In a well-known paper written after World War II, the philosopher Karl Popper laid out a stark dilemma for societies: they can settle members’ disagreements only through argument or violence. Totalitarian and utopian societies are those that opt for the latter. They prefer the use of force to the more uncertain process of argument.
The society that embraces argument over violence, by contrast, is what Popper called the “open society.” The American system was conceived as one such open society, but, as many of its early thinkers warned, if Americans lose the virtues that make an open society possible, they will open the way to tyranny.
The important question is how a society may maintain or lose the virtues of argument. If it retains them, it will be free; should it lose them, violence is sure to follow.
Humility Protects Us from Violence
Among these basic virtues is a fundamental humility. Humility teaches that we, just like our neighbors, are prone to error, mistakes in argument, and ignorance. Humility is a disposition to recognize that reasoning towards the truth is a difficult process fraught with potential dangers and confusions.
This is actually a perquisite to real argument, for argument is not a matter of beating an opponent, but of working with a partner to come to an agreement about the truth of things. It is clear that the virtue of humility allows us to recognize that we need of others to balance us, challenge us, and fill the gaps in our knowledge. This is how America’s founding figures generally understood the principle of tolerance.
The failure to develop this virtue is an invitation to violence. Indeed, the corresponding vice of dialectical pride is what lies at the heart of a tyrannical ideology. The ideologue is so certain of her rightness that disagreement can only seem to be the result of an evil will, rather than a mere difference of opinion held in good faith. Evil is not to be reasoned with, but mocked and destroyed, so the opponent is not to be reasoned with, but forced into line.
We do not discourse and reason about the rightness of murder with murderers, we jail them. Likewise, if certain kinds of thought constitute crimes, then, so the thinking goes, we do not hear such criminals out, but use force against them.
What Socialism and Fascism Have in Common
The many ways in which the discussions of our own day fail in this fundamental virtue of argumentation indicates a dangerous seed of violence. Calling names, imputing bad motives, mockery, and the anger and emotivism that characterizes many of our public arguments are a failure of humility and fellow-feeling. Those who lack this virtue in conversation also, when in power, commit violence against their opponents.
It is unclear whether social media has accelerated the atrophy of these virtues or merely made it more apparent, but inasmuch as the discussions we see on Twitter and Facebook are typified by precisely the vicious tendencies we seek to avoid, we have reason to be a bit concerned.
Today we see the growing prevalence of radical movements in politics. On the Right there is a pull towards populism, nationalism, and even fascist tendencies. On the Left there is a growing draw towards Marxism and related radical programs. These ideologies are both distinguished by a rejection of the fundamental dialectical virtues.
The rightist might suppose, with a figure like Benito Mussolini, that the philosophy of the Right must be intolerant of dissent, stamping out objections and unifying the people. The leftist may follow Vladimir Lenin’s expression of the Marxist idea that violence is endorsed if it is in the interest of the proletariat, which really means if it is in the interest of Marxists. We have ample evidence that these ideologies lead to horrible consequences, and that rejecting dialectical humility is part of what brings them about.
I do not mean to say that these radical politics are more than a fringe at the moment, but if the broader society lacks the virtues of argument, it will be susceptible to the seductions of radicalism. Today, we see a generation that is beginning to forget the real histories of these radical ideologies. Yet to one, like Popper, who saw them up close, it is clear that they are a danger passionately to be avoided. We may think that in our time a Mussolini or a Lenin could never rise to power, but we should cautiously consider that human nature remains susceptible to the same failures throughout the ages.
How to Recover These Essential Virtues
As Sohrab Amari of the Wall Street Journal has said, it is a special task incumbent upon us at this moment to defend the central American ideas of liberal toleration against the various ideologues who are looking to weaken its principles and institutions. Good conservatives and good liberals alike can work together to shore up those institutions, so long as they accept humility and the other virtues of the dialectic.
We can start by promoting these virtues in our own lives, communities, and conversations. How do we gain the virtues of argument? For that we can take the advice of the greatest thinker on the subject of virtue, Aristotle, who teaches us that virtue grows from repeated action and through its own exercise. Noble practices beget virtuous dispositions.
Conversations must be entered into with an intentional and reflective awareness about what the virtues demand of us. We need models of argumentation who can exemplify argument done well. We might be hard-pressed to find figures in our own nation’s political life, but this is part of the reason it is so important to study our history and philosophy, for there we find one pathway into the virtues we require.
One could carry on laying out further virtues, describing their character and how to work on them. This is not the space for that kind of treatment, but each of us ought to make an effort to seek out that kind of formation ourselves and with our friends. When Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, a famous story has it, a fellow on the street asked him, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got?” To which the good doctor replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
A republic always needs keeping by a virtuous citizenry lest it decay into tyranny. One important way we can do our part to keep the republic is by promoting those virtues that an open society requires. Engaging in that work is an integral element in safeguarding the polity from the oppressions and violence that radical ideology brings.