In political discourse, the words “I do not understand” should only leave one’s lips as an apology, never as a badge of honor.
In C.S. Lewis’s “The Last Battle,” there is a character–a bear–who frequently remarks that he “doesn’t understand.” He says it apologetically; he knows things are happening a little too fast for him. He wants to understand things; even others like the evil ape Shift who ultimately is his enemy–but he freely admits they are smarter than he is. In the final battle, he lies dying, still murmuring that he still doesn’t understand.
On September 21, Linda Greenhouse ran a piece about Obamacare in the New York Times blog, in which she too says she doesn’t understand. Greenhouse is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Yale Law School professor, and a longtime Supreme Court reporter for the Times. She doesn’t think Virginia has standing to challenge Obamacare in court, and she makes some good points in the course of her argument. At the end of her writing, however, she informs us that she doesn’t understand those who disagree with her–and she is proud of it. In the process, unlike the good-willed bear, she destroys her credibility:
“I have a confession to make. I can describe the legal arguments and the judicial conclusions, but on a fundamental level, I just don’t get the attack on the federal law. I don’t understand people who voluntarily, without claiming poverty, let their children go uninsured. I don’t understand the moral compass of the owner of the fancy car I saw the other day that sported the bumper sticker: “Repeal Obamacare.” I suppose that the self-satisfied and oh-so-secure car owner never met anyone like the healthy 27-year-old man profiled the other day in USA Today who was denied insurance in the private market because his doctor four years ago had ordered a particular heart-monitoring test – which found nothing wrong with his heart. I do know such people. So do you. They are all around you, but maybe such an intimate subject as their inability to get health insurance has never come up in conversation. So as this debate for the soul of the country continues to unfold, I take comfort – perhaps unduly, no doubt prematurely — from the reminder from the appeals court in Richmond that the Civil War is over and that p.s., the Union won.”
I’ve noticed this kind of writing fairly regularly over the years from the upper crust of the Left: writing that informs us they don’t understand the other side’s point of view. It doesn’t bother me when pundits do it–it’s their job to make the other side look like a bunch of idiots. But “serious” thinkers on the Left–eminent columnists, professors, and the like–do it all the time. My college friends at Princeton did it too. They took a bizarre pride in bragging that they didn’t understand why anyone would disagree with them. Greenhouse initially phrases this as a “confession,” but as the paragraph goes on, it becomes clear she doesn’t think any reasonable person would disagree with her (and she expects her audience to feel the same way).
I do comprehend why she and others like her do it. They have a smug confidence in their own credentials (Greenhouse’s, as noted before, are impeccable); they are in effect saying “Look, even I–with my Ivy League degree, my accolades, and my proximity to Very Important People–don’t understand why they think this way!” (And if they don’t understand it, who could?) They also spend a great deal of time with people who share their points of view, so they tend to make some intellectually lazy assumptions about people who make arguments that come from a different perspective. It’s easier to sit around with one’s friends and marvel at how stupid those Other People are than it is to try to put oneself in their shoes.
But while I found this behavior from my college buddies a bit annoying at times, I realized they were immature kids. Likewise, I understand and even expect it from my less-politically-active friends or relatives who get all their information from Fox News, MSNBC, or Comedy Central; stations that (at least in the evenings) provide news via pundits and comedians who spend much of their time waving their hands at the lunacy of the Other People. I can expect this reaction from your average guy. It’s a natural human tendency to think I’m right, and be surprised to discover smart people who don’t think so.
But I expect more from the intellectual elite. When I discover that smart people disagree with me, I have two choices: assume they are not, in fact, smart (or honest); or find out why they disagree. I’ve seen other Ivy League intellectuals take the latter route. Princeton law professor Robert George is one; he teaches his students relentlessly that they have to understand not only what they believe, but why equally intelligent, equally well-informed people of good will disagree with them. Otherwise their perspective is worthless.
This is serious stuff. I admit I’m tempted at times to fall into Greenhouse’s trap and take the first choice when it comes to some of President Obama’s decisions (and I know plenty of people felt the same way about his predecessor). Yet I agree with George and with C.S. Lewis’s poor bear. In political discourse, the words “I do not understand” should only leave my lips as an apology, never as a badge of honor.
Greenhouse and other smug intellectuals apparently do not buy into this mentality. They wear their ignorance proudly. Yet as a law professor, Greenhouse should know that an inability to understand a counterargument is not something to brag about. More often than not, it is embarrassing–and it is certainly embarrassing to be proud that you don’t understand. If you can’t be bothered to take the time to understand the other point of view–in short, to have an informed opinion–then your perspective is worthless.
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Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.