Commentary: Hey, millennials, it's OK to disagree

Brenda M. Hafera

is the coordinator of alumni programs and continuing education at the Fund for American Studies, and a member of the Matthew J. Ryan Society of Villanova University

Millennials put every aspect of their lives on public display, even confessing to others their innermost indiscretions. In fact, I confessed to some friends just the other day in an Uber ride.

The subject of the presidential election came up, and not surprising of a crew of young professionals in Washington, the sentiment was distinctly left-leaning. After listening for a few minutes, I interjected: "Guys, I have a confession to make. I'm a Republican."

There was a collective groan. The horror! It was as if I had confessed to something as chilling as not recycling (I do) or buying organic (I don't). When asked why I would betray the sisterhood by not voting for Hillary Clinton, I began listing the issues on which we diverge. The conversation came to an abrupt halt - because having reasons brings with it the possibility of genuine disagreement.

One of the most serious and common criticisms of millennials - ages 18 to 34 - is that our generation has an attitude of entitlement. Many of us are second-generation college graduates, and we appear to think ourselves more deserving than we are: of a grade, a job, or a say. Our critics say we lack the spirited independence and grit of previous generations.

However, millennials are also innovative, energetic, and technologically savvy. They have a strong sense of responsibility and are driven by social justice. They want to transform America, to make us respectable in the eyes of the world.

Their well-meaning natures also cause them to have a servile deference to harmony. Millennials avoid confrontation at almost all cost. If you step into a classroom on virtually any college campus, every discussion about values - or about anything that really matters - is hedged in shallow politeness. It's just your opinion vs. my opinion, they say. This argument-ender softens the perceived arrogance of assertiveness and avoids the unseemliness of lively debate. But more than that, it is the manifestation of the religion of our generation: moral relativism.

Fundamentally, millennials believe our choices are simply matters of personal preference - and it makes no difference whether we are talking about brands of hummus or sexual orientation. The only cardinal rule is that one person's views should never be imposed upon another. Therefore, every statement must be prefaced with a disclaimer such as "I feel" to denote the speaker is merely expressing a personal opinion. This avoids any possible misunderstanding that she thinks what she is saying should be a truth universally acknowledged, a very disturbing notion.

Millennials are shirking one of the most fundamental duties: the duty to disagree.

We first owe it to ourselves to own our views in a forthright manner. Thoughts that are suspiciously concealed cannot be refined or changed. Open engagement allows us to discover what is logical and can withstand scrutiny. As Thomas Jefferson once remarked:

"Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless . . . disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate."

Discussion and debate are not only the tools for educating our minds, but the basis of a free society. Disagreeing is therefore not merely a responsibility to the individual. It is a duty to ourselves, to each other, and to our country.

Disagreement opens the possibility of consensus, and it is through consensus that we unite as one people. America is not a nation bound by ethnicity or religion, but by a common belief in republican ideas. Just as our personal principles reflect our character as individuals, our shared principles determine our character as a nation. As George Washington wrote, "We are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support."

Character is not fixed or the result of a moment, nor is it incorruptible. It is the culmination of many choices and beliefs. As citizens, we must contribute to its ongoing formation and ensure it is based on sound principles. We must participate in the process of political deliberation to become a united people.

Millennials may think it is kind to avoid arguments, but their avoidance causes them to sacrifice something essential. Over-attachment to harmony or moral relativism does not denote a respect for others; it is dismissive, both of ourselves and our fellow citizens. By refusing to disagree, there is no danger of one person being wrong, but there is also no opportunity for both to be right. Through deliberation we discover what is just and protect our national character. This realization of our duty brings us together in a much more powerful way than superficial niceness.

bhafera@gmail.com