Having been trained to question premises and to challenge conventional wisdoms, I am often perplexed by seemingly intelligent and intellectually honest individuals who respond to another’s view with an intolerance reflecting not merely disagreement, but also indignation at the very contemplation of the alternative. Rather than engage in mindful exploration of fact or opinion, the response presupposes a full and final analysis, and indicates that the mere contemplation of a different conclusion results from the pathetic reliance upon faulty information, or, more likely, small mindedness. The appropriate role for the United Sates in Iraq, the nature and entitlements of a Palestinian people, the declaration of the Rebbe as Moshiach, or whether the Yankees are the premier franchise in sports history are among topics that simply cannot be raised among certain groups.
But is that wrong? Does intellectual honesty compel the listener to entertain any and all opinions, or at least desist from dismissing as frivolous views that are so apparently ludicrous? Or is there a distinction between what notions I am entitled to dismiss in my internal thought process and what ideas I may appropriately dismiss publicly when articulated by another? I suggest that the summary dismissal of another’s views is triggered by one of three general motivations.
First there is the “I need the conclusion” mode. This arises when a debatable idea has alternate, practical consequences, but the consequences of only one of those alternatives is tolerable under the circumstances . For example, after directing a young, distressed teenager either to abort or carry to term, one may find it difficult to entertain openly the justifications for the alternative view on abortion. Or after having spent decades compromising family and fortune to support a particular ideology, it may prove difficult to tolerate another’s view that the ideology is unjust or worse.
Then there is the “it’s one way to win a debate” approach. Dismissing as frivolous an opposing view is often utilized by those who have little foundation for their own position. When the discussion is more akin to a game than to exploring truths, one holding a losing hand can most easily avoid defeat by scattering the deck and declaring a foul. Closely related are those who care little whether the dismissive response will influence the party whose views are being obliterated since the response is intended for the ears of third parties, whom the debater is hoping to influence by declaring the foolishness of the objectional views. To the third parties, the blanket dismissal of the original view signals that the opinion is frivolous and unworthy of consideration.
Finally, there are the “we cannot dignify that view with a response” situations. These are the rare instances when the opining party is actually so ill informed or misguided that to entertain the concept presented would be giving credence to an absolutely outrageous idea. Conferring such legitimacy could be misleading to third parties listening to the discussion, and could arguably be intellectually dishonest, in itself.
On rare occasion, I find myself exploiting the debate technique described in the second approach, described above. Far more frequently, I am compelled to dismiss foolhardy ideas for the reasons described in the final alternative. What escapes reason, however, is why so many others allow themselves to slip into the wholly unacceptable dishonesty of the first approach. If only everyone behaved like me.