Doubt and conviction

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(Host) Commentator Peter Gilbert reflects on the critical balance between conviction and doubt in today’s volatile world.

(Gilbert) The intolerance of extremism is running rampant. It’s not just al Qaeda. It’s murders of doctors at abortion clinics. It’s Timothy McVeigh, who saw himself as a modern-day John Brown whose attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City would, he thought, inspire others to do likewise. It’s in the Middle East, and so many other places. You can see it in the total confidence that some people at both extremes of political or ideological spectrums have in the rightness of their views – confidence that can become self-righteousness. Perhaps it was ever thus.

Robert F. Kennedy observed that “[w]hat is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant.” That dangerous intolerance comes from their utter confidence in their means and ends.

In May of 1944, in the midst of World War II, New York City celebrated “I am an American Day” with speeches in Central Park. One speaker was Judge Learned Hand – a jurist so eminent that many called him the tenth Supreme Court Justice, as it were. He said, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women…which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias…”

How do we teach our children to have the courage of their convictions on the one hand, and, at the same time, to keep open to the possibility that they may be wrong? That is a difficult – even metaphysical – challenge.

You see that mindset in Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was deeply, profoundly convinced that slavery was wrong and that the Union must be saved, and he gave his all for the cause. And yet he knew that the South, too, saw its cause as right. But he does not judge the South. “It may seem strange,” Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address, “that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Despite this uncertainty, Lincoln concludes that the North should pursue the war to a successful conclusion: “. . .[W]ith firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . ..” Lincoln was a great president and great man because while wholly dedicated to his cause, he retained his humility.

The real world is not an ivory tower ethics seminar; it requires decisions – actions and reactions, often when there are no good choices. The challenge is to act out of one’s deeply held convictions – but not to lose that speck of humility – of doubt – that checks our intolerance, keeps us open to others’ points of view, deters us from dehumanizing our enemies, and guards us against overstepping.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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