On Discourse and Disagreement

 “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. . . .  To be great is to be misunderstood .” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. . . . To be great is to be misunderstood.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson


In a recent interview about the Carolina Political Review, I was asked, of course, “What is the purpose of the CPR?” For whatever reason, I found the answer to that question particularly elusive. To mitigate any future effect of the response I offered, I have tried to collect in this (hopefully) brief essay that which makes the CPR both desirable and necessary.

   A photograph of Gore Vidal from The New Yorker.

A photograph of Gore Vidal from The New Yorker.

Before exploring that specifically, it bears mentioning my personal biases and views. I believe as a guiding principle the words of John Wesley; in short, doing the most good for the most people in the most places. I believe that the government plays a role in this, and that our nation, constituted as it is, requires the active participation of its citizens in selecting those who will operate the levers of this government. One of Gore Vidal's famous quotes, of which there were plenty, goes, "Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half." That does not instill confidence in the democratic process.

It is therefore incumbent on the electorate itself to maintain some level of civic engagement and discourse. The CPR can only encourage those able to vote to exercise that right, seriously and often, but the discourse can and does occur on our platform. In the last few years specifically, that discourse, inasmuch as it did exist before, has lapsed remarkably. Worse yet, we have retreated into trenches of political confederates, free from the burden of thought. We are comfortably disengaged with opposing viewpoints. The Carolina Political Review exists, in large part, to bridge the gap between isolated groups and to foster a resurgent national dialogue.

It is a widely unacknowledged hallmark of intelligence to possess at once a set of conflicting ideas. In fact, consistency is now valued far more than creativity or, God forbid, a position contra the party line. What is even more impressive nowadays is for one of those conflicting ideas to escape the mind and to enter the public conversation. This has been an issue over the last ten or so years in general and the last two or three years in particular.

This phenomenon has been described by various terms: echo chambers, bubbles, silos, etc. They all convey the same idea of mental segregation, where we can go day-to-day without seriously engaging with an opposing viewpoint. The path upon which we have set ourselves is clearly undesirable, if not untenable. To maintain consistency on issues or opinions is now emphasized, if not required, politically. Consider that we fail to engage with other political factions outside of our own, and it is clear that to discourage dissent leads to absolutist positions. It is also flatly ridiculous. If people feel unable to express new and novel ideas for fear of expulsion from their group, the country as a whole will be intellectually stunted.

The problem, again, is that this refusal to engage with others is comfortable. It is far easier to reside in our partisan palaces, unencumbered by critical thought. We are plagued by willful disengagement; social media accounts are curated in ways that mean we never see an opinion opposite our own. Algorithms reinforce our biases by propping up links by authors and sites we already read and with whom we agree.

   A photograph of Norman Mailer from The New York Times.

A photograph of Norman Mailer from The New York Times.

The past is always a good starting point to seek some panacea, if any exists. Norman Mailer, the writer and public intellect, coined for himself the term “left-conservative,” which, by design, has an inherent conflict. To Mailer, it was far more valuable to espouse that which he was thinking in the moment than to stew on his thoughts forever. He left the work of testing and teasing out nuances in the public square. Of course not everyone should try to spout the first thing which comes to mind, but the idea is valuable. We should not wait for someone else to tell us what to think — we should posit our opinion and reckon with it through input from others.

This trend toward mimicking the party line is rampant, but I feel well-placed to critique the left in particular, being of that tribe. I see the attacks consistently hurled at colleges specifically: the culture of political correctness is inhibiting intellectual growth. I take that to mean the co-opted meaning of political correctness, the pejorative form. There are indeed instances where political correctness, in its extreme forms, can end a conversation before it begins, but I think it is due to a misunderstanding of the term.

In my understanding, political correctness should color our dialogue by ensuring that the words which we use are deliberate and purposeful. It should not mean that certain ideas are third rail or untouchable. I draw a distinction, which I think is lacking in some places, between that which is said to offend, and that, which said, offends. By that, I mean to say that the intent of the speaker is the most salient part of the speech. If someone is attacking another person through a term or phrase, I deem that unacceptable. If someone tries to offer an unpopular opinion, with which someone may disagree, that is different.

In a way, yes, the bastions of liberalism in college towns and big cities may need some sore of reckoning or reevaluation. College is a wonderfully important space for the consideration of various viewpoints, and for students to have their intellectual curiosity piqued without fear of retribution. Creating a society of rigid agreement without considerable and constant reevaluation and pushback does not engender an intellectual cohort of leaders. It promotes the idea that one way of thinking is somehow superior to others, in all instances, which is simply not true.

I take issue with political parties, too, enforcing this rigid ideology. Ideas should not be zero sum or absolutist. It does not devalue your opinion to hear someone else offer theirs, and in fact will bolster your reasoning and understanding of your own. We have to accept that, in some instances, incremental change is preferable, and that perfect need not be the enemy of good. Without rational discourse, that goes out the window.

   A photograph of William F. Buckley, Jr. in The New York Times.

A photograph of William F. Buckley, Jr. in The New York Times.

If you disagree with someone, it does not make that person evil. It does not mean that you should discount their opinion; in fact, you should seek out more people with whom you disagree, because a lot of common ground exists that you may not realize. For many of the problems that we face, much of the end goal is the same. Generally, people want to have healthcare, to have housing, to have a job. The difference is not in the target, but in the way we try to get there. That fundamental truth is lost when we discount other views without digging into them further.

It is not only worthwhile but indeed necessary to have an open discourse with myriad viewpoints that counter your own. Though this applies to more than liberals alone, Bill Buckley’s sentiment remains true: “Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.”

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        Kirk Kovach is the Editor of the Carolina Political Review                                         Twitter  |  LinkedIn

       Kirk Kovach is the Editor of the Carolina Political Review

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