We should always take seriously the views we disagree with. Dismissing or ridiculing is a bad habit to get into. If we leave a claim unchallenged, it remains powerful. We should stand up for our convictions and we should give respect to the convictions of others, especially when there is conflict.
An example of this is the Right’s view of sexuality and family values, a set of very emotional and polarizing issues. I’ve heard the argument that the decline of the Roman Empire correlated with an increase of homosexuality. This is taken as an assumption, but it is a serious argument that shouldn’t go unchallenged. I know a variant of it can be found in some history books. There apparently were some people in the late Roman Empire, as it became Christianized, who began to complain more about sexual deviancy.
The problem with this argument, the problem we should point out again and again, is that there is no actual data that homosexuality was increasing. Also, we should endlessly repeat that, either way, correlation isn’t causation. An increase of allegations isn’t the same thing as an increase of what is being alleged. Nor does it say much about the real reasons of societal decline, which were complex and about which there is little consensus.
This kind of argument is also applied to our own time.
These past decades saw an increase of fear-mongering about violent crime even as violent crime was decreasing. A culture of fear-mongering and scapegoating rarely has much to do with objective reality. For this reason, we should never let such unjustified paranoia and blame to stand unchallenged. The point is to be persistent and stubborn, even to a fault. We should never back down when it comes to false claims. But if we believe a claim is false, it is up to us to prove it. And we should do so loudly and publicly.
That is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy, if they care to keep the democracy they have. We should never underestimate the enemies of democracy, no matter where it comes from, whether from our opponents or apparent allies. We have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard and maintain the moral high ground.
It isn’t just about rhetoric and persuasion. We must put truth before all else, and we should follow truth wherever it leads. And if what we assumed to be true turns out to be false, we should admit to that loudly and publicly. That is the only way we can have a positive influence. We should never be afraid of what we know and what we can’t be certain of. Intellectual humility is a strength, not a weakness.
We must demand this of others, as we demand it of ourselves. It is necessary that we strive to model our own ideals. Democracy means little, if not taken as a personal set of values to live by. Principled conviction is only a moral good when based on honesty, when putting the public good before mere self-interest. What is the point of winning a debate when you lose your own integrity?
Any public good worthy of the name is based in truth and honesty. When we collectively prioritize such public good, we will finally have a democracy, not just in name and form but also in substance. The public good doesn’t necessitate agreement about everything. Disagreement can actually be useful when based on fair-minded public debate. That is what is called an engaged citizenry.