In a her recent TED talk, Margaret Hefferman spoke passionately about the importance of embracing conflicting ideas to advance science, business and all manner of human endeavors. She described the need to seek out "thinking partners who are not echo chambers." She also mentioned something I've long believed -- that the habit of seeking contrary views is not instinctive and should be taught as a virtue to our children from the earliest age.
I would go so far as to enshrine the notion as a patriotic duty -- the essence of the American brand. The question is often asked: Is there something exceptional about the American experiment that makes us uniquely responsible and equipped to lead the world? Or are we just another country that -- by virtue of our oversized military muscle -- takes our run-of-the-mill nationalism to be somehow unique or blessed by God?
The truth is, we are exceptional and we can and should play a significant role in global affairs for many years to come. But not because we have a great flag or anthem or even because our tripartite government has a remarkably good record over time of delivering a stable and comparatively fair society. (There are, after all, a number of parliamentary governments that function quite well out there.) What makes us exceptional is that this country was founded without the burden of fixed ideas -- without the crushing weight of an historical mono-culture.
We started on a new piece of real estate without an established culture and while the early settlers were largely English or European, they were free by virtue of the Atlantic Ocean to choose which customs of thought and habit to carry over from Europe and which to discard. And as ambitious immigrants poured in from all over the globe, whatever European ideas might have been ossified from the first waves of settlers began to be tested against new ideas and questioned by newcomers without the same cultural blinders. Despite their forced immigration, African Americans also challenged assumptions and transformed the culture. My point is that our exceptionalism is due to our ability to attract and process conflicting ideas that can yield innovation, and to do so in a more-or-less peaceful way. There are other governments that are for the people and by the people, but we remain a magnet for their best and brightest because we are perceived, begrudgingly or not, as the top innovation lab of the world.
There is much talk recently about the lack of civility in our public discourse. Maybe we need to step back and address the purpose of civility. We have to remind and persuade the nation that seeking out conflicting ideas is a virtue -- indeed a sacred virtue that defines what makes us special as a nation. Once we sell that virtue back to ourselves in an overt and proud way, civility can better be seen as an essential technique to achieve a healthy competition of ideas. At the moment, many regard a call for civility as a prissy and frivolous pursuit. The best way to shake this view may be to reframe civility as the rulebook for the war of ideas that fuels our great nation. When we can politely entertain the thoughts of our adversaries and test our opinions, America wins.
Daryl Rowland is an award-winning screenwriter and the Director of Marketing, Communications and Outreach for the Civic Commons, a start-up specializing in Civic Engagement Technology.