I thought about beginning this post with a not-so-subtle comparison of the current political situation and discourse with the most gossipy and mean-spirited parts of the elementary school playground. Although something about this metaphor appeals to me, I decided against it because I risked doing that which I intend to critique: Dogmatically retaliating against the expression of opinions that oppose mine. So, instead of beginning with satire, let me begin with a confession: I used to think of pubs and bars as immoral places.
As an immature but conscientious teetotaler, I believed it was morally wrong to drink alcohol. Alcohol clouded the brain and conscience, often leading to forms of stupidity and infidelity. This belief led me to avoid physical spaces and social situations that involved alcohol, and consequently most of my friends were teetotalers like me. Although I still abstain from alcohol, my views on alcohol-providers and alcohol-drinkers have become much more nuanced and tolerant: While acknowledging that alcohol consumption is positively correlated with violent crime and riskful behavior, I no longer think that drinking alcohol is immoral, except in excess or in the case of someone who has made a commitment not to drink it. In those cases, however, what is wrong is not drinking alcohol per se, but irresponsibility and disloyalty. As this understanding has developed, so has my exposure to drinking culture. Never having been inside a bar, I imagined it as a dingy place reeking of hookup culture and sketchy business deals. I’m sure there are bars of that character, but I have also seen bars that are classy, happy places. I recently went with the other doctoral students in my department to a bar to celebrate the end of one phase of our qualifying exams. They ordered drinks and I ordered fish tacos. We had a good time, pleasant conversation, and some well-earned relaxation. My colleagues understand and support my abstinence from alcohol, and I respect their drinking. I think we are better friends because of the way we have negotiated our drinking differences.
My experience is not entirely analogous to the contentious clash of opinions we see in political discourse these days, but I think it illuminates something important: Simplistic morally-charged opinions impede connection while nuanced and open perspectives do the opposite. Both Democrat and Republican discourse relies on a sense of what it morally right–think, for example, about how many times President Obama has asserted, “It’s the right thing to do.” I recognize that this is a rhetorical device, but I just don’t believe that morality is that simple, with few exceptions. Alcohol-consumption is a relatively innocuous example, and it is not simple. How can issues like immigration or universal health care be less complex?
And yet, there is an increasing sense that certain opinions are so morally abject that they should not even be allowed expression. I saw this first-hand during the filming of Courteous Conversations when people who oppose gay marriage were afraid to articulate that opinion because of the potential repercussions. These concerns were, I’m afraid, legitimate. Opposing gay marriage has become a risky thing to do. (I do not believe that all opponents of gay marriage are bound to be martyrs–perhaps the worst one would experience is a taste of unpopularity–but there are real and potentially severe social consequences for publicly espousing this opinion.)
This would not be a particularly bad thing given two conditions, which seem implicit in much of leftist rhetoric: 1. if there were truly no legitimate reason to have that opinion and 2. if silencing those voices would ultimately be productive. In short, I believe neither of these conditions holds. I think that there are legitimate reasons for opposing gay marriage and I believe that silencing certain opinions is more dangerous than the harm that may have resulted from their expression.
Some seem to disagree, at least implicitly. Social media-driven movements like “Long Live the Queen” and “The Bay Don’t Play” rise in response to hate speech, violently shutting down even the expression of prejudice.They justify their rough rhetoric and methods by arguing that their social censorship will not only send a strong message to those who traffic in hate, but also protect vulnerable minds from being corrupted. If we quarantine prejudice now, they seem to think, it will not infect our children, and will eventually die out.
This approach might work in some ways. Political peer pressure may create pockets of relatively like-minded people. Writ large, would this eventually create a society clean of hate? Is prejudice the type of pathogen that can be treated in this manner? Perhaps. Even if it is, though, there’s still something wrong with our strategy: To quarantine a disease is not to treat the diseased. We must not forget that, like all viruses, prejudice requires a host. In the long run, a quarantine approach can only work if the host is killed, sterilized, or healed. But instead of healing, we shun. We banish homophobes and racists (along with those to whom we ascribe these identities) to whatever political leper colony they can find, and wait for them to die out.
If prejudice is a disease, it is surprisingly resilient, and banishment is an unsurprisingly ineffective treatment. Putting a lid over a fire will extinguish it, but covering steam turns it into a bomb. My fear is that silencing certain opinions will not cure society; it will only delay–and in delaying, aggravate–the confrontation; eventually the pressure cooker will explode. We may be witnessing some of that explosion now, as Trump and others flaunt political incorrectness. With this, I do not intend to condone hateful words and actions. But I also refuse to condone the self-righteous political-moral certainty that silences those opinions; it is simply a more popular and politically acceptable form of prejudice.
If our society is sick with bigotry and hate, those infected with it must be treated in the hospital of hope and brotherhood, not banished to the island of deplorables. Like any good medical treatment, we must approach our patients as people. We must humanize our medical/political approach, and not deal in generalities or collectives, but in individual relationships. As a side note, this is why I was not at all outraged by Jimmy Fallon’s “humanizing” ruffle of Trump’s hair. Even if the worst reductio ad Hitlerum predictions about Trump were true, does that necessarily mean that Fallon was wrong to treat him like a human, laughing with him and not railing against him? Hitlers are, after all, created by societies; they do not come into the world intent on committing genocide. Alienating and polarizing interactions accumulate over a lifetime until, eventually, they outweigh empathy. In our thinking about how to avoid another Hitler, we tend to compare ourselves with the Weimar Republic and nearby European countries, and list everything we must beware of in an aspiring populist leader. This makes us hypersensitive to the dangers of appeasement. But what if we compare ourselves instead to the diplomats involved in the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I? What reparations would we assign, in our supposedly righteous indignation, to the patently culpable (and deplorable) German state? Hitler arose just as much from the embers of retribution as he did from the winds of appeasement. If we are so concerned about another Hitler coming to power, we should take care to not create the social conditions from which he would arise.
Yeats was both insightful and prophetic when he wrote in 1919, the same year of the Paris Peace Conference, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity” (The Second Coming). The passionate intensity in both prejudice and politics stems from underlying ailments that will not be cured through shunning and silencing. What is at issue here is social (and societal) relationships. The silent treatment, favorite method of the narcissist, never improves marriages; listening and compromise do.To really listen and really compromise, we must relinquish the certainty of self-satisfaction and simplistic morality, and allow for goodness, truth, and beauty in the Other.