Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were good friends.
In a world where rational discussion and respectful dissent is viewed as semi-impossible, these two Supreme Court justices demonstrated how it could work. They didn’t simply clash over minute details: one could say they had almost fundamentally different views of the law and that translated into different worldviews.
My friendship with Judge, later Justice, Scalia was sometimes regarded as puzzling, because we followed distinctly different approaches to the interpretation of legal texts. But in our years together on the D.C. Circuit, there was nothing strange about our fondness for each other.
Scalia Speaks Foreword by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Despite differences in opinion, they were able to have a genuine appreciation for each other. In several sources, Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks of Antonin Scalia’s wit, grand presence, and shopping skills. I don’t believe she is merely coming up with things to speak about for the sake of maintaining some public reputation of a friendship. It has all the hallmarks of genuine sincerity–as evidenced by Ginsburg speaking at a memorial for Scalia following his death.
The friendship they share is significant to me because I, too, share a similarly surprising friendship. Of my friends from elementary and high school, there are only a few with whom I keep up. (Keep up is used rather loosely because I’m not really known for excellent communication where distance is concerned.) Melissa was a close friend in high school and yet, in the years since, I think the friendship has deepened, though we speak infrequently. Our friendship was born of mutual interests of theater, classes, and a desire to learn. As the two ladies in calculus, we forged a deeper bond from confusion and frustration with the class. Many of my memories from high school involve Melissa, whether it be laughter we shared, scenes she caused, or stories we told.
I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job.
Yet it is impossible and unreasonable to dispute that Ginsburg and Scalia did disagree. In significant ways and with undisputed vigor, they each fought for the interpretation of the law they thought was correct. Generally, they were more at odds than in union over Supreme Court decisions. While this could create conflict in a relationship, they seem to have desired for iron to sharpen iron, thus yielding the best outcome for both of them. Isn’t that what genuine friendship should do?
Justice Scalia was known for opinions of uncommon clarity and inimitable style, writings that did not disguise his view of the opposing side. Yet, as he put it, he attacked ideas, not people….When we disagreed, my final opinion was always clearer and more convincing than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia homed in on all my soft spots, energizing me to strengthen my presentation.
Scalia Speaks Foreword by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
If I were to list the differences I have with Melissa, the list would be longer than our similarities. She was athletic, I wasn’t. She was known to get into a few intense conversations with teachers, I kept quiet more. She got kicked out of her church’s confirmation program, I didn’t. She was confident, I wasn’t. And the years since high school have seemed to only widen our ideological differences. I believe in God, she doesn’t really. I listen to the Catholic Church, she determines morality on her own principles. I don’t care very much about making money, she generously desires to provide for her family and make them comfortable.
Significant lines should be drawn between us along religious, political, ethnic, and feminist issues. But we don’t let it.
My friendship with Melissa is this rare thing that I can hold up and simply be impressed with it for being what it is. Our conversations don’t shy away from the areas where we disagree. Rather, most of our conversations take place in those particular areas. It gives me a chance to explain what I believe to someone with a very different worldview. Sometimes it forces me to consider it in a way I have never needed to before.
And yet it also forces me to find our areas of commonality. We don’t need to continually insert “no offense” when our views clash with the other. I assume the best about her and she assumes the best about me. When I can rely on her desire and willingness to understand me, I am able to speak more freely. I can focus on relaying my beliefs in a manner semi-stripped of religious assumptions instead of continually worrying that I am making her uncomfortable or angry. Perhaps even more than with some friends who agree with me on many things, I am able to engage her in deep conversation about what we believe to be true.
I don’t know how Scalia and Ginsburg felt about their relationship, but I find myself in wonder over my friendship with Melissa. Over the past few years, we have remarked to each other at various times that this is something unique. I enjoy sharing this story with my students as proof that civil conversation can happen in matters where there is certain disagreement. It also gives me hope when I look at our deeply divided cultural landscape, where matters of human worth are divided based on party lines.
There is a way to look beyond the clash and see the human person espousing the ideas. Right and wrong certainly matters, but I don’t arrive at being right by diminishing the other person. Of course, I would say that Melissa is wrong in several of the things she thinks are true–and I don’t think that would surprise her to hear me say that. While she listens kindly and intently while I speak, she would say I am not right on everything either. Yet I leave our conversations feeling a new sense of vigor and hope. Not hope that she will convert and become Catholic (though I’m not saying I haven’t prayed for it!), but hope that peace can be achieved through sincere seeking and not mindless compromise.
As all friendships should, I know that I am better because of my friendship with Melissa.