In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, George Eliot digresses to suggest that, although the minister in the novel is careless about Christian doctrine, he is still an effective caregiver to his parish. This distinction between what is said and what is done immediately arouses a response in me, because I consider the first time that I made it an important step in my intellectual development.
I like to say that I grew up at an awkward time, being too young for the Counter-culture and too old for Punk. All the same, I came to have activist opinions early in high school. I was full of adolescent energy, and believed in my causes with the all-out enthusiasm that many new converts have. I was shocked when others didn’t share them, since they were self-evidently right to me. I expressed them whenever possible – never mind that they weren’t the best way to impress a girl, these things were important! My greatest fear was that I might become conservative when I became older, and resist the causes I had formerly championed just as they were becoming mainstream.
Few of my classmates shared my opinions, so I would be full of enthusiasm and relief whenever I discovered one who did. Early on, though, I was baffled to discover that, just because someone professed similar opinions to mine didn’t necessarily mean that I would like them.
It took several years to discover that the opposite was true: Someone who expressed opinions completely at odds with mine might become a friend.
The first example I encountered was a medievalist in a small town up the coast. He was a big man, with an English working class accent, boisterous and fond of frequent fights. He liked to dominate a conversation, and if he caught any hint of dogma in another person, he would soon start denouncing their beliefs in his loudest voice, watching them with a barely suppressed grin. If they started defending themselves, he would become even more outrageous. More than once, I saw someone stamp away, swearing and calling him a hopeless redneck.
Despicable, I thought at first. Gradually, though, I noticed that no one did more work in his medieval club. No one was more patient in teaching leather working, or metal-casting, or teaching newcomers how to shoot a longbow or crossbow. If someone was sick, he was first to visit them in the hospital (and argue with them, if they were well enough). Any cause in the community, and he would come out. A little self-righteously, I thought I would forgive his habit of baiting people as an unfortunate flaw in a basically decent person.
But, unfortunately for my self-righteousness, once I conceded that the doctrinally impure weren’t automatically demonic, I started noticing other examples. Like the fiction writer who was irresistible to women and had a Casanova-like gallantry, yet listened to them and took them more seriously than most self-declared feminists. Like the conservative, Catholic apologist who could be one of the most loyal friends imaginable. Or the editor who joked about feminist dogma yet did more to hire qualified women than those who expressed what I considered to be the proper opinions.
Such people were not the majority among those who expressed similar opinions, but they weren’t particularly exceptional, either. After meeting a few of them, I realized that judging people by the opinions they expressed was over-hasty. What I considered instead what they did, I had to concede – with no small reluctance – that some unlikely people could be more deserving of friendship and respect than some who supposedly shared my opinions.
Strangely, this realization didn’t have any affect on my own beliefs. If anything, it has strengthened them. Knowing that someone can disagree with me and still have some worthy traits has humanized me, making me less self-righteous and less judgmental. As a result, I can hear my beliefs challenged without feeling threatened, and they’re stronger (and more realistic) for facing a challenge rather than being afraid of one.