Viewed from behind, a rubber wheeled red wood cart is pulled along a beach by an oxen.

There is a deep connection between intellectual humility and meaningful public discourse — indeed … such discourse is intellectually humble by nature. And yet at the same time, there are fundamental challenges to the very possibility of such rational dialogue, challenges that have yet to be overcome. ~ Michael Lynch, et al.


As I have delved into the topic of civil discourse, the aspect of humility has struck me as the most important and potentially the most challenging in our current social climate.  In her Civil Conversation Project, Krista Tippet posits that “Humility is a companion to curiosity, surprise, and delight,” observing that the wisest people “carry a humility that manifests as tenderness in a creative interplay with power.”

It seems to me that this kind of humility is important because only by allowing curiosity can we reach out to others, and it is challenging because it requires a willingness to be intellectually vulnerable as we explore the humanity — and root motivations — of those with whom we disagree.  Perhaps they will have information that will require us to change our conclusions!

But even if we ultimately continue to disagree with their conclusions, we might still be surprised or even delighted to find that we can understand the fears or worries that motivate their opinions.  This understanding may be just the thing we need to inspire the civil dialogue and compassionate solutions so lacking these days. Indeed, as Randall Smith writes:

… “civility” is not merely something one shows to one’s like-minded friends. Civility is most needed precisely when the differences are likely to be greatest.

If you find this topic as relevant to our current situation as I do, I hope you’ll explore it further, for there is a surprising amount of serious writing on the subject.  Academics have recognized the urgent need to better understand the role of intellectual humility in democratic society;  for instance, the John Templeton Foundation has provided a series of research grants, including $6 million recently granted to the University of Connecticut (lead researcher Michael Lynch) to conduct ten projects related to Intellectual Humility in Public Discourse.  (Lynch’s literature review of the same title provides an interesting overview.)  The more we come to understand intellectual humility, the more we expand our possibility of mindful action and thus, increase  the probability of positive civil discourse and societal change.  In my book, that’s a worthy cause!


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