May 29, 2022
Let Us Ask More of Ourselves on Memorial Day
On this Memorial Day weekend we set aside time to remember those men and women of whom we asked everything. We asked them to suffer deprivation and pain and ultimately asked that they relinquish all of their tomorrows for us. We asked that they do this so that we could have a Republic—a place ruled by laws, not men, where each of us possess individual value and rights. Here those rights are endowed by our creator—not a king, dictator or emperor.
For such an endowment as this, it is unsurprising that so many of our fellow citizens would be willing to give their lives. Nor is it surprising that so many men and women continue to place themselves in harm’s way. This Republic always attracted more than our fair share of heroes.
What saddens me on Memorial Day weekend is how little we ask of ourselves in return for their sacrifice.
For 247 years Americans worked hard, in unbearable heat, frigid cold, and in lonely places so we may craft a more perfect Union. Sometimes that work happens on the battlefield, but more often the work of our democracy happens in factories, high school classrooms, city council meetings, synagogues, church picnics, courtrooms, and a million other settings where we talk, make decisions and offer opinions.
Offering an opinion on an issue is easy, almost effortless. It asks nothing of us, places no demands upon our conscience or reason. In most instances, offering an opinion is a harmless exercise in civility. Opining upon fine weather, a cute dog or an attractive hairstyle is easy and pleasant, but it won’t help us craft a more perfect Union.
The challenges that are before us today demand much more of us than our opinions. They demand mastery of facts and trends, the ability to discern truth and the capacity to learn and adapt as facts change. It may even require us to change our minds. All of this is far, far more difficult than simply sharing an opinion. Still, it is Memorial Day, and none of us now living can complain of the difficulty of the task.
I propose we ask more of ourselves than simply have an opinion. One way to begin is to adopt the Ideological Turing test to every issue upon which we wish to speak. This test is easy, and rests upon Alan Turing’s test for computer intelligence. If a person can have a conversation with a computer and not detect that it is a computer, the computer has demonstrated human intelligence. Applied to ideology or public policy, the Ideological Turing test simply requires that you be able to explain and defend either side of an issue without the listener knowing your personal position.
This is deep and difficult work. It means listening to news outlets you might otherwise shun, reading material whose work you believe you detest and, most importantly, accessing facts of which you would otherwise be ignorant. The process of taking seriously those with whom you disagree is a powerful tool. At the very least it will help you argue your side more effectively, but there is greater benefit.
This process should lead you to understand that differences of opinion often happen in good faith. Many people with whom you disagree on means might share your ultimate goals. Also, you might find that they are decent, honest, hardworking people who like dogs and want what is best for their community and family. These discoveries are liberating when you need to search for compromise.
You might also learn that there is some truth to their argument. No matter how beguiled you may be by your own position, there is always some truth elsewhere. It just takes work to uncover it. In the end, finding these truths might allow you to modify your opinion or stance, or at least work to fix it up a bit.
Of course, you might find the other side is wrong, employs bad data, and lacks discernment of critical facts. You might even find that the other side of a debate is filled with scoundrels whose interests are narrow and ugly. All of this should make you more confident in your position. But, discovery about the other side is only part of the benefit for this purposeful open-mindedness. The real benefit is what you learn about yourself and your allies.
In fully understanding the other side of a debate, you will inevitably find weaknesses in your own side. You’ll encounter bad facts, poor discernment of what is true and even scoundrels and hacks. Everyone has these folks on their side of any issue. It is best to know who they are so that others don’t con.
One final benefit of the Ideological Turing Test is that it should cause us to hold fewer opinions, or at least facilitate the sharing of them. It should make us more humble regarding our personal epistemology—ways of determining truth. It might even help us grow as individuals. In my faith, as in most others, discernment is a central pillar of personal growth. I know that when I err, it is almost always because I did not have command of facts.
My argument here is not to abandon principle, nor to change opinions. Nor do I wish to lessen disagreement. James Madison was correct in arguing that the multiplicity of factions is important to ensuring there is not tyranny of a majority. Our nation thrives on robust disagreement and vigorous debate. The goal of this is to change minds, rather than diminish or belittle them. Disrespect would be antithetical to the goals of democratic debate. We should view with suspicion the politicians who have abandoned their desire to change minds. That has no good ending.
Today’s environment for public debate may not be the worst we’ve seen, but it is unsettling and unhealthy. It lessens our civic comity and is unworthy of the great personal sacrifice so many made to ensure our ability to speak and write freely. We should all have some interest in its improvement.
My goal in proposing that we all adopt this Ideological Turing Test is so that the quality of our disagreements honor the sacrifice that so many have made to preserve our Republic. It seems a small thing to ask ourselves when we remember those of whom we asked everything.
About the Author
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