What should we do when confronted with people whose views we find bizarre and who express their opinions in ways we find wrong? The more polarized our societies become, the more urgent this question appears. While people have always confronted different opinions at workplaces and family dinners, more and more people now find it difficult or intolerable to listen to them. The question is not only how individuals should handle these situations, but how society can uphold the democratic value of inclusion without letting just anything pass.
One solution is to say “enough! I don’t want to hear it anymore!” There are two reasons why this is not the best solution, however. First, it is like putting your head in the sand – just because you will not see what’s bothering you anymore doesn’t mean the issue has disappeared. Second, to choose not to listen is the privilege of the powerful, those who do not depend on others and do not need to hear their views. Perhaps you are one of those, but the problem is: just because you can do something does not mean it’s right.
In a recent article in Politics, I defend a different solution: the principle of responding reflectively. This principle means asking ourselves if another person’s violation of basic norms of respect, sincerity, and public mindedness could have been justified under present circumstances, even if we would normally say it was wrong.
This principle is intuitive: when someone says or does something hurtful or wrong, reflective persons ask themselves: why did this person act this way? Was there something I had done? Had I failed to listen? Many times, there might not have been anything we did that made us deserve being treated disrespectfully. But the rule of thumb is: it takes two to tango.
Now, the question is what it would mean to apply the same principle to a whole society. In what sense can a society be reflective? When some person or group violates basic norms, a reflective society does not immediately condemn the action, even if the action appears wrong. Instead, the violation initiates a process of collective reflection. Perhaps there was no other way to make oneself heard than to break norms one would otherwise respect?
As individuals, we can imagine various situations where it seems appropriate to break basic social norms: when a person is in danger, when someone is harming another person, or when people refuse to listen to anyone outside their group. In such cases, it seems justified to act in ways that might normally seem impolite.
For society, the reflective principle demands asking whether the way things work – who gets to speak and how, who gets to decide, and who are systematically excluded from important discussions – may justify breaking the norms that they would otherwise respect. A classic example is civil disobedience. While it seems extreme under normal circumstances, it appears less so when used to protest against wars and the killing of innocent people. It is by breaking norms that civil disobedience forces society to reflect on its failure to live up to democratic and humanitarian values.
The reflective principle does not mean that all violations of basic norms are justified. Not all cases are like the civil disobedience of peace activists. Sometimes people get aggressive or refuse to listen just because others disagree. While we may have a moral obligation to listen to other members of society, we have the right, of course, to find their views wrong and shameful.
The reflective principle makes it possible to get closer to an ideal society where no one would be justified to be disrespectful, insincere, or selfish. To get closer to that ideal, we may need to change how the media works, the education system, or how political parties operate. The reflective principle helps pointing us to various societal and systemic problems and allows us to correct them. And in some cases, it gives us a more well-founded reason to say that this person here was neither right nor justified to be disrespectful.