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.