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Psychology for Democracy

Part I: We must learn to argue for the sake of democracy.

The following is adapted from the May 2017 Jewish Baccalaureate Keynote that Dr. Paresky delivered at the United States Air Force Academy.

Dawna Capln/FreeImages
Source: Dawna Capln/FreeImages

The Talmud presents a story about a rabbi who dissented from all the other rabbis in his community regarding a matter of Jewish law. The other rabbis were certain that they were right and he was wrong, but the rabbi continued to argue, and the other rabbis found him increasingly unpleasant. Before long, not only his arguments but even his presence became so frustrating and annoying that the other rabbis could stand it no longer. They found him so intolerable that they finally excommunicated him.

Since they no longer had to contend with either his very wrong opinion or the annoyance of his presence, the community expected their lives to become more peaceful. Instead, all manner of troubles befell them. You might think that it was because he was right and everyone else was wrong. But that is not the moral of this story.

In this story, it does not matter whether the dissenting rabbi was right or wrong. What matters is the importance of allowing dissent and disagreement. "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion," wrote John Stuart Mill, "and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still."*

The topic today is "makhloket l'shem shamayim." Makhloket means disagreement or argument. “Makhloket l'shem shamayim” means “argument for the sake of Heaven,” and it is qualitatively different than an argument for the sake of anything else. It refers to the particular kind of disagreement that forms the foundation of the Jewish view of civil dialogue: argument for the purpose of finding truth together. In makhloket l'shem shamayim, we seek intellectual challenge rather than confirmation of our existing views. This kind of productive disagreement is fundamental to both Judaism and democracy.

This is also an essential skill for leaders. Leaders must be willing to say things that other people won’t like, and they must be able to defend their arguments with reason and evidence. But making a convincing argument can only happen through understanding the opposition well enough to make a plausible case for their views. Leaders also need to incorporate a full range of perspectives and avoid becoming overconfident. Given our natural tendency to selectively perceive things that confirm our existing opinions, leaders need people around them who see things differently than they do in order to provide information that would otherwise be missed. When our only contact is with people who agree with us, we not only miss the opportunity to learn about other perspectives, we become more convinced of the rightness of our views, and our views become more entrenched and more extreme. Additionally, although we don't often enough consider this possibility, we could be wrong. Without being willing to authentically consider different views, we’re unlikely to ever know.

Argument can feel uncomfortable, and having our views challenged can be unpleasant, so many of us prefer to avoid it. But when we don’t learn to productively hear disagreement, it becomes easy to view people who see things in ways that are diametrically opposed to the ways in which we see them as fundamentally flawed in some way, irredeemable, or even evil. When we view someone this way, why would we listen to anything they have to say? In fact, why would we allow them to speak at all? As Mill understood, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”*

Productive disagreement requires the kind of intellectual humility that honors the dignity of the people with whom we are privileged to engage in makhloket. But this is not the way most of us have learned to argue. Intellectual humility is absent when we argue for the sake of proving others wrong, convincing others that we are right, or "shutting someone down." In our age of social media, many of our arguments are performed for the sake of elevating ourselves or diminishing someone else in the eyes of others. Abandoning the arrogance of argument for the sake of self, tribe, or ideology, and learning to engage with intellectual humility — learning to argue for the sake of democracy — is the fundamental problem of our time, and requires a new psychology for democracy. Certitude leads to silencing unpopular views. But in acknowledging the dignity and humanity of our intellectual opponents, makhloket l'shem shamayim brings us closer to the truth, and closer to each other.

Read Psychology for Democracy (Part II) here.

Thom Morris/iStockPhotos
Source: Thom Morris/iStockPhotos

Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.


* Mill, J.S. (1859). On Liberty. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books. Retrieved from,%20On%20L…