Why Opposing Opinions Matter

Listening to your opponents could change them to allies

In his book, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-congratulation as a basis for social policy, social theorist Thomas Sowell talks about the tendency for many in government to treat those that disagree with them as not only factually wrong but morally wrong as well. Those who disagree with the 'anointed" do so not because of incorrect facts or mistaken beliefs but because they are inherently evil. Since the publication of Sowell's book in 1995, this situation has only grown worse.

Yet it is in open dialogue that we progress to solutions. It is through understanding each other's positions that we can reach common ground. Disagreement is neither disloyal nor inherently evil.

This Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle included an article entitled Rim Fire exposes systems' risks written by Spreck Rosekrans, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. Restore Hetch Hetchy is a community group advocating for the removal of a dam on the Tuolumne River and the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its original condition. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir provides drinking water for 80% of 2.6 million San Francisco Bay Area residents and generates 1.7 billion kilowatts of electricity a year (roughly 20% of San Francisco's needs). As you would expect, Restore Hetch Hetchy is not particularly popular and is viewed by many as a "fringe" group.

Rosekrans' article, however, resonated strongly with me as an emergency manager. During the recent fire in Yosemite, the Hetch Hetchy reservoir was threatened and one of our power generation plants was damaged. Rosekrans uses this as an example of just one of many ways our water systems are vulnerable and why over-reliance on single sources pose a considerable risk. He makes a strong case for developing alternative sources of water and increasing the efficiency of our delivery systems.

I don't particularly agree with Rosekrans' goal of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley. While intriguing, I think it will prove too costly and impractical. But since we both appear to agree on the need to create more sustainable water sources, there may well be some common ground where we could work together to advance both of our agendas.

So the next time you start to let politics block your ability to hear what someone else is saying or find yourself writing off a community group as a bunch of kooks, stop and reconsider. Focus not on your differences but on the areas where you agree. It's possible you may find an ally you never knew you had.

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