Dialogue According to Brown: Closed-Mindedness

by Kenji Hosokawa | 11/19/97 6:00am

In his latest column, "Dialogue and Taboo" [The Dartmouth, November 3], Scott Brown writes, "When we debate, we tend to waste valuable intellectual energy proving the other person wrong, rather than promoting our point of view." I suppose he is being critical of a captious person like me. To refresh the readers' memory, I wrote a column last week that debunked the opinions favoring government intervention to overcome income inequality in the U.S. -- but without advancing my own solution.

Brown's implicit accusation is perplexing, since he either did not read my column or failed to comprehend its gist -- which was that we have only a "mediocre grasp" of the causes of the current income inequality. I further argued that without a firm knowledge of the mechanism of income distribution, any government intervention to overcome this trend will ineluctably be misguided. If he had grasped this point, he could not have possibly made the above remark, for he would have seen that the complexity of certain issues allows even the most perceptive person to discern only what is wrong with certain opinions cast about those issues, but not necessarily to identify what is right.

In fact, I would prefer that people err on the side of being too harsh in their attacks of faulty opinions. In today's America, where liberalism is out of control, it is more often the case that people do not ground their beliefs in any empirical evidence or theory -- thinking that all opinions are equally valuable -- rather than that people become excessively critical of one another. The debate on income inequality in the pages of The Dartmouth, most of which has been fueled by opinions without a rigorous economics backbone, illustrate this point.

Humans' natural inclination is to be closed-minded; they are capable of rationalizing great evil, and only spirited debates by which people check one another can counteract this troublesome penchant. Look at the medical community in Nazi Germany, whose well-educated members vowed to serve humanity's welfare and simultaneously justified their horrendous experiments on Jews. The suppression of the voices of dissent undoubtedly allowed this contradictory practice to flourish for years.

To continue man's perennial search for justice, it is necessary that we relentlessly question even what we take for granted, for only then can we define the ideas that comprise our common morality and act accordingly, hopefully, without being misguided. Brown's arbitrary definition of "dialogue" -- which appears to emphasize promotion of ideas even at the expense of their counter-checks -- however, would discourage people from acknowledging ideas that are true but impalpable, because it gives an easy excuse to marginalize them as "provocative" or "disagreeable." After all, these adjectives have been frequently invoked to characterize philosophers and scientists as a justification for their persecution.

I fear that Brown, in fact, might have committed this error, because he seems not to understand Lapite's central point that equality is neither practically attainable nor ideal. This problem is manifested in his statement "We will make little progress as a nation in dealing with the divisions in our society unless we are willing and able to discuss and understand our differences" -- a statement that blatantly ignores Lapite's argument that such "divisions" do not need to be addressed since they are a "Force for Good." I sense strongly that Brown might have unconsciously treated Lapite's point as undeserving of attention, because of his deeply engraved biases in favor of democratic principles. If this is the case, it is unfortunate, as the subjective confrontation with democracy's philosophical foundation is, perhaps, the most important introspective undertaking that a democratic man must pursue today.

It is not that I endorse the degree of social hierarchy that Lapite sees as ideal. On the contrary, my humanistic moral sense -- however, irrational it may be -- compels me to seek out equality in any possible way. Nonetheless, because I love democracy, I find it an obligation to address its important critics like Plato, Mill, Nietzsche, and Strauss. For if I do not confront them, I would simply reduce myself to an equivalent of a pathetic Christian who never struggles to reconcile the contradictions of the supposed three traits of God: omniscience, benevolence, and omnipotence.

Brown concludes his essay by stressing the need to "engage in a civil manner with issues and people that might make us uncomfortable." If he is sincere about his open-mindedness, he should not cast aside Lapite's argument. Otherwise, he is simply replicating one of humans' most egregious acts -- which is hypocrisy.