Cherie Harder wrote a beautiful piece about intellectual hospitality for Comment Magazine in February, and I talked (briefly) about the concept as part of a Living Room Conversation with Pepperdine’s American Project. (You can watch it here, and download a guide for hosting a conversation of your own here.)
Basically, as Cherie Harder puts it, “If hospitality, classically understood, involves welcome for the stranger and the offer of care for their physical needs, intellectual hospitality extends an invitation to new perspectives and ideas (and the people who hold them).”
We grow intellectual hospitality through deep, varied reading. We grow it when we’re eager and willing to engage with and learn from those who disagree with us. We grow it through building a moral imagination that’s attuned to the incalculable mystery and beauty inherent in the human experience.
Perhaps you can follow someone—a writer or journalist, a musician, an artist, or an activist—whom you strongly disagree with. Read their work, their opinions, their biography or life story. Think about how their life has sculpted their viewpoints. Point out things about them you respect.
Hospitality must involve a willingness to make space for and to welcome others as they are, as “not us.” Hospitality “means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy,” writes Henri J. M. Nouwen in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (1975). “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
For this reason, Harder warns, “personal disrespect or contempt is kryptonite to hospitality. It destroys the trust, openness, and vulnerability that hospitality slowly builds, and it withers the curiosity that hospitality quickens. Intellectually hospitable disagreements aim to sharpen or challenge one’s thinking or improve one’s work; expressions of contempt are designed to corrode one’s person and sense of value.”
Consider carefully, friends. Is there someone on the opposite side of a political aisle whose humanity you regard carelessly, dismissively, because of their political positions, religious beliefs, or personal opinions?
Don’t let the poison of our discourse poison your soul. You don’t have to agree with everyone. You can disagree strongly. Sometimes, you should disagree strongly. There are moral causes which need the force of passion, even of anger, behind them. But love those you disagree with, especially if and when you disagree with them vehemently.
The intellectually hospitable, the bridge builders, will go into their encounters (town council meetings, online debates, neighborly discussions, and more) with an expectation of common ground. Not an expectation that people will agree, mind you—rather, an expectation that, as human beings, we all have shared needs, desires, and hurts. (This is where I think refocusing on the local could make a difference. We may disagree on many things, but wanting safe, walkable streets, for instance, is often a place to start finding agreement.)
Learn About Your Blind Spots
Do you have areas of intellectual thought or belief that tend toward brittle pride, rather than humility? If so, what are they? Do you have friends, neighbors, or family members who are different enough from you to see those blind spots, and to help call you to account?
There’s something we are all wrong about: something that time, age, or a different opinion might reveal to us as wrong, even harmful. We all should be open to acknowledging that.
Where might you help explain or defend ideas you disagree with to those who are more politically aligned with you? If someone on the opposite side of a political viewpoint or argument were standing and listening to you explain their position(s), would they find it fair and well-reasoned? Part of the battle we fight isn’t just in defending our viewpoint well, but in understanding others’ viewpoint well enough to disagree thoughtfully and honestly. (A friend pointed out that Alan Jacobs talks about this in his book Breaking Bread with the Dead, which I still need to read!)
What is one area of today’s political/cultural commentary where you could find compromise? If you can’t think of anything, start trying. Finding your own “gray” areas—potential places of compromise—will help you build bridges, build new friendships, and grow in empathy. For what it’s worth, issues surrounding health care and paid family leave, sustainable agriculture and environmental policy, prison reform, foreign policy, and the built environment and town/city development (to name a few) are all issues in which I can find a lot of common ground with people on both sides of the political aisle.