On Sept. 19, 1796, President George Washington published his farewell address, in which he extolled the virtues of republican government and warned about the political hazards the nascent government would be required to address in order to secure its place in the panoply of nations.
Chief among his worries was that of “factions.” Washington recognized the innate human desire to belong to a social group of like-minded individuals and rued the tendency of members of one such group to demonize members of another. Washington noted:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge … is itself a frightful despotism. [Faction] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.”
Two hundred and 23 years later, despite all the trappings of our technologically advanced society, human beings still have an innate desire to belong to one group and demonize those who adhere to another.
In the modern world, the proliferation of internet news means anyone can selectively reinforce their political opinions by relying on an outlet that shares their views. This “echo chamber” effect amplifies negativity and pushes people to the poles of many issues. Compounding the problem, outside forces marshal social media sites and internet “bots” in campaigns to inflame passions and sow division.
This polarization of public opinion is slowly corroding the foundations of our nation. Human beings are tribal and evolution has hard-wired us to cluster into groups. Every social clique has a belief system to which its members must hold. Adherence to the system becomes a litmus test for inclusion and any attempt to question or assess the system’s taxonomy is evidence of insufficient dedication.
Contrarian reasoning is a weakness that necessarily must be banished. The result is a lamentable situation in which disparate viewpoints are eliminated. Unchallenged opinions become unquestioned dogma and any hint of a differing analysis constitutes treason.
I do not argue that individuals should blithely disavow their viewpoints or quickly abandon deep-held principles. People should stand firm in their well-founded beliefs, particularly when they are based on persuasive reasoning as opposed to instinct.
However, we must remain willing to engage those who maintain opposing views and to reconsider our positions when facts so dictate. Above all, except perhaps in egregious cases, one should combat the human instinct to personally attack a person with a viewpoint contrary to their own.
If we cannot engage in civil discourse with those with whom we disagree, I fear for our country.
Illustrative of my point is the service rendered to the City of Alexandria by Melinda Douglas. Melinda recently retired after 32 impressive years as Alexandria’s Public Defender. Indeed, in many ways, Melinda is the embodiment of the Public Defender’s Office, having founded it in 1987 and serving as the only Public Defender the city has known.
Given my chosen career, it is safe to say Melinda and I have functioned as opposing counsel in several serious criminal matters over the years. While we may have disagreed on a point of law or the appropriate disposition of a particular case, I have always admired Melinda’s thoughtfulness, incisive legal mind and dedication to representing indigent citizens.
Melinda’s retirement is well-deserved and represents the end of an era for the Alexandria legal community. I join the entire city in thanking her for her service and for making her office the paradigm for others around the Commonwealth. Finally, I personally thank her for teaching me how to navigate an adversarial system without considering opposing counsel my personal adversary.
Congratulations on your retirement, Melinda.
The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.