Welcome to The Third Rail.
The Third Rail is a weekly series that will run here on this blog as an experiment of sorts. The inspiration for this series was our observation that nowadays it’s become very popular to bandwagon onto a particular majority position that’s in vogue. While this behavior is certainly fashionable –who after all doesn’t enjoy being on the winning side of an argument?– we’ve discovered some disturbing trends in the public discourse that concern us greatly. As David French pointed out to Ezra Klein recently: There is a thoroughly studied, well-understood psychological group-think polarization phenomena: When two people who have the same opinions converse, they will tend to affirm and validate each other in a way that leads to a strengthening, “amplifying effect,” of whatever positions they already previously held. So let’s take for example Joe and Sally who both already believe in affirmative action, say, on a scale of 1-10, they both sat at 7. Simply by conversing with each other over that topic, by the end of their conversation, Joe and Sally will very much have increased their conviction in affirmative action up to an 8. Repeated countless times across a population of likeminded individuals, this groupthink effect becomes a dangerous sociological phenomena. Without the minority viewpoint reigning in the snowballing of conviction, we become enamored with a particular perspective and narrow our field of what we believe to be right, moral, or just. And if we are increasingly trapped inside “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” nowadays of our own creation, this on the stage writ large is a recipe of disaster and eventual, inevitable conflict.
To confront and counteract this increasingly alarming trend, we looked to a text and faith tradition over 2,000 years old: The Jewish Talmud. The Talmud, written between 2nd and 5th centuries CE, is the compilation of historic rabbis discussing and debating the Torah (what others call the Old Testament or the Five Books of Moses). In total, the Talmud consists of 63 tractates and is over 6,200 pages long when printed in book form.
We refer to the Talmud because, as anyone familiar with the Jewish tradition knows, there was plenty of disagreement back in the day over exactly how to interpret the Torah. What exactly did God say to Moses on Mount Sinai? What exactly are the lessons learned from the Golden Calf? Are Jews really going to hell for working on the Sabbath or eating pork? Over every point of possible contention there was endless debate and the Talmud is notable, as one visiting Rabbi remarked to me one Saturday morning, for always maintaining the minority opinion there in the text, right alongside the majority, mainstream opinion. Indeed, if you even just visually inspect any Talmudic page, you’ll see the layout is rife with side-texts in the margins presenting minority opinions and interpretations. Rabbis and Talmud scholars, I was told, even have a special way or holding their hands where the thumb, index finger, and pinky are sticking out. Using this three-pronged pointing scheme, they then scan the Talmud, reading the text, because at any particular time they’re considering various and multiple viewpoints, all over the same passage of the Torah that is being discussed and debated. “Two different Rabbis, three different opinions”– so goes the expression.
Roughly 1776 years later, another country would adopt a similar practice with their Supreme Court, the highest judicial system governing the laws of the land and that nation’s highest legal authority. In every SCOTUS decision rendered, the minority opinion, if one exists, is always written by the dissenting Justices and included after the majority opinion. The dissenting opinion is not law and possesses no official function. But tradition has compelled dissenting Justices who were overruled by their colleagues to present their perspectives and concerns. The Justices take their duty of writing dissents seriously; for instance, in 2015’s Obergefell decision, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito all each wrote individual dissents. And in total, their dissents totaled more than twice the length of the majority opinion.
I think in times like these, we can look to Roberts and his fellow dissenters for inspiration. Despite being on the wrong side of history and the losing side in this particular culture war, the Chief Justice still found it his civic duty to at least put forth his arguments for why gay marriage was not a matter for SCOTUS to decide. Roberts is a gifted writer and may have even sown some seeds of doubt in true believers: Did dictating from on high with Obergefell circumvent the democratic process of the states? And what about the principle of Judicial Restraint? Though on the losing side, Roberts still wrote eloquently and tried his best to issue all the hallmarks of a good dissent: Make people understand that gay marriage was a complicated issue, one that heavily divided the country. That we do not live in a black-and-white world. And to remind us that democracy is not monolithic; it is a plurality of voices, each from their own walks of life, each all equally valid. And that embracing this complexity head-on is no crime. In fact, the country deserves nothing less.
So consider this a clarion call. We often hear that we are living nowadays amidst the most partisan and polarized divide in our politics, culture, and society since the American Civil War. The next time you find yourself in a conversation which is skewing overwhelmingly towards one direction, speak up and raise a point for the other side, whatever that side may be. If everyone around you has gone on a diatribe about the evils of industry and pollution, point out that it was industrialization which eventually lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the middle class. If you’re in a group where all your peers are angrily railing against “the 1%,” point out to them that the top ten percent of earners pay over 68% of federal income taxes which goes towards highways, public schools, and parks that benefit everyone. Or if you find yourself in a conference room where all your white-collar colleagues are disparaging and laughing at the Occupy Wallstreet movement, remind them that in 2013, the top 25 hedge fund managers in America earned more than double every kindergarten teacher combined. Or that according to Oxfam in 2017, just eight men own the same wealth as half the world’s population.
We can each do our small part to lower the temperature in today’s discourse by tempering the extremity of opinion whenever and wherever the conviction of certainty rears its ugly head. It’s a common maxim that “A truth is not The Truth.” And outside of hard sciences like math, physics, and other closed systems with clearly defined boundaries, certainty is in short supply and truth far from absolute. We can each do our part in returning civility to America’s public discourse by raising doubts whenever absolute certainty tries to reign supreme.