In 2015, at a Harvard University luncheon held in her honor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked what advice she would give young women today. “Fight for things you care about,” Ginsburg replied, “but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
The quote appeared in full over the weekend on the display board of the Barclays Center, in the heart of Ginsburg’s native Brooklyn, New York, following her death on Friday. But if you go onto the internet to explore the endless array of RBG-themed tchotchkes — mugs, T-shirts and even face masks — you’ll find that many of them omit the second part of her comment. All we need to do, apparently, is fight for what we believe in. Getting others aboard isn’t as important.
And that speaks volumes about American politics, where persuasion has gone out of style. The key is to speak your truth, as loudly as possible. Some people won’t agree, because — it often goes now — they are evil or stupid (or both). You can’t change their minds; all you can do is bring them to heel.
That’s the theory behind cancel culture, the bipartisan tendency to vilify and abuse our political and intellectual opponents. And Ginsburg never went in for it. Her entire career reflected the faith that you could move others to your point of view.
But that required you to show basic respect for their humanity, even at moments when they were not returning the favor. “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best to tune it out,” Ginsburg told an interviewer in 2018. “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
Let’s be clear: Ginsburg had ample reason to be angry and annoyed. Like millions of other women, she was denied opportunities simply because of her gender. So she fought back, of course, but in a generous way that swayed former skeptics to her side.
So Ginsburg also represents a standing rebuke to cancel culture, which works on the opposite philosophy: to defeat a foe, you must destroy them. It’s not enough to say, for example, that you disagree with J.K. Rowling about transgender issues. You need to malign her on social media, utterly and totally, until she recognizes the error of her ways.
But that strategy is a fantasy, and a self-defeating one at that. Sure, canceling someone might force them to issue an abject apology. But nobody is ever improved via humiliation. It makes all of us smaller, because it denies the possibility of real change in our souls.
I recently attended a webinar about cancel culture, where one speaker defended it as a weapon of the oppressed against the powerful. What was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, she asked, other than an early example of canceling?
Please. Like Ginsburg — indeed, like every other great warrior for human rights — King believed in the humanity of his opponents. He did not shrink from fighting them, of course. But he insisted that they had the potential for goodness, no matter how badly they were thinking and behaving.
Asked how she could be best friends with Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg’s ideological opposite on the Supreme Court, she quoted Scalia’s own maxim: “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas.”
It’s a lesson we all need to remember, especially right now. Thank you, RBG, for reminding us, over and over again, about the need to renew our frayed faith in each other.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published next month by Johns Hopkins University Press. He wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.
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