J.S. Mill on Conversation

Truth gains even more by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think… However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. (pgs. 40-41)

Amongst leaning towers of pizza boxes and well-marked notebooks, our reading group discussed John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty this past Tuesday evening. While there are a million plus one different ways to dissect, take up, and apply this work to the present, and swelling ranks of those who have taken up the task, I’d like to select a single gem to reflect upon. That rock is Mill’s perspective on discourse, specifically his idea that it is vitally necessary that we expose ourselves to diverse viewpoints and allow vigorous conversation– especially when it comes to our near and dear “higher things.”

While many would happily claim the label “tolerant,” it seems that fewer would invite a someone from very different religion, or a different political party (God forbid), over for dinner and then proceed to have a genuine discussion about religion and/or politics.

But I think this is exactly what needs to happen.

It is easy (not to mention comical) to bash Washington for polarizing our country, and though I’d admit that they have been doing nothing to help, it is our government after all. More importantly, it is our state, our city, our neighborhood, and our family. Mill has something to say about the stakes:

But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.

We (myself always included) shrink back from or “don’t have time for” (that favorite phrase of the modern American), engaging with those who come from different walks of life than us. In fact, I would argue that we currently suffer from a gross misunderstanding of the virtue of diversity. The only reason I can think of that diversity is currently measured by something as merely visual and uncontrollable such skin color, sex, or nationality is that these external facts can often coincide with true diversity. That is, the precious difference of perspective that we each hold as steward given a singular set of gifts, experiences, talents, and time.

The energetic beauty of diversity is in the unique irreproducibility of our unfolding stories. Believe me–this beauty, as all beauty, is mightily powerful. Call to mind those people who have changed your life for the better. There is no doubt that your souls crossed paths while traveling very different paths, but their healthy influence upon you was built conversation by conversation and shared experience by shared experience. I’d be willing to bet that over time, each of you wore down the other’s rough edges and perhaps even refined one another. What a treasure to have another mind for consultation in life’s episodes. What a strength to have another body to shoulder life’s burdens. What a joy to have another heart to encourage and rouse your feet toward new adventures!

I wonder what would happen if we looked at every fresh conversation this way. As my favorite author reminds, we bump elbows and share study spaces with beings who have been given the power to influence us for the better. Or even, as Fr. Greg Boyle movingly reminded us on Tuesday night, to “return us to ourselves.” This is the great possibility, and stagnant isolation is the the great enemy.

All I know is that I hope to be the kind of woman who greets her fellow sojourners like the potential friends that they are, always in the memory that my mouth, eyes, and ears are only outward symbols of the heart I carry within.

Parting quote:

“He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

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