We all win when we argue
In the England of the early 20th century, there were no two writers more dissimilar than G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton was a conservative who wrote literary essays, a long-running newspaper column, and the popular Father Brown series of detective stories. Shaw was a socialist whose famous plays include Man and Superman, Saint Joan, and Pygmalion, from which the popular musical My Fair Lady was later adapted.
Chesterton and Shaw had few views in common. But they were friends and occasional collaborators. Once they staged a mock trial about the murder of the Charles Dickens character Edwin Drood. Chesterton even claimed that, on a lark, the two played cowboys together in a never-released silent movie.
Their banter was the stuff of legend. It is said Chesterton, 6 foot 4 and weighing nearly 300 pounds, once turned to the skinny Shaw and quipped that “to look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.” Without missing a beat, Shaw replied: “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”
I call your attention to Chesterton and Shaw not simply to encourage you to read their works (though you should) but to underline that even a century ago, good friendships between prominent conservatives and progressives were so uncommon that they drew public attention. Some of Chesterton’s friends surely thought Shaw’s embrace of agnosticism, socialism, and eugenics made him a poor prospect for friendship. No doubt some of Shaw’s allies thought the same of Chesterton.
Fortunately for them, and for us, the two writers shrugged off such criticism. To engage someone respectfully or even affectionately does not require that you agree on political issues. “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies,” Chesterton once wrote, “probably because they are generally the same people.”
In our own work with the North Carolina Leadership Forum, based at Duke University, my colleagues and I seek to apply such practical wisdom to the political discourse in our own state. We bring together some three dozen leaders at a time from across North Carolina. They differ by profession, background, region, and politics. They include politicians, government officials, business and nonprofit executives, and other civic leaders.
Each year we choose a topic about which there is rich disagreement. In the past we’ve discussed poverty and economic mobility, energy policy, school choice, immigration, and policy responses to COVID-19. For the 2021-22 cohort, we’ll be talking about access to quality health care in North Carolina.
Our goal isn’t consensus. We know going in that our conservative and progressive participants disagree profoundly about key questions of health policy, and that they aren’t likely to leave at the end of the program with a comprehensive plan of action.
While some interesting and productive agreements do occur in our program, we focus mostly on issues where there remains substantial disagreement. What we seek to model and promote is constructive engagement across political difference. If your views are different from mine, you need not think me ignorant, stupid, or evil. In fact, if you leap to that conclusion, it hurts you more than it hurts me. You miss an opportunity to learn, even to sharpen your case for your position.
Our model works. A survey of last year’s participants found that 94% said they better understood the values, opinions, or priorities of those with different perspectives, and 65% said they are now making efforts to encourage or facilitate conversations between people of different parties or ideologies in their communities.
“Perhaps the principal objection to a quarrel,” Chesterton wrote, “is that it interrupts an argument.” The North Carolina Leadership Forum isn’t trying to wish political differences away. They’re essentially “baked in the cake” of human experience. They reflect fundamental differences in perspective and priorities. What we want is for our leaders to stop bickering so much. Only then can we have rich and productive arguments about the future of our state and nation.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.