have one little piece. Even worse, the piece we have is usually worn and scuffed and chewed and has dog spit on it from when the little rascal got into the box. Through our own efforts, we can improve our piece. We can clean off the spittle, mend the cracks, perhaps polish the scuffs. But we still only have one piece of the puzzle. In order to really expand our understanding, we have to talk to other people.

And some of those other people are going to have very different understandings and worldviews than we do. It’s an inevitability; the world is, as noted, complex. Things that work for one person don’t work at all for another. There’s just no way that a single philosophy or worldview is going to encompass all the truth that is out there.

There are people who are so stupid that their contribution to any possible discourse is limited to “didja catch Idol?” and there are people so evil that anything that has run through their brain needs to be considered toxic and dangerous. But these are a tiny fraction of the minds which we will encounter over the course of our lives. Nearly anyone with the cognitive capacity to boot up a web browser, and the moral integrity to stay out of prison, is going to have something to say that you can learn from – even if they seem to be wrong about many things.

Being intellectually honest about people we disagree with makes us smarter, in the long run, because we learn things that we wouldn’t have picked up if we had insisted that those who disagree with us had nothing to contribute. I have definitely noticed in my life that the people who seem to know the most – those who have the most wisdom – are also people who really understand the positions of their political, moral or spiritual adversaries.

Snark is fun, but listening is the path to understanding.


  1. Nice. The only thing I’d have done different in Goldberg’s case is that, as a perceived conservative, I’d use an example of a conservative pundit like Ann Coulter rather than a liberal one like Maureen Dowd. Not out of appeasement, but out of a showing of good faith–lord knows I can’t stand either of them, but I think his point could have been made more appealing all-around if he stepped on the shoes of someone in his sandbox, if you know what I mean.

    But when it comes right down to it, that’s a superficiality next to the point being made.

    Actually, this subject is something of an obsession of mine (duh, we know, you said that when you made the blog, Adam). If you’re interested in a little bit of exploration I did, check out this piece of work from back in the day.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — March 20, 2006 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

  2. I think Goldberg’s got a point. As I said in my inaugural post, I really enjoy environments in which one can engage in lively intellectually honest debate with others who have opposing views. That’s probably one reason I spend such a large portion of my time in the blogosphere commenting on sites from the “other” side.

    Now granted, my experience is anecdotal, but I’ve seen enough of it that I think it represents a real pattern. Although I hate to generalize, I’ve found that right-leaning are typically more open to the other side. They are much more likely, for example, to link to left-leaning blogs than vice versa. Moreover, they also seem to be more tolerant of opposing viewpoints in their comments section.

    It’s all subjective, of course, but I think there’s a great opportunity for someone to undertake a systematic study. One could, for example, categorize the leading political blogs into two large groups, and compile statistics as to which group is more likely to link to the other.

    Comment by bazzer — March 20, 2006 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

  3. […] Creative Destruction: The Wisdom of Jonah Goldberg I have found a number of bloggers out there who are really good at presenting their own point of view, while also being intellectually honest about the views of people who disagree with them. There are also a lot of bloggers (of all stripes) who seem to be victims of the Moral/Intellectual Fallacy: the idea that anyone who holds Wrong Views must do so because of personal evil or personal stupidity. […]

    Pingback by Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Link Farm and Open Thread #15 — March 22, 2006 @ 8:18 am | Reply

  4. Welcome, anyone from Alas! wandering idly in.

    Comment by bobhayes — March 22, 2006 @ 8:24 am | Reply

  5. Goldberg’s point is a good one, but I think too often bloggers (and I’m not accusing you of this) make this point in a self-congratulatory way — “I and my allies are fair to the other side, but those idiots who disagree with us need to shape up.”

    (I’d also quibble with the claim that staying out of prison is a measure of moral integrity. Between innocent people being convicted, biased enforcement of the laws that exist, and the frequent failure of the laws that do exist to match the demands of morality, staying out of jail is as much a matter of luck and privilege as morality.)

    Comment by Stentor — March 22, 2006 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  6. That’s a fair point about self-congratulatory rhetoric, Stentor. I’m certainly as guilty of that as anyone, despite your politeness. 😉

    Comment by bobhayes — March 22, 2006 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

  7. Yeah, I agree, Stentor–that’s what I was talking about when I said that Goldberg could have made his point more effectively if he’d chosen a conservative to criticism, rather than a liberal.

    If you’re going to reach out across boundaries, it takes a willingness to apply equal standards to those on what is perceived as your side of the line–else, there’s nothing to substantiate that it isn’t all just talk.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — March 23, 2006 @ 12:26 am | Reply

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