Among the forums and blogs of the Internet, one often hears accusations that the proponent of an opposing view is motivated by monetary or power-related self interest or that he is just simply stupid. These kinds of accusations, although at times based in fact, are not helpful to the dialogue needed to enhance human understanding or support the functioning of a democracy.
Let’s look at the money and power argument. Yes, in any given mass movement certain people will be attracted to it as a means to achieve their personal ambitions. It is true of liberals and conservatives, and it was true of Communists and Nazis, and although I cannot document it, it is probably true of Shiites and Sunnis. (Think of the character Victor Komarovsky in Doctor Zhivago, who moves from Czarist to Commissar untroubled by convictions either way.) But, if I hold a political or religious position from which I might stand to profit, it does not necessarily mean I am not sincere in my belief.
And as far as stupidity goes, it will always be with us. Whether it manifests itself as, “America, love it or leave it” or as “All white people are racists” or as “My father was a [insert name of political party here] all his life, and I will be too,” simply identifying the speaker as stupid, is not helpful. Stupid people can have good ideas and can, through no fault of their own, hold correct positions. And after all, intellect is a continuum. We’re all probably stupid compared to someone, and even the most brilliant minds have held positions from which they later repented.
The truly rapacious and moronic may not be reachable. Within any group, however, is a core of people who believe in its positions as the result of a rational and moral thought process. These are the people who need to be engaged in dialogue. How are we to tell who they are? As a general rule, we cannot.
It is incumbent then on those of us who feel that engaging in public forums is a valuable use of our time, to extend the benefit of the doubt to all those with whom we disagree. If we are to make a difference, we need treat all participants in Internet forums with respect, concede that they are sincere, and attempt to reach them through rational discourse. Who knows? Our opponents might start to treat us the same way, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?