Shaw and Chesterson and Respectful Disagreement

By Michelle Martin
Published July 05, 2010

A few years ago, I had a particular letter to the editor published in the paper. It was, of course, fairly strongly expressed. The next day, the phone rang. It was a friend of mine who had written into the same paper to argue firmly against my own letter, but who wanted to let me know she had done so. I really appreciated the gesture, and I think that our subsequent conversation said a lot about the respect and loyalty we have for each other.

I like to think of us as being, in that instant where we rose above ourselves a bit, a kind of latter-day George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton. Of course we aren't such towers of intellect and wit as those two gentlemen were. And I think I can safely say that, even given our middle-aged status, we are much better looking.

Shaw and Chesterton differed strongly and debated publicly about topics like socialism, religion, and vegetarianism. Yet they called each other friends and, despite the fun they had trying to top each other's insults, had an abiding respect for each other:

Chesterton: "I see there has been a famine in the land."

Shaw: "And I see the cause of it."

Shaw: "If I were as fat as you, I would hang myself."

Chesterton: "If I were to hang myself, I would use you for the rope."

--Lecture XIII, George Bernard Shaw, The American Chesterton Society

Chesterton even wrote a critical book about Shaw, in which he said by way of introduction, "Most people either say that they agree with Bernard Shaw or that they do not understand him. I am the only person who understands him, and I do not agree with him."

When Shaw reviewed the book, he responded, "This book is what everybody expected it to be: the best work of literary art I have yet provoked."

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the comboxes of the world were full of the same kind of spirit of adventure? Or if they even went beyond the kind of debate in which Chesterton and Shaw engaged? If I, for example, held differing opinions in respect even if they weren't held by a friend of mine? If I presumed the best intentions of someone else, and not the worst?

Chesterton's biographer, Maisie Ward, wrote, "Shaw and Chesterton were themselves deeply concerned about the answers. Both sincere, both dealing with realities, they were prepared to accept each other's sincerity and to fight the matter out, if need were, endlessly."

Perhaps the best way to begin when we argue here about what's wrong with the world is the same way Chesterton did when responding to the same question as asked by The Times: "Dear Sir: Regarding your article 'What's Wrong with the World?' I am. Yours truly, G. K. Chesterton."

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2010 at 18:17:27

My fondness for Chesterton aside (there's a tiny book of his collected essays that's some of my favorite prose.. 'the red town' among them) this concept reminds me of this paragraph I read about ten years ago... one I often quoted when I was a philosophy major (jokes about useful degrees can start right now :))

"My real opponent is not made of flesh and blood. My opponent is ignorance, and I hope that is the opponent of my dialogue partner too. If so, we are fundamentally friends, not enemies, since we seek the same thing. This is why I seek out people who disagree with me. They are my special friends and allies. Their opposition helps me to be surer of the truth, as iron sharpens iron, or as a sparring partner strengthens your muscles, or an experiment confirms your theory." - peter kreeft

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