Reclaiming Civility

Worse than being wrong

The more single-minded a group becomes in its opinions, the more calcified its thinking becomes in its evaluation of unfamiliar ideas, and the more quickly it rejects and condemns opposing viewpoints. Homogenous groups are increasingly likely to indulge in stereotyping, rationalization, complacency, peer pressure, self-censorship, a sense of moral superiority, and an appearance of unanimity that creates the illusion of invulnerability. Once-rational arguments devolve into dogma and character assassination.

The resulting groupthink has been blamed for some of history’s worst snafus:

  • the construction of the French Maginot line
  • the Bay of Pigs fiasco
  • U.S. failure to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
  • involvement in the Vietnam War
  • the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster
  • the financial collapse of 2008

But there really is nothing new under the sun. Nearly 3000 years ago, King Solomon anticipated this very state of affairs when he observed that, Iron sharpens iron, and a man sharpens the mind of his fellow. In a world plagued by ideological self-segregation, it’s easy to recognize Solomon’s wisdom in comparing iron blades that sharpen one another to iron wills that hone syllogistic reasoning to a fine edge. Indeed, the great Talmudic scholars of 2000 years ago debated in the tradition of Solomon, arguing with a ferocity described as fighting “with swords and spears.”

Nevertheless, they retained a level of mutual respect as impressive as their erudition, establishing a standard and style of scholarship that defines Talmudic discourse until today.

All for one

Even with respect to practical jurisprudence, Talmudic law was so concerned with legal objectivity that if the Sanhedrin, the ancient high court of 71 sages, voted for conviction in a capital case without a single dissension, the death penalty could not be given.

No matter how overwhelming the evidence, the ancients would not trust their own objectivity if none of their members could find at least one mitigating factor. By the same token, two brothers were not permitted to testify together in rabbinic court, since they might share a common perspective that could compromise their objectivity.

Democratic government was intended to stimulate debate, to create transparency, to hold public servants accountable to the will of the people. The democratic process was never intended to become a popularity contest in which candidates pander to voters or attempt to manipulate them with scare tactics or empty rhetoric. Even its most ardent supporters were never blind to its shortcomings, as is clear from Winston Churchill’s remark that,

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Nevertheless, with literally billions of dollars now spent on marketing, sloganeering, parodies, and sound bites — not to mention bitter and violent partisanship — it’s hard not to conclude that the system is broken. If we want to have any hope for real change, we have to be willing to understand the other side before we condemn it.

What would you do?

If someone expresses an opinion you don’t agree with, are you more likely to…

  • argue, even if you know your opinion is unpopular?
  • argue, but only if you think others will join with you in your position?
  • keep quiet, because you are not confident in your opinions?
  • keep quiet rather than risk rejection or ridicule?
What do you think?

When you express an opinion, what reaction do you prefer?

  • Agreement, even if you might be wrong.
  • Respectful disagreement, leading to further discussion.
  • Noncommittal response, to avoid tension and conflict.

Please offer your answers in the comment section below.

Excerpted and adapted from Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages. Request the first four chapters free at http://yonasongoldson.com.

Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldsonhttps://www.yonasongoldson.com/
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.


  1. Hi Yonason,

    As someone whose thinking has evolved as well as being raised around differences, I have tried to be tolerant of different perspectives. Unfortunately, I have observed name-calling and judgements cloaked in intellectualism from those who purportedly know better. I suppose I am being hypocritical when I refer to this behavior as the so-called tolerant intolerance of which I am intolerant. I plan on writing about this.💖

    • I don’t think that’s hypocrisy at all, Darlene. The sages teach: Be deliberate in judgment. They do not say: don’t judge.

      We are supposed to make moral judgments, as long as we have all our facts straight first and remain ever-watchful for personal bias.

      In my diversity keynote, I suggest that we do away with the word “tolerance” and replace it with “temperance.” It’s interesting to note that in Biblical Hebrew there is no word for tolerance. Why not? Because if something is evil, how can I tolerate it? And if it is not evil, why should I need to?

      Rather, we should temper our responses and always speak respectfully and reasonably, even when we are passionate about our cause, and even when others are irrational or inconsistent. Pointing out logical inconsistency in others is not disrespectful, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable. After all, it should.

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful remarks.

  2. Very well written Yonason,
    I like the idea of listening to those with opposing views. I respect opinions but find it interesting to see why some people think and chose the way they do. And your right.. we are able to adjust with new perspectives and knowledge every moment of our lives. We can also become more strongly tied to our own ideas when we feel the reasons are weak.
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece! “An open mind is the best kind” P