What Does It Take To Be An Honorable Opponent?

What Does It Take To Be An Honorable Opponent? November 17, 2020

One of the things I liked hearing in President-Elect Biden’s victory speech was his call to “put away the harsh rhetoric.”

Politics has walked a fine line between civility and outright violence since before Julius Caesar was assassinated by the Roman Senate. American politics has been only slightly better. It took a turn for the worse with the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, and Donald Trump has taken polarization and demonization to new lows.

Biden said “to make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”

Sports can be violent, especially sports like football and boxing. Their violence is tempered by a code of sportsmanship: play hard, but play within the rules, and never forget that your opponent is a person worthy of your respect. Hockey is known for its physical play that often ends up in fist fights, but it also has the “handshake line” at the end of playoff series, where the losers congratulate the winners and the winners express respect for the losers.

Even war has rules.

Politics is the collective expression of our values and priorities. And the cold hard fact is that this country and the world as a whole have many different values and many different priorities, and they are often at odds with each other. Unlike sports, the outcome of the political process has impacts on people that go far beyond who gets a trophy and who goes home disappointed.

How can we recognize honor in our opponents? And just as importantly, how can we be honorable opponents to those on the other side?

What does it take to be an honorable opponent?

A commitment to facts

There can be no dialogue without common ground, and common ground begins with recognizing facts: things whose truth is established in reality. One of the reasons I detest Donald Trump so much is his complete disregard for facts. Politicians are known for ignoring inconvenient facts, but Trump regularly says and tweets things that are clearly untrue.

There are no such things as alternative facts.

People’s lived experiences are facts. Yes, they’re anecdotes, and just because you experienced something doesn’t mean it’s universally true. But a collection of anecdotes is data, and data is one of the ways we establish facts.

Facts can be hard to ascertain, as anyone who’s ever an done experiment requiring data collection knows first-hand. But where they are clear, they must be respected.

The ability to separate facts from interpretation, opinion, and projection

The shortcoming of facts is that they are meaningless until we interpret them. Based on our knowledge, past experiences, and preferences, we decide what they mean.

The problem is that too many of us can’t separate “this is what it is” from “this is what it means.”

Not every interpretation is a good interpretation. Some do a poor job of connecting cause and effect. And even if our analyses and projections are accurate, the question of whether it’s “good” or “bad” or somewhere in between is a matter of opinion.

This is unavoidable. If we agreed on interpretation we would be allies, not opponents.

But if someone says “I respect how you come to that conclusion” (and acts accordingly) I can respect them as an honorable opponent.

A willingness to always see the humanity in others

In times of war, military leaders dehumanize their opponents. The call them “the enemy.” That makes it easier to convince soldiers – who at their core are just ordinary people – that it’s OK to kill them, even though they’ve been taught their whole lives that killing is wrong.

This may be necessary in actual war, but in politics it’s dangerous rhetoric. There are always a handful of people ready to kill if given an excuse, and politicians who demonize their opponents provide that excuse.

An honorable opponent never forgets that the people in different parties and on the other side of issues are still people of inherent dignity and worth, and should be treated as such. This is what President-Elect Biden was talking about when he said “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.”

If I condensed this post down to a sound bite, this would be it. Honorable opponents see their opponents as people to be respected. Dishonorable opponents see them as enemies to be crushed.

Memorial to British Soldiers at Concord Massachusetts
Memorial to British Soldiers at Concord Massachusetts

Understanding that different people want different things

How often do you hear well-meaning people say “we all want the same things, we just disagree about how to get there”? Sometimes this is true, but many times it’s not.

Some people want a free and egalitarian society. Others want a society where straight white Christian men are in charge and everyone else is subservient to them. These aren’t remotely the same things.

Even where we mostly do want the same things, we have vastly different priorities. Almost everyone wants a home, but not everyone wants to own a freestanding house in the suburbs. And a lot of people want a clean safe place to live but don’t want to have to take on a 30-year mortgage (or they can’t) to get it.

It’s easy to convince ourselves we have the best ideas, and so if our opponents would just let us run things we could help them get what they want. But an honorable opponent understands that what we want isn’t necessarily what people on the other side want, and that’s OK. They respect different cultures and don’t insist everyone adopt theirs.

Be the bigger person, but maintain good boundaries

“Be the bigger person” is often a call to not hold abusers accountable, which enables them to continue abusing others. While living well is usually the best form of revenge, a just society requires that evildoers receive justice.

Being an honorable opponent does not mean unilateral disarmament. You can respect the humanity of murderers and rapists while still preventing them from murdering and raping anymore.

The paradox of tolerance is real. If a society tolerates intolerance, eventually it will be dominated by intolerant people. Non-violence is a peace treaty, and when someone breaks the treaty a proportionate response is required, or before long the aggressors will be running the show.

We owe others the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume malice where ignorance is a more likely explanation.

But when people show you who they are, believe them the first time. If they’re going to be your enemy, start fighting them sooner, not later.

And remember that Nazis are never honorable opponents.

Taking the first step

The call to recognize honorable opponents is a call to rationally debate issues: to determine and agree on facts, to form accurate and meaningful interpretations, and to compromise on actions that do the most good for the most people while respecting the rights and dignity of all.

It’s a call for all of us to take the first step in good faith. That’s hard to do when our political system is so polarizing: there is Team Red and there is Team Blue. There are other teams and many of us would like to be on them, but none of them have a chance to win a national election any time soon.

There is a place for principled conservatives in American politics. Those who conduct themselves as honorable opponents deserve to be respected as honorable opponents, even as we work to defeat their laws and policies.

Those who deny facts, and who demonize and try to disenfranchise whole groups of people based on their identities and orientations have shown themselves to be dishonorable opponents.

And while we must never stoop to their level, we must do everything in our power to defeat them.

Be an honorable opponent. Respect honorable opponents. Do not tolerate dishonorable opponents.

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