Gongol.com Archives: November 2021
No matter how left-wing a person's politics might be, one of the most illiberal things they can do is refuse others the right to be wrong. This distinction is important, especially because Americans far too often substitute the word "liberal" when we actually mean "left". Real liberalism -- that is, open-mindedness and willingness to tolerate the opinions of others -- is not a mindset that fits tidily into a left-right spectrum. There are illiberal right-wingers and illiberal left-wingers. And, unfortunately for our times, there are many of both. ■ Lots of people change their minds over the course of time and it's important to give them room to have been wrong in the past so that they can correct themselves going into the future. Regrettably for our times, there is an entire genre of online commentary devoted to haranguing people over past choices and taking the time to insist that they are too tired to argue. ■ The failure to give others the room to be wrong -- and, more importantly, to correct themselves and acknowledge that their minds minds have changed -- is a matter of mental fixity. If we aren't capable of changing our minds, then what is the point of individual liberty? People have to be ready, willing, and able to persuade one another and be persuaded. The notion that all it should take to convince our fellow Americans is a 280-character tweet or one Facebook meme shared with the "praise hands" emoji is utterly insufficient to the notion of self-government. ■ The essence of the American experiment is just that: It is an experiment. Because we have no certainty about the way things will turn out, we have to be able to make changes over time. Those revisions, changes, and improvements are exactly what have marked most of our most important national milestones. America was born with errors -- including grave ones, like slavery. Yet the country was also born with the capacity to self-correct: The inclusion of the amendment process to the Constitution was a statement of humility by its authors. They knew some things would turn out to be wrong, so they included a process for institutionally changing our minds. And while the power of the pen alone wasn't sufficient to overcome some of those original obstacles, it was most certainly necessary. ■ America owes important steps in its growth and improvement to epic acts of persuasion. The Federalist Papers, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the "Cross of Gold"; speeches made by the likes of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; Presidential addresses, from Washington's legendary farewell address, to FDR's fireside chats, from John F. Kennedy's exhortation for America to go to the Moon to Reagan's demand that Gorbachev "tear down this wall". ■ Every speech, essay, pamphlet, and editorial in this vein is itself a declaration of understanding that others are rational individuals, capable of being persuaded when they see the error of their ways or when exposed to persuasive new facts and arguments, and that they are capable of coming around to the truth. ■ If people don't give others the room to be wrong, in the past and even in the present, then what do they actually believe? Most minds are not fixed in amber: They are malleable, as they should be. We can anchor ourselves to bedrock principles while remaining open to the power of new ideas and perspectives. As much as any of us believes it for ourselves, so must we insist on believing it of others, too.