Sunday, July 9, 2017

In Person and Online, In and Out of Politics

Joshua Rothman describes his Long Island town in the run-up to a bitterly contested local election:
As election day approached, life in the village seemed to have divided into two streams—a neighborly stream, which ran pure and clear, and a political stream, which was muddied and turbulent. When you met a neighbor in line at the pharmacy, it was easy to get along. But at home, contemplating his political position—or, worse, reading about it online—you were filled with contempt and disbelief. People were friendly on the street but angry in their heads; they chatted amiably in person but waged war online. They liked and loathed one another simultaneously, becoming polarized not just politically but emotionally. As the weeks passed, we were doubly in suspense. We wanted to know which party would win, but also whether our town could return to normal. Feelings had been aroused that seemed incompatible with neighborly life. Where would they go?
As Rothman says, following political scientist Nancy Rosenblum, these two worlds can co-exist peacefully most of the time. I'm personally quite comfortable with this sort of thing; I have several friends whose politics are pretty much opposite to mine, and really it has never occurred to me to think that most people agree with me or ought to. But is that really sustainable, socially or morally?
Pluralism feels good in practice. It’s in theory that it’s hard to accept. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, published in 1989, the philosopher Richard Rorty placed the yearning for ethical consistency at the root of Western thought. From Plato onward, Rorty wrote, moral philosophers have attempted “to bring together the public and the private, the parts of the state and the parts of the soul, the search for social justice and the search for individual perfection.” The goal was, in effect, to create a universal list of virtues, which applied equally to children, parents, spouses, citizens, and generals. No such list exists. The qualities that make you a good boss won’t necessarily make you a good parent; the qualities we value in a romantic partner may not be the ones we value in a friend. The word “good” means different things in different spheres. Our values aren’t conveniently unified. They’re discontinuous.

And yet a variety of forces push us toward holism. Transparency is one of them: when your e-mails are leaked, or your hot-mike blunders are unearthed, your “protean” personality becomes a vulnerability. Social media, too, tend to make us more holistic, because they construe the airing of political views as an act of friendship. And the moral arguments in favor of holism are powerful. Activists seek to live holistic lives, and we often admire them for it.
These are, I submit, fundamental questions. Can someone really be a good person while having awful political opinions? When are your neighbor's political views so dangerous that it becomes wrong to say "hi" on the sidewalk? I lean pretty far toward the tolerant side, because I think anything else is just unrealistic. We don't live in a village, but in a nation of 300 million, and that of necessity means we have fellow citizens with every shade of opinion. Beyond that I am just very uncomfortable judging people for the content of their beliefs. To me prosecution for heresy was one of the most awful things about medieval and early modern society, and I have no interest in bringing back such persecution. It is only what people do that we have any right to judge.

To me the point of politics is to help us fashion a good society to live in. A society in which we are always at our neighbors' throats is not a good one to live in. Since we are not all going to agree, we have to tolerate disagreement. How much disagreement we can tolerate while still remaining a viable democracy is a very important question to which we have no clear answer, but my guess is, quite a lot. How much anger directed against their own identities and beliefs we can ask other people to tolerate is another hard question, but my basic feeling is that to get along in the world we have to grow a thick skin against hurtful opinions.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"Beyond that I am just very uncomfortable judging people for the content of their beliefs. To me prosecution for heresy was one of the most awful things about medieval and early modern society, and I have no interest in bringing back such persecution. It is only what people do that we have any right to judge."

What if someone's beliefs are awful, and lead them to support or contribute to real, objective harm?

Tolerance is for those things that there is no real answer to. If one person insists there's a god, and another insists there isn't, neither of them is hurting the other or anyone else in that insistance, and neither of them can realistically prove the matter one way or the other, and thus tolerance is called for.

The same conditions apply in matters such as homosexuality and gay marriage. Whether or not you believe homosexuality causes "harm" is subjective, in that it is based in religious notions of "sin", not in observation based science.

Thus, if members of a religion wish to refrain from homosexuality, or to exclude homosexuals from their congregation, that's their right and their choice, and we all need to tolerate it. But at the same time, if people outside their congregation feel no need to refrain from homosexuality, that's their right and their choice, and no one else has the right to be intolerant of them, or work to deny them the freedom and ability to thus choose.

But what about situations where the determination of harm is not subjective? Where it is demonstrably, rationally, scientifically real?

If one person insists that we need to take away health insurance coverage from 23 million poor and vulnerable people in order to give the rich a tax cut, and the other person insists that's monstrous because it will result in untold numbers of people dying for lack of health care, there is absolutely a real answer to the issue. The person who wants poor people to die so that rich people can get richer is objectively wrong, and "tolerating" their belief is in turn also wrong.

Tolerating and respecting someone else and their opposing beliefs is only possible when both views can coexist without infringing on the other. There can be no tolerance between, for example, Jews and Nazis, because there is no world in which the two can peacibly coexist.

In theory, a person could believe in the total eradication of all Jews everywhere, but never act on it. But that simply does not happen in reality. If it was just a belief privately held, we could tolerate it. But some beliefs are themselves intolerable, because they inevitably lead the people who hold them to take intolerable actions. Political views do not exist in a vacuum, and a Nazi who wishes to exterminate the Jews will over time work to change the world into one where they can eventually get away with the Final Solution they believe in so strongly.