Alex Penk

By Alex Penk - 19/02/2016

Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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Disagreeing well

The sudden death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has sparked a response that caught my attention. After news spread of Justice Scalia’s passing, tributes flowed, including one from fellow Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg wrote that they were “best buddies,” and mourned the loss of a “treasured friend.” What makes this so remarkable was that Scalia and Ginsburg were firm ideological opponents—he an arch conservative, she a staunch liberal.

Even though they were on the opposite sides of the most difficult and sensitive issues, from gun control, to abortion, to same-sex marriage, Justice Ginsburg valued her colleague, writing that his dissenting opinions improved her own work—by helping her to consider another point of view, and to admit and improve upon the weaknesses in her own arguments. An opera was even written about their friendship, appropriate as attending opera performances was a favourite shared pastime.  

I remember listening to Justice Scalia giving a lecture at Auckland University when I was a shiny-eyed law student, and watching as my classmates flung themselves into verbal combat with him, somehow entertaining the remarkable idea that they would topple this giant of the common law world with an argument that he’d never even thought of before. Justice Scalia quickly eviscerated the opinions, but he left the students intact.

By contrast, it’s depressing to think about what happens more and more in our public debate. Political issues and policy are discussed in increasingly personal and shallow ways in the blogosphere, mainstream media, and on social media, where cheap, nasty, and personal attacks are common. Take, for example, the phenomenon of social media pile-ons, where hundreds or thousands of people turn on a person who may have said something dumb, or shared an opinion that the pack disagrees with. Or the gratuitous coverage given to Steven Joyce’s encounter with an airborne sex toy hurled by a protestor.

These are examples of the way that public debate so often loses sight of the fact that the person on the other side has dignity and deserves respect; even when they say something you don’t like, even when it’s something controversial. In fact, recognising that the people we disagree with share the same humanity that we do, and have inherent dignity and worth, is the basis of community and proper debate, and decent society.

That’s why the tributes to Justice Scalia give me hope—hope that we can disagree well, that we can be at odds over issues but still respect, and even treasure, the person on the other side. As Justice Ginsburg knew about her friend, that kind of disagreement can be part of a mutually enriching relationship, one that helps us as we search for truth and make decisions about the big questions that determine the fate of our society. Justice Antonin Scalia died aged 79 after serving 29 years on the US Supreme Court. While I doubt many New Zealanders knew who he was, I hope many of us will follow this example. 

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Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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