Dressed in a shirt, tie and gym shorts, Stephen Colbert stretched next to a 5-foot-1 Supreme Court justice who, in her 80s, could still do push-ups and planks. Before the famous RBG workout began, he started blasting the Jock Jams classic, “Gonna Make You Sweat” from his CD player.
As Colbert danced like a groomsman on his fourth drink, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg calmly told him, “I would never never exercise to that noise. Shut it off.”
Of all the moments in that comedy segment, that was the most memorable. I could not figure out why until now.
For the past few days, my social media feed has been a river of tributes to the late justice. She deserves nothing less. Without women, the legal profession had a glaring shortage of intellect and wisdom. Ginsburg changed that.
Yet her legacy matters for another reason we often forget.
In 2008, Leslie Stahl hosted a 60 Minutes episode about the late Justice Antonin Scalia. At one point, she politely confronted Scalia about the often combative tone of his written dissents. Scalia made no apology: “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people, and some very good people have some very bad ideas.”
To Scalia, Ginsburg was one of those people. He was a conservative who believed in originalism; she was a liberal who believed in a living Constitution. He held nothing back in his prose, sometimes calling her opinions “absurd” and “self-righteous.” But when Stahl asked Ginsburg if she took this personally, Ginsburg smiled and said, “No, I take it as a challenge: How am I going to answer this in a way that is a real put-down?”
This is what two healthy intellectual self-esteems look like. As best friends, Ginsburg and Scalia knew what many of us forget: One can battle a belief and befriend the believer.
For years, we have cited the Ginsburg-Scalia friendship as a model of civility — and left it at that. The virtue is easy to praise yet hard to practice because deep down, our insecurities and impatience tell us that verbal aggression and hostility have more power.
Why is that?
Social media deserves some credit. Twitter’s word limit only allows for slogans, and viewpoints are graded by how many likes, shares and retweets they generate.
But the bigger problem is us: We stake our sense of self-worth on this race for vanity points. The truth becomes my truth, and my truth becomes my identity.
Through this lens, the Ginsburg-Scalia friendship seems impossible. If Ginsburg was so deeply passionate about a woman’s right to choose — to the point where it was a part of her identity — how could she stand Scalia, who derided the Roe v. Wade opinion as a disaster? And if Scalia despised the view that the Constitution could “evolve” over time, wouldn’t he despise Ginsburg for embracing it?
No. When Ginsburg described Scalia’s argument as a challenge, she was talking about a challenge to seek the truth. And when Ginsburg mentioned “a real put-down,” she was thinking of the greatest intellectual weapon: using facts and logic.
Read her dissents and you’ll see this. No virtue-signaling or mic-drops, but rather a body of knowledge one can only attain through decades of dawn-to-dusk research. Nobody has to share her views to appreciate this.
As a conservative Scalia fan, I have often disagreed with Ginsburg’s dissents and opinions, yet I’ve understood things better because of them.
Ginsburg knew the purpose of a debate is seeking the truth. Anything else is just noise — the same meaningless noise as Colbert’s Jock Jams music. As we head into this election, we have to ask ourselves: Will we challenge one another on the issues, or will we simply make noise?
Kyle Triggs is an attorney in Sartell, Minn.