VDB Photos/Shutterstock.com

Talking Politics in 2021: Lessons on Humility and Truth-Seeking from Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin spoke and wrote in ways that, if taken up now, could begin to erode the polarization of the current era.

The previous year in the United States was a turbulent one, filled with political strife, protests over racism and a devastating pandemic. Underlying all three has been a pervasive political polarization, made worse by a breakdown in civic – and civil – discourse, not only on Capitol Hill, but around the nation.

In a new year, with a new president and a new Congress, there appears to be opportunity. Americans, starting with the president, are talking about turning away from the division of the recent past and choosing a different direction: talking civilly and productively about the problems the country faces.

But how to do that? As a literary scholar, I appreciate the power of carefully crafted language, and I believe that Americans – from those in government to those around the dinner table – could take a lesson from one of this nation’s founders and greatest communicators: Benjamin Franklin.

From ‘positive Argumentation’ to ‘modest Diffidence’

Before he achieved fame as a statesman, scientist and diplomat, Franklin, who was born in 1706 and died in 1790, made his living in Philadelphia from words – as a printer, journalist and essayist.

Having worked early in his life in Boston for his brother James, a fiery journalist, he knew the kind of war that could be waged with words and had even made a hobby of debating with a young friend.

“We sometimes disputed,” Franklin recalled in his autobiography, “and very fond we were of Argument, & very desirous of confuting one another.”

Everything changed for Franklin, however, after he came across some examples of Socratic dialogue, in which questions figure prominently. “I was charm’d with it,” Franklin wrote, “adopted it, dropt my abrupt Contradiction, and positive Argumentation, and put on the humble Enquirer & Doubter.”

The inspired Franklin eventually changed his entire manner of discourse, communicating “in terms of modest Diffidence” instead of positive assertion, dropping words such as “certainly” and “undoubtedly” and substituting “I should think it so or so” and “it is so, if I am not mistaken.”

After all, Franklin wrote, “a positive, assuming manner” tends to turn off an audience and thus undermines one’s own intentions.

Such positive assertion can interfere with the exchange of valuable information. “If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others,” Franklin wrote, “and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.”

In 2021, replacing positive assertions in conversations with some “terms of modest Diffidence” just might lead to exchanges that are not only more civil, but also more productive.

Pursuing truth, not victory

More important than modest expression is actual intellectual humility, and here again Franklin’s example is instructive. Even before he turned his inquiring mind to groundbreaking discoveries in electricity, he showed a scientist’s dedication to open, objective investigation with only truth as its object.

In 1727, when he was still in his early 20s, he founded a group called the Junto. Members, including a number of tradesmen like Franklin, took up political, philosophical and other questions such as “Does the Importation of Servants increase or advance the Wealth of our Country?” and “Wherein consists the Happiness of a rational Creature?”

The goal of these discussions, as Franklin explained, was not victory – as it apparently had been for Franklin and his friend years earlier – but something far more valuable for all concerned. Franklin explained that the discussions were to take place “in the sincere Spirit of Enquiry after Truth, without fondness for Dispute, or Desire of Victory.” Anyone who spoke too confidently or contentiously had to pay a small fine.

This preference for pursuing truth over seeking victory found expression in a question that initiates were required to answer: “Do you love and pursue truth for its own sake?” Franklin did, and the results speak for themselves.

Franklin also had a prescient understanding of biases that color humans’ understanding of reality.

Today, scientists have shown that people are susceptible to mere exposure effect, a preference for information we have encountered multiple times and confirmation bias, an inclination toward information that aligns with a person’s current beliefs. In an essay he published in the 1730s, Franklin wrote of the effect of “Prevailing Opinions” on the individual mind and observed, “A Man can hardly forbear wishing those Things to be true and right, which he apprehends would be for his Conveniency to find so.” He added, “That Man only, who is ready to change his Mind upon proper Conviction, is in the Way to come at the Knowledge of Truth.”

Franklin lived up to this principle. In 1751, he published an essay expressing reprehensible, racist views that were all too common in his era. Years later, however, he helped found schools to educate black children and, after visiting one, saw that the students were equal to white children in their ability to learn.

He wound up changing not only his mind but also his essay when he reprinted it almost two decades later, changing the passage that said that most slaves were thieves “by Nature” to say that they were thieves because of slavery.

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]

Near the end of his life, Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and submitted to Congress a petition to abolish slavery and end the slave trade.

‘Obliged by better information … to change opinions’

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin expressed his belief in intellectual humility. As James Madison recorded his words, Franklin said, “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

“It is therefore that the older I grow,” he added, “the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”

Near the end of the speech, he implored others to adopt this same humility: “On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

As these words and experience testify, political polarization and dispute are nothing new. But Franklin managed to rise above the discord, biases and close-mindedness that are common in any era.

He spoke and wrote in ways that, if taken up now, could begin to erode the polarization of the current era: with modesty, diffidence, sincere consideration of others’ positions, doubt in his own infallibility and love of truth for its own sake.

The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.