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In this time of fierce politicking before next month’s Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary it is appropriate to reflect on how we all discuss politics. With the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz making outlandish remarks and many on the Left declaring both presidential candidates “wackos” or worse, we need to reassess our political discourse.

Political Opinions

Who Am I to Judge? Political Opinions, Right and Left—Walter Moss

Political wisdom requires that we act in behalf of our political ideals. If, for example, peace, a sustainable environment, and racial justice are important to us, then we should do all we can to further these causes. And yet such wisdom also requires truth-seeking, compassion, empathy, humility, and tolerance.

The nineteenth-century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev once contrasted two different types of humans, each resembling an early seventeenth-century literary character, one being Don Quixote and the other being Hamlet. Quixote lives “to serve his ideal, which is to institute justice and truth on earth. . . . He lives for others, for his brethren, in the hope of neutralizing evil and to outwitting those sinister figures . . . whom he regards as the enemies of mankind. . . . He does not probe, or question; he believes.” Hamlet is the opposite: “Doubting everything, Hamlet pitilessly includes his own self in these doubts; he is too thoughtful, too fair-minded.”

In her book Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, Jennifer Hecht makes a similar distinction between history’s “great believers and great doubters.”

The challenge for us twenty-first century individuals acting politically is somehow to steer an appropriate middle course between these two extremes. Like Don Quixote acting in behalf of justice and truth, but also like Hamlet in being thoughtful, fair-minded, and open to doubts, especially about our own righteousness.

The challenge for us twenty-first century individuals acting politically is somehow to steer an appropriate middle course between these two extremes. Like Don Quixote acting in behalf of justice and truth, but also like Hamlet in being thoughtful, fair-minded, and open to doubts, especially about our own righteousness.

Most of us on the progressive Left have no doubt that we should act on behalf of our progressive ideals. This often means combating, as Don Quixote might phrase it, “the enemies of mankind”—for example, all those war hawks, global-warming deniers, and racists.

We are less inclined to doubt our own righteousness. But we need to be mindful of Pope Francis’s warning of being too dogmatic and righteous. In a previous essay, I quoted his warning not to become too rigid, close-mined, and moralistic, but to remain humble and kind. Perhaps his most quoted statement is, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” His just-published book, The Name of God Is Mercy, opens with a citation from the Gospel according to Luke, 18: 9–14. It recounts a parable that Jesus addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”

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It contrasted a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple area to pray. The former said, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous— or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” But the tax collector simply said, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus’s conclusion was that “the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In putting forth our opinions, we who now so freely share them in this Internet age should follow the advice the poet and critic W. H. Auden once gave to reviewers: “The reviewer should convey something like this to the public: ‘Remember that like you and everyone else I am a weak fallible creature who will often make false judgments; and therefore you must not take everything I say as gospel. I as a reviewer promise to do my best to overcome my natural laziness and wooly-mindedness, and you who read me must try to do the same.’”

History is full of examples of people who take 180 degree turns in their views, from Saul of Tarsus who persecuted Christians but then became St. Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” to the onetime U.S. far Leftists who later became Neoconservatives. Emerson’s statement that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” is often repeated. Few of us who are old have exactly the same views we did when we were younger. Above all we should be truth seekers, not afraid to admit that we have sometimes been wrong in the past and are likely to continue making mistakes in the future. And this applies to our thinking and opinions as well as our behavior.

Such a realization should incline us to be more humble, tolerant, and empathetic with others, including those with opposing political views. In one of President Obama’s best speeches, his 2010 University of Michigan Commencement Address, he reminded us of this. In an earlier essay on this publication, “Dorothy Day, Radicalism, and Present-Day Politics,” I quoted Day’s words that “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences,” and that dialogue contributed to “clarification of thought.”

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And yet we cannot let doubts, the realization that we could be mistaken, wholly or partially, immobilize us, prevent us from acting. Pope Francis himself sets a fine example in speaking out against capitalist abuses and harmful environmental practices (see, e.g., here and here). As imperfect and fallible as we all our, we do not have the luxury of waiting to speak out, or otherwise act, until we are 100 percent certain we are right. Issues like peace, global warming, and racial justice are too important for us to do nothing. All we can do is learn about issues and act the best we can. But without demonizing those who disagree with us. When others criticize our views we should open-mindedly consider their criticism. Truth-seeking should be our goal, not protecting our fragile egos.

walter moss

Walter Moss

When the poet and biographer Carl Sandburg received mail that was sharply critical of him he simply replied: “Thank you for your letter. I shall try to do better.” Not a bad response in our age of discourteous discourse.

Walter G. Moss