Saturday, August 8, 2009

Immoral, stupid, and monstrous

[This post is dedicated to my best friend who is very, very liberal and a remarkably decent man.]

In the comments to my Great Divide post, I got into a brief discussion on the idea of civil political disagreement and said:

How can we live in a civil political society if we can't at least acknowledge that "the other side" has political beliefs and policies that are as legitimate as our own? In other words, they may be mistaken from my point of view but they are not immoral, stupid, or monstrous.

To which another commenter replied:

Well, some of them are immoral, stupid, and monstrous.

This gave me, as Hercule Poirot would say, furiously to think. Two of the things I thought I had thought before but the third one is a new thought for me.

First, I think it’s important to remember that whatever side you are on, there are people on the other side who believe you are “immoral, stupid, and monstrous” just as fervently as you believe it about them. I’m not going to argue that all morality is relative; I’m not young enough to believe that one. I am going to argue that in many political issues morality is either irrelevant or unclear. One example of this is Apocalyptic Anthropogenic Global Warming. I do not believe this should be a moral issue; rather it should be a scientific and economic issue. Even if I did believe this was a moral issue, whose morality is correct here? Those who claim that overheating the planet is an immoral act because it will cause great suffering? Or those who claim that spending money to prevent AAGW is immoral because that money could be better spent ameliorating crises we’re facing now - in part because that will ultimately reduce the suffering from AAGW?

As for stupidity, based on my years of experience I can state with assurance that stupidity is normally distributed across all political groups. And monsters, true monsters, are blessedly very, very rare. Anyone who thinks that any American politician is truly monstrous has forgotten his or her history. We have no Hitler, no Mussolini; no Pol Pot, no Mao; no Stalin, no Lenin; no Spanish Inquisition, no Star Chamber. We have people with widely diverging views of what our country should look like and I freely admit that some of those views would produce a country I do not want to live in. But we have no monsters here.

I imagine, however, that most people whether on the Left or on the Right won’t agree with me: they will remain convinced their opponents are immoral, stupid, monstrous, or all of the above. That brings me to my second thought: it serves no useful purpose to refer to them as such. If you believe someone’s policies are mistaken, short-sighted, or just plain wrong - even if you believe someone’s policies are immoral, stupid, or monstrous - argue against the policies not the person. I know personal attacks are nothing new in American politics - I was very young when I first read the story of Andrew Jackson’s wife - but it seems to me that the volume and viciousness of those attacks is increasing and I believe polarization based on intolerant extremism does nothing but harm to a democratic society.

On health care, for example, the Left says about those who oppose the Democrat’s version that they are immoral because they don’t want to help those who are suffering; stupid because they buy the propaganda produced by Republicans; and monstrous because they want to kill poor people. The Right says about those who support the Democrat’s version that they are immoral because they want to ration care; stupid because they believe the propaganda produced by Democrats; and monstrous because they want to kill old people. In reality, most of the people who support either side believe their way represents the best way to achieve the results they desire. Telling them they are immoral, stupid, and monstrous is unlikely to change their minds; explaining the specific problems with specific policies might.

Having said all that, I freely confess I do occasionally find myself forgetting that those on the “other side” are as human as I am; the political climate makes it very difficult not to fall into that type of reasoning. Which brings me to my third thought, a new one for me.

I begin to suspect that all of us who view our political differences with such bitterness, such vitriol are being played by our political masters. The incident that crystallized this suspicion for me was a very small one: Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch Republican, invited Representative Barney Frank, a staunch (if I weren’t writing a post about tolerance for the other side, I’d say “rabid”) Democrat, and Frank’s significant other to go surfing with him over the August Congressional recess. Reading the full story at Politico, I was struck by this sentence:

Rohrabacher said he broached the idea with Frank at a function not long ago, after Ready [Frank’s significant other] had told him of their shared interest in hanging ten.

