Main point: Lawyers argue for a living, so they have skills we could use in political conversation. One of those skills is being able to adopt the perspective of your opponent.
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We’re all amateurs in this political-conversation game. So we need to find some professionals from whom we can learn skills.
The people from whom we hear most political conversation—television pundits and radio talk-show hosts—are professionals in theatrics, not conversation. Their skill is manufacturing conflict, not resolving it.
But lawyers… Lawyers make their living by arguing. They come in after a dispute has already blossomed and they argue to win, not just for show. They must be likable enough to make witnesses talk and juries listen. Their arguments have to be logical enough to withstand counterattack. And they have to keep their cool.
So what can we learn from lawyers?
In this week’s Time magazine, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken wrote about the recent dust-up in academia over provocative speakers and hecklers. She pointed out that the same speakers who attract shout-it-down demonstrations on some campuses don’t get similarly dramatic reactions when they appear at law schools.
Gerken used the example of Charles Murray, whose writings on race and intelligence draw violent reactions at some colleges. When he spoke at her law school, “students and faculty engaged with him, and students held a separate event to protest and discuss the implications of his work.” He encountered opposition without chaos.
I’m not going to weigh in on the pros and cons of campus heckling or method for its control. This blog isn’t about the limits of free speech.
But I found Gerken’s ideas useful for person-to-person conversation.
Law schools handle provocative speakers well, Gerken wrote, not because law students find offensive ideas palatable. Instead, she says, they have been taught “the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness.”
Both are based on the awareness that we are “in a war over values” in which “we should fight and fight hard for what we believe.”
But righteousness also maintains awareness that “even as we do battle, it’s crucial to recognize the best in the other side and the worst in your own.”
In law school exercises, students are forced to practice defending ideas they disagree with. They are not expected to accept those ideas as their own, but to learn how to see the dispute as their opponents do.
This brings them two advantages, according to Gerken.
When you can see your own arguments from the opposing perspective, you can better see their weaknesses. And when you can “imaginatively and sympathetically reconstruct the opponents’ best argument,” you can more effectively refute it.
Gerken also wrote about the importance of “rituals of respect.”
We understand that we should respect our opponents, but it’s often difficult to summon up the genuine feeling. And so attorneys use ‘rituals of respect.’ Proceed as if you respect and are respected, even if you don’t and you aren’t.
Gerken wrote that these rituals “are so powerful they can trump even the deepest divides,” citing the case of Thurgood Marshall. As a black lawyer in mid-20th century America, he was able to do things, like asking tough questions of a white woman, in courtrooms that he was not allowed to do in any other forum. The rituals of respect enabled the exchange of ideas to proceed–and eventually pay off.
If we want to be effective in political debate, we need to do more than just listen. We need to learn to set ourselves aside long enough to see the argument through our opponents’ eyes.