You're Wrong, Too!


BROADWAY, VIRGINIA — "How can they both be right?'' the rabbi's disciple asks in a famous joke. ''They contradict each other!'' The rabbi has just heard a quarreling husband and wife each present a side of the story, and has told each, ''You're right.'' In response to the disciple's objection, the rabbi says, ''You're right, too!''

Sometimes these days I feel like that disciple. As part of a systematic effort to understand what's going on in our society's increasingly polarized discussion of the moral and cultural issues that confront us, I regularly read magazines of commentary and opinion from across the political spectrum. I tell you: Getting up from reading both the National Review, on the right, and The Nation, on the left, is enough to make one's head swim.

Each magazine is full of moral fervor, with its own set of good guys and bad, of truths and heresies. Each draws a persuasive and consistent picture of the world. But how can they both be right? They contradict each other!

They can both be right because they're also both wrong. They're wrong because of what they leave out. What each leaves out are the valid arguments and evidence that don't fit into its world view.

A magazine like The Progressive, on the left, or Commentary, on the right, is suffused with intelligence. But more than anything else -- more than knowledge or understanding -- what each gives its readers is comfort: the comfort of being right. No need to struggle with ambiguity; no need to question the adequacy of one's assumptions. If you know the topic and the journal, you know which way the article will lean.

One can read such journals year after year and never have to confront an article that says, ''Hey, maybe we were wrong about the problem in race relations; maybe we missed an important point about the feminist movement; or, maybe the other side has something to teach us about the way to deal with crime.''

As one who doesn't like the feeling of my head swimming, I can appreciate the appeal of such comfort. It feels good to have the right answer. But no one side has a monopoly on the truth, not on such perplexing questions as abortion, or the relationship between the sexes, or the place to draw the line between rights and responsibilities. Continually to point out the flaws in the other side's position, while ignoring the problematic aspects of one's own, is itself a moral failing, and not a trivial one.

One recalls the teachings of a rabbi from Nazareth about beholding the mote in one's brother's eye, while not considering the beam in one's own.

The comfort one purchases with a reassuringly simple and one-sided picture of the world comes at a high price. When each group is convinced of the rectitude and sufficiency of its own point of view, and of the moral error or dishonesty of its opponents, how can they talk with each other? If their confrontation in the public arena is bitterly polarized, and not productive of movement toward consensus, who can be surprised?

Now there appears a book about our cultural divisions called ''Before the Shooting Begins,'' a title which implies, as some have noted, that worse than divisive words could lie ahead for America. To have one's head swim with the bewildering complexities and uncertainties of making a humane society work may be discomfiting. But perhaps it is ultimately a lesser discomfort than the alternative.

The responsibility for the rise of these one-sided voices may lie fundamentally with us in the public. These are the voices that get the ratings. Rush Limbaugh didn't get his millions of ''dittoheads'' by challenging his listeners, but by pandering to their prejudices. ''We're right'' sells. (The 6-year-old daughter of a conservative woman I know said, upon hearing Mr. Limbaugh's voice on the radio, ''Don't listen to him, Mommy. The way he talks sounds like he thinks he knows everything.'')

But surely there is responsibility also for those complacent leaders of opinion who, if they applied their intelligence differently, could comfort less and teach more. There's another saying: that a rabbi who is not at all at odds with his community is not a rabbi.

Sometimes what we want to hear and what we need to hear are not the same.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is working on his next book, ''Fault Lines: A Trek across the Distressed Moral Landscape of American Society Today.'

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