What We Can Learn From the Unlikely Friendship of Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia

Why being friends with people who have different opinions from ours is good for us.
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Why being friends with people who have different opinions from ours is good for us.

Whatever you may feel about their differing political views, one of the most touching moments in the aftermath of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death came in the tribute paid to him by his long-time friend and colleague Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Despite coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Justice Ginsburg described herself as “best buddies” with Justice Scalia. More than just work colleagues, their families spent New Year’s Eve together each year and their mutual love of opera even inspired a comic opera about their friendship which debuted last year.

These were not just friends who agreed to disagree so they could maintain their friendship in spite of their vastly different ideals. These were two people who saw their differences of opinion as a blessing that informed and sharpened their political viewpoints. Justice Ginsburg recounts how, “when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the 'applesauce' and 'argle bargle'—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.”

We all need a friend like this—who doesn’t just smile and nod along to all our world views, but who challenges us and forces us to think harder, do our research, and come back stronger. Despite the reach that social media and the internet have provided us to express ourselves and engage with world events, we are a generation in danger of shutting down any challenges to our beliefs. We are naturally inclined to surround ourselves with people who share our outlook—who we are friends with, who we follow on Twitter, the newspapers and magazines we read—all serve to reinforce what we think and how we think it. This is a normal social phenomenon. However, a growing trend across the Internet in particular is to "unfriend" or "unfollow" those in disagreement with us.

Living in the UK at the time of the general election in May 2015, I was shocked to see people I knew responding angrily to the election results and posting impassioned status updates demanding to know how people had voted so that they could unfriend them. Those who felt the election hadn’t gone their way seemed intent on rooting out the so-called "secret voters" that had swung the government majority to name and shame them and cut their ties.

On a wider scale, universities have recently come under pressure from student bodies to ban speakers with controversial viewpoints. A petition to prevent feminist Germaine Greer giving a lecture at Cardiff University on women and power because of alleged misogynistic views she has expressed about whether trans-women were real women gained 3,000 signatures. In response Greer said, “I do not know why universities cannot hear unpopular views and think about what they mean.” Our educational institutions should surely be one of the places we are guaranteed to encounter a range of ideas and opposing beliefs if we are to learn how to discern what to think for ourselves.

If we surround ourselves only with people who already agree with us, whether in the virtual or the real world, our lives will be the poorer for it. If we don’t get to know and understand our opposites then how can we hope to reach a common ground where real change is possible? I don’t want to live in an echo chamber where I only hear my own thoughts and opinions bounced back at me. I want to be challenged to think differently whether that’s about state provision of welfare, which bands I like, or the wonder of quinoa (for the record—I don’t get it!).

As Justice Ginsburg quoted from the opera about their friendship, “We are different, we are one.” We all come with different views of the world but we all live in it together.

My personal resolution is to take my example from the friendship of Justices Scalia and Ginsburg and try to better understand those who disagree with me. Not to scroll past the controversial statement or cut out the opinionated friend, but to seek out conversation with those that think or act or vote differently than me to understand where they're coming from, because it will sharpen my mind and enrich my life. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images