It used to be a common phrase, but it seems to be falling into disuse. One can only wonder if it is still true that, “reasonable people can disagree.” University of Massachusetts professor Fred Feldman argues that reasonable people can not disagree. Feldman thinks that if you really believe in your position you can not accept an opposing view to be reasonable.
Feldman is playing a semantic game here, but many people seem to conform to his point. The pervasive sense that civil discourse is sorely lacking civility is everywhere. How did we get to this point?
William Clinton was the most divisive, polarizing President in American history. The man won two terms without ever getting 50 percent of votes cast. Then, along came George W. Bush to claim the mantle of most divisive President. His record stood until the election of Barack Obama. It would seem that reasonable people were becoming more entrenched in their disagreements with little space for common ground.
There are reasons. Congressional districts, driven first by the Voting Rights Act, have become increasingly partisan. A massive number of districts are gerrymandered to the point of making them single-party districts. Once that happens general elections become secondary to primary elections which attract only the most partisan (i.e. extreme) voters, pushing the candidates to embrace policies further from the mean. Over the past ten years, ten states have had zero districts change party hands. Since 2002 only one of California’s 53 districts has changed party representation. In New Jersey, only one of their 13 has changed, in Missouri only one of their nine has changed, and so on. You get the picture.
In Coming Apart Charles Murray describes the increasing segregation of our communities, making them more internally homogeneous, and leading to greater cultural disparity between regions, and their inhabitants.
Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone presented shocking evidence demonstrating that Americans intermingle less than ever before. Fewer and fewer people attend religious services, join community organizations, and participate in the institutions of civil society. As we interact with only like minded people, and visit news sources and internet sites that merely echo our pre-existing biases, we withdraw from dissention and harden our opinions.
For twenty years, under Republicans and Democrats, the federal government has grown larger. This is important because larger government installs more programs and regulations that purport to have answers to socially vexing problems. A big government attempts to solve problems, order society and mold behavior. To disagree with these “reasonable” efforts is to risk being castigated as heartless, or worse. Those who argued in favor of welfare reform were called racists, those who question the role of man in climate change are likened to holocaust deniers.
It seems reasonable people can not disagree. This is not only absurd but dangerous. Because there is so much we do not know, and so much that we think we know that may be proven wrong.
When my father went to school teachers taught that Saturn had ten moons. When I was in school scientists believed it had 17 moons. Today Saturn is orbited by 62 moons. We used to think Pluto was a planet. Until very recently, everyone knew that nothing could travel faster than light. Then they fired up the Hadron Collider. Now all the laws of physics may need to be rewritten. Once, everyone knew the Sun revolved around the Earth, until they didn’t.
Smart people – experts – are wrong all the time. “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction,” wrote the Journal of Physiology in 1872. “Everything that can be invented, has been invented,” said the US Commissioner of Patents in 1899. In 1977, the CEO of a computer manufacturer said, “there is no reason anyone would ever want a computer in his home.” “Bear Stearns is fine,” said Jim Cramer in 2008.
Ralph Waldo Emerson cautioned that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and he is correct. But as we ever more shutter ourselves away from the possibility of being wrong, we embrace political structures that reward not deliberation but discipline. As a result we risk much.
There is an apocryphal story of John Maynard Keynes being loudly criticized for changing his mind on important theories. Calmly, Keynes replied “when my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” Indeed.