Editor’s Note: Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This piece was written by Ray Price, chief speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, three years before the U.S. House of Representatives opened impeachment proceedings (October 30, 1973).
It is part of our American folklore that there is some mystic virtue in having “the courage of our convictions,” as if to fight makes right. Yet too often this “courage” is little more than a closed mind, these “convictions” merely a package of unsupported prejudices. What we need today is more people with the courage of their own uncertainties—people who will stop haranguing long enough to listen, to question, to learn.
During nine years of writing newspaper editorials, my most striking (and troubling) reflection was that I found myself less and less certain about more and more things. The more I tried to get at the facts behind the headlines, trying to sort out right from wrong, good from bad, practical from impractical, the larger became my own gray areas of doubt and uncertainty.
But the same doubts seldom seemed to assail the bankers, housewives, and artists I met at parties, or the cab drivers or students who occasionally lectured me, or the writers of angry letters to the editor. They knew how we should handle school integration or housing or taxes. They knew that this or that politician was a total knave or a sainted savior, or that all the supporters of a candidate they opposed were fools.
And it’s not only the nonprofessionals (or, more precisely, those venturing outside their fields of professional competence) who pass off their biases as fact. During a recent political campaign, I fell into a discussion with a group of psychiatrists. Speaking of Candidate X, one of the doctors declared him a paranoid schizophrenic. “Why?” I asked, dumfounded. (I knew the candidate and, while often in disagreement with him, had immense respect for his brilliance and integrity.) “He thinks differently,” said the doctor. “He starts out from the same premises as other people, but reaches different conclusions.” So much for the sanity of politics, and the politics of sanity!
In asking for a greater leaven of doubt in our public discourse, I don’t mean cynical disbelief in everything—this represents its own kind of arrogance. I mean an inner-directed doubt that recognizes one’s own fallibility.
Our opinions are simply the end products of a process of judgment. This process can be no better than the facts we feed in, but it can be a great deal worse. At each step there is the chance of error: in the factual input, in the relative importance we assign various elements of that input, in the conclusions we draw. It’s a fair guess that for every opinion we hold passionately, someone else holds the opposite with equal conviction. And the firmness with which we hold to our view is hardly a reliable guide to its correctness.
One of the most poignant documents in American history came out of Salem, Massachusetts, more than 250 years ago. In 1692, the good people of that town, acting on the courage of their convictions, hanged 13 women and 6 men, “pressed to death” another man, and imprisoned about 150 other persons on witchcraft charges. It is easy for us, now, to see the error of that hysteria. But not until the cataclysm of terror and vengeance was over did the 12 men of the jury that condemned the “witches” find sufficient doubt in their own souls to sign a paper declaring, “We fear that we were sadly deluded and mistaken.” They (and their victims) learned a hard lesson about the elusiveness of truth, and the camouflages that passion can lay over it.
I’m not trying to knock dedication; we need dedicated people. But we can do without those who insist that they alone have a monopoly on virtue or wisdom or truth. The wise man knows the limits of prudence; the prudent man knows the limits of wisdom. If more of us spent a little time totting up all the things we have “known” to be true that turned out false; if we were more careful to distinguish between what we know and what we believe, and to express our beliefs in terms of probabilities rather than certainties; if, that is, we had the courage of our doubts, and searched more discriminatingly after fact, we would have a far healthier public discourse. We wouldn’t always be right, but at least we would be more nearly right more of the time—which is the best that man can hope for.