It’s nearly impossible to have a civil conversation nowadays with someone who disagrees with you. For example, take Sally, who is pro-choice, and her friend Alice, who is pro-life. Sally and Alice had never talked about this issue before, but now that they have, they suddenly find themselves at odds. Does this have to spell an end to their friendship? They both thought the other was a good person, but now they aren’t so sure and don’t know how to even begin discussing the issue. How can they begin a conversation when they each hold opinions that appear so monstrous to each other? The first and most difficult step is to suspect the good. This can be where a conversation starts.
Let’s first look at what the phrase “suspect the good” means. Often when we think of the word “suspect,” we think of the subject of a criminal investigation. We also don’t think of being suspicious as a good thing. The word “suspect,” however, is defined as to “have an idea or impression of the existence, presence, or truth of (something) without certain proof.” This is the definition of “suspect” we should use when talking about suspecting the good.
But what does it mean to suspect “the good”? Let’s look at the definition of “suspect” above and plug in “the good.” To suspect the good would be to “have an idea or impression of the existence, presence, or truth of the good without certain proof.”
It can be easy to think the worst of someone who disagrees with you: Alice (pro-life) might think that Sally (pro-choice) desires the expansion of the government-condoned mass murder of infants, or Sally might think that Alice desires a return to the institutionalized subjugation of women to men. Oftentimes, we focus on the evils that we fear will result from others’ opinions. But the results we are scandalized by are rarely the reasons our friends make the decision that produces those results. Sally isn’t pro-choice because she wants to murder infants, but because she thinks that pregnancy and motherhood keep women from being successful in jobs where men dominate. Alice isn’t pro-life because she wants to be dominated by men, but because she is horrified by the massive numbers of infants being murdered daily through abortion. To be able to see this is what it means to suspect the good.
No one chooses to act unless they think it will bring about good, even if it’s just one’s personal sense of what’s good. We shouldn’t assume that we know the reasons why people do what they do. The reasons people act are as different as the people you meet. This is why one of the key phrases in the definition presented above is “without certain proof.” You don’t need to know what someone’s motivations are to suspect that they believe them to be good.
To be clear, people can still be wrong. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disagree, but it does mean that you should not give up hope for reaching an agreement. You can start a conversation assuming that they aren’t deliberately choosing evil. Often, it’s not the reasons behind our opinions that put us into conflict, but the actions we take as a result of holding those opinions. There is nothing mutually exclusive in the desire for women to be successful and the desire to not see infants murdered. Perhaps Sally and Alice, after recognizing these underlying reasons, can come to a mutual agreement on a course of action that adequately addresses the concerns of both parties. This would resolve their conflict. Unfortunately, not all conflicts can be resolved by suspecting the good, but at least there is hope enough to try.
Image: William Blake, Illustration to Book of Job.