Who's to Say Who's Right?
01 April 1999

Groucho Marx once quipped, 'I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member'. Not everyone is so self-deprecating about the organizations, groups and cultures from which they gain their sense of identity--and often their sense of security and pride.

Whatever 'club' we belong to, it takes a particular generosity of spirit to see the best in others and what they have to offer, instead of denigrating them as a threat to our cherished positions. Too often those who fight for a more just world order end up fighting each other. Campaigns against corruption dismiss debt remission as a whitewash of corrupt Third World regimes; environmentalists see big business--the great provider of goods, services and jobs--as inherently exploitative while businesses see green lobbyists as a nuisance at best; public transport is better than the freedom of the road--and vice versa.

Of course we have to be aware of, and honest about, the dangers. But it is another matter when people demonize others in the interest of their own position, turning two sides of the same coin into a false choice between mutually exclusive alternatives.

Why do people do this? There may be several reasons. First there is the feeling of being right--and there is a security in certainties--and therefore of others being wrong. Then there is fear--of being rolled over by the other side if I give way too much, and of being accused of betrayal by my own side if I concede too much (still a problem in Northern Ireland). Then there is the laager mentality--the security of being on the inside. This is particularly negative as it requires enemies on the outside. And finally, my cherished viewpoint may betray a smallness of vision and a bigness of ego.

It is all too easy to make one's own view the only view. Yet, paradoxically, those who are confident about their beliefs can afford to respect the beliefs and positions of others. Then it is no longer a question of being right but engaging in a common search for what is right. It takes a certain maturity--and humility.
Michael Smith