The Cracker Barrel: On regaining balance
Columnist Craig Nagel talks about accepting people's opinions and values, even if they differ from our own
Many years ago, when I thought I knew more than my parents or anyone else older than 30, one of my least favorite words was “moderation.”
To me, the whole idea of holding back on anything seemed a recipe for mediocracy.
If you were going to do something, why not do it all out? Why not push things to the limit to see what would happen?
If you were going to drink beer, do it like a real man. Don’t drink a couple of cans; drink a six-pack or 12-pack or maybe even a case (though financial considerations made the latter uncommon).
At the time I saw no value in the idea of following the middle way, or for that matter compromising on anything. With the certainty that comes with youth, I had no trouble dismissing any ideas that didn’t fit my already preconceived view of the world, nor did I treat such ideas or the people who held them with anything but contempt.
Then I got a few years older, and little by little I began to see things from a changing perspective.
I found, for instance, that some of the people I met and instinctively liked might have thoughts and convictions quite different from my own, and yet prove delightful to talk with. After several such encounters, I began shedding the idea that people with ideas at odds with my own were somehow my enemies.
I also began to admit to myself that having discussions with such folks was more thought provoking — and in some ways more satisfying — than simply nodding my head at people with whom I already agreed.
Now, many decades later, I look at the anger and outright hatred that fills the hearts of all too many Americans and know in my bones that such feelings do nothing good, and in fact only hurt us all.
At the core of the Unites States of America are the ideals of freedom of thought, assembly, press, public education, dissent and speech. Those who would put constraints on those freedoms through censorship, no matter how well meant, are putting us all at risk — especially our young.
In the same vein, the recent efforts by students at several universities to shout down conservative speakers with whom they disagree also undermines what free speech is all about.
Martha Pollack, president of Cornell University, recently addressed the matter this way: “Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education, essential to our students’ intellectual growth and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society.”
Any attempt at any level to stifle such exposure, whether through censorship or through shouting down people whose ideas differ from your own, is at root a denial of the concept of free speech.
Ignorance and lies are best overcome by encouraging all citizens, of whatever age, to learn and to grow, not by stifling curiosity or imposing blinders on inquiring minds.
In a democracy such as ours there are bound to be significant differences of value and opinion. But those differences can and should be addressed in an atmosphere of mutual respect, regardless of one’s political leaning.
An old but still pertinent saying about our country puts it thusly: The eagle needs both wings to fly straight.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.