An assignment I often give students is to make a list of people who influenced them and then write down one positive character trait they identify with each person.
The idea for the assignment comes from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who began his Meditations with a series of short reflections on the character traits he learned from people in his youth.
Aurelius understood that the roots of character are planted early in life by particular people. No matter how universal a virtue happens to be, the circumstances by which one acquires the virtues are unique to each person.
Whenever I do this activity myself, I am surprised to remember some person I had not thought about for a long time, but who influenced me in ways I had yet to acknowledge. One such person is Letha Ziegler.
Letha and her husband, Clarence, lived on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota, located on the Otter Tail River between Frazee and Perham. They were friends of my parents and had kids about my age, so we would see them several times a year, at school events and various social functions. What impressed me so much about Letha was her endless curiosity.
Every time I saw Letha, she was making interesting observations about something she had seen or read or heard, asking questions, always wanting to know more.
Letha may have been the first person to show me what it was like to have a rich interior life, a life of the mind shaped not merely by a set of attitudes, but engaged with an ever-evolving set of ideas. She would pick up and examine something someone had said, turning it over, looking at it from all sides, and setting it down again, the way one sorts through knick-knacks at a rummage sale.
For most of us, our daily conversations reflect a fairly stable and predictable set of attitudes. We are willing to entertain new ideas occasionally, but usually only insofar as they happen to confirm the attitudes we already hold.
The problem with this is that attitudes are generally subconscious, operating just below the level of awareness. They consist more of feelings than discrete thoughts, and they are highly resistant to change.
People like Letha are not limited by their attitudes. For them, the world is a place for opportunity and exploration. They do not get defensive when someone disagrees with them; instead, they welcome disagreement. It gives them more to talk about.
There are three significant differences between ideas and attitudes.
The first is that one can debate ideas. This is because ideas are susceptible to nuance. One can talk about details, discuss merits and provide reasons with the mutual expectation that the reasons should be adequate to the idea under consideration. Attitudes, however, resist any attempt at rational justification.
Second, ideas are not dependent on the person who thinks them. One can do many things with an idea: propose it, consider it, examine it, criticize it, revise it. All of which requires a certain degree of detachment — which attitudes do not have. An attitude is always personal.
Third, ideas can be refuted. The reasons one has for proposing an idea may be sufficient or not, and it is reasonable to expect that one should give up ideas that have insufficient justification. Attitudes, however, may be opposed but not refuted. Because attitudes are personal, opposition to one’s attitude always feels like a personal attack.
Most of what passes for public discourse today — whether on television, social media or newspaper opinion pages — is little more than expression of attitudes.
That is not all bad. Broad shifts in attitude are generally what drives social change. But attitudes are blunt instruments. When it comes to implementing specific laws, policies and programs, we need people willing to sit down and talk about things they have not considered before. In short, to turn a shift an attitude into wise political action we need people who can engage in critical thinking.
Consider, for example, two popular and controversial topics: the Wall and #MeToo. In neither case is it possible publicly to debate particulars without inviting the wrath of ardent critics and supporters. Every statement is used to judge where the speaker stands. There is no possibility for nuance; there is only “for” or “against.”
Imagine how much more productive our political discussions would be if we spent more time actually proposing, examining and debating policies and proposals instead of just cheering and booing.
Every time you hear someone urging young people to “take a stand,” “speak up” or “make your voice heard,” you should ask yourself, “Is anybody showing them how to listen, to deliberate, to discuss?” There is a world of difference between standing up for something and thinking carefully about it.
Our country could use more people like Letha. I am grateful to her for showing me that genuine discourse can be more than just taking sides.