open minds vs. identical minds

This was originally posted to the blog that I had while I was a student at University of Michigan, on July 26, 1999.

What do I think of this article today? In broad terms, I like the idea that we should live in a society where there is a diversity of beliefs and opinions. Sure, that’s fine.

However, in this 1999 article, I seems to be saying that it literally doesn’t matter at all what you think. For example: you could be a raging skinhead who thinks I ought to be exterminated, and I’m fine with it as long as your actions don’t impinge on my rights. That is not something I currently believe.

That kind of idealist “what if” argument was very typical of me when I was in my 20’s. As I got older I realized that making that kind of argument is stupid and unproductive. The reality is: people’s beliefs influence their behavior, and people’s ideology influence what they do and how they try to control the world around them. Any philosophy predicated on the idea that we can co-exist with bigots who literally want to exterminate groups of people “as long as they keep their beliefs to themselves” is dangerously idealistic and naive.

In a news article a couple of days ago, I read that a high school in Manchester, New Hampshire, marginally approved the formation of a gay-straight alliance student group. Apparently the board refused to let the group exist, but the students filed a federal lawsuit against them for it. The article said, “The school board… only narrowly gave approval by a 7-6 vote–with one abstention–and some board members bluntly said they didn’t want to allow the student club to form but didn’t want to risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the case.”

My reaction to this is that this is exactly how things should be. That’s what equality laws are for: to motivate people to allow others to have dissenting opinions.

One friend of mine said, “Wouldn’t it be better if people just didn’t find anything wrong with the formation of a gay-straight student club at all? I mean, in an ideal world, no one would have a problem with gay people, and there would be no argument.”

But this kind of reasoning always bothers me, because it’s like saying, “In an ideal world, everyone would agree with my point of view!” You have to consider that the argument is identical, in its format, to saying, “Wouldn’t it be better if people just didn’t want to form gay-straight alliance student clubs at all? I mean, in an ideal world, no one would want gay people around anyway, so there would be no argument.”

What a lot of people, liberals and conservatives alike, fail to realize is that in an ideal society we wouldn’t have people trying to force their views on other people… not because everyone agrees about everything, but because they didn’t feel they had to agree.

The ideal world isn’t the world where everyone has the same happy liberal opinion. It’s the world where people can disagree, even very strongly, but everyone’s rights are still upheld.