But wait. Everyone on the Right knows Barney Frank is evil incarnate. Yet here’s a firmly conservative Republican hanging out with Frank’s partner long enough to talk surfing and on friendly enough terms with Frank to issue an invitation to hit the beach together. If you’re a good right-winger who won’t even speak to a progressive, you have to wonder how a decent guy like Rohrabacher can have anything civil to say to slime like Barney Frank.

If you’re on the Left, the picture is even bleaker. Why on earth is Barney Frank, stalwart champion of every progressive cause under the sun, socializing with not merely a Republican, but a Republican who has a link to a Glenn Beck show on the health care page of his Website and believes keeping illegal aliens away from government funded health care is an important reform measure? Surely Rohrabacher is exactly the kind of guy who wants to destroy the President and has marshaled his Brown Shirts to disrupt town hall meetings. A decent progressive wouldn’t spit on Rohrabacher if he was on fire so why is Frank willing to vacation with him?

My conclusion is that Rohrabacher, Frank, and the rest of the political class simply do not share the hatred and bitterness so prevalent in our current political discussions. Many of them do, however, foment that divisiveness as a means to maintain power and divert attention from more important questions. After all, the worst thing that could happen to all of them is for all of us to realize that they’re a lot more like each other than they are like any of us - and that we’re a lot more like each other than we are like them. Or maybe the worst thing for them would be for us to realize we’re being played for fools by “leaders” whose primary objective is to maintain their own power, privilege, and paycheck - and who don’t much care how much damage is being done to our society by the vitriol they encourage their supporters to unleash on the other guys.

And the best thing for all of us would be to realize the truth of Joseph Addison’s dictum:

A man must be both stupid and uncharitable who believes there is no virtue or truth but on his own side.

Or perhaps simply to realize that those we oppose do not, in fact, have sex with goats.


Grim said...

Or possibly: that we might be able to sort out a way to get along, if we could finally tackle the real enemy in Congress. :)

Cassandra said...

That last line was priceless, Elise :p

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to upset you, Elise; it was kind of a joke. Also, a mild reference to the fact that there are in fact people out there who are immoral, stupid, and monstrous -- unfortunate but true. I'm not silly enough to imagine that they are all contained in one philosophical or political group or another. As far as I can tell, they are extremely hard to categorize in terms of religion, ethnicity, politics, or any other stereotypical category I can think of. And luckily they're usually rare enough that the rest of us can gang up on them, knock them on the head, and keep them from doing too much more damage.

To be perfectly serious: I really couldn't agree with you more than it's very, very hard to conduct rational or civil discussions if we personally demonize our opponents, not because we have videotape of them engaging in monstrous behavior, but just because we believe their ideas are dangerously misconceived. Honest, I do know that people who disagree with me almost always are acting from subjectively admirable motives. My closest friends include as many dyed-in-the-wool progressives as conservatives. I spent more years as a commune-living hippie than I have as a Republican-voting conservative. I still remember what it was like to be coming from where they were coming from. Many of my oldest friends still are coming from there.

-- Texan99

Elise said...

Ah, Grim, pithy as always. And I always say you can't go wrong quoting Lileks, Cassandra.

Elise said...

You didn't upset me, texan99. If you had I would have said so in a response to your comment.

You just truly did make me sit down and think through some stuff that had been rattling around in my head about how some people really *are* serious in thinking their opponents are, well, you know. I actually meant to go back and post a response to your comment that said you'd inspired a whole 'nother post. Best laid plans and all that.

And luckily they're usually rare enough that the rest of us can gang up on them, knock them on the head, and keep them from doing too much more damage.

Well put. I wonder if Grim would consider this a restatement of the "Just War" argument.

Grim said...

Only if we're speaking of war, in which case it is a nice summation of Just War theory's idea of jus ad bellum.

But we are speaking of peace: or, at least, I hope we are.

Elise said...

But we are speaking of peace: or, at least, I hope we are.

I'll second that hope. Great avatar, BTW.

Grim said...

Oh, that's me on Tobias. He was one of my favorite horses that I've ever helped to train. He steered like a wheelbarrow, but when you were in the saddle he never showed panic, alarm, or even concern. He just did what you asked, easy as can be.