The recent US election highlighted to the world how incredibly divided Americans are. They disagree. But they don’t just disagree. They’ve become increasingly, openly, and explicitly hostile toward one another. They’ve become increasingly likely to view those “on the other side” as stupid, or even wicked—as being, and implementing, evil. And sometimes people act, even violently, on this hostility.
Americans are hardly unique here, of course. Disagreement is everywhere. Humans have surely always disagreed, even on fundamentals. And other places are even worse, of course, in the hostility between people who see things differently. In their hostility people literally kill each other—by the dozens, hundreds, thousand, even millions.
There’s surely a better way!
The political left is always touting the virtues of tolerance, and understanding, and acceptance. They’re right! We aren’t going to suddenly stop disagreeing with each other. (The only places where disagreement isn’t openly vocalized are places where people are politically suppressed—afraid to say what they think. [Orwell’s 1984 is a must-read for the sake of our species.]) But for our own sakes, we have to learn to disagree without killing each other.
‘Tolerance’ is about tolerating—putting up with—living with—being OK with—people, even when we think they’re seriously wrong. (One literally cannot tolerate what one agrees with.) ‘Understanding’ means understanding why others see things the way they do, even if we don’t think they’re right. And if we’re going to do these things, and actually get along, we have to actually listen to each other. We have to seriously try to understand. And we have to stop condemning each other—stop assuming, or portraying each other, as stupid or evil.
A local friend of mine, Randal Rauser, wrote a little book entitled, You’re Not as Crazy as I Think, and another entitled Is the Atheist My Neighbor? [Rauser Books] They’re aimed primarily at Christians, but to help them see that people who see things differently than they are not necessarily crazy. That’s the spirit we must adopt if we’re going to live together peacably. This doesn’t entail agreeing. But we can learn to understand and get along even if we don’t agree.
In the States, though the left has these correct core values, they have not been acting very consistently with them. (Practicing what we preach is not something we humans excel in.) The left expresses clear contempt for those who see things differently. They express utter incomprehension. No attempt to understand. Indeed the opposite; intentional misrepresentation of their opponents and portraying them as incomprehensible (hence stupid or wicked). They castigate the right for intolerance, and lack of understanding and acceptance of others. But they’re hardly practicing what they preach. They “tolerate” and “accept” their favourites, but not those with the temerity to actually disagree with them!
Logicians identify as the “Strawman Fallacy” the technique of “refuting” your opponents by mischaracterizing–caricaturing–their positions to make them easy to refute. But, of course, one hasn’t refuted their actual positions at all, but the mischaracterizations–the “strawmen”–set up for this deceptive purpose. This is plainly politicians’ techique number one. (Political discourse is an a treasure trove of logical fallacies.)
The political right is no better, of course. I suppose this has always been going on. But I believe the recent descent into mutual incomprehension, contempt, and condemnation began with the conservative talk-show hosts. The demand for what they did was created by an otherwise obviously-left-leaning media. But they portrayed the left in extreme terms and were frankly unfair in their characterizations. Seeing their enormous success, however, the left quickly followed suit—with similar success—especially with their comedians. Again, caricature, unbalanced presentation, portraying others as obvious morons. Both sides outdoing each other in their intentional incomprehension and condemnation of the other—reinforcing their troops with repeated demonstrations of the stupidity and wickedness of the other side. Not that there isn’t plenty of stupidity and wickedness actually out there. But it’s often exaggerated and found where it isn’t.
Irony of ironies, Donald Trump is now President of the U.S. largely because of the contempt with which the left saw, and portrayed, those who do not see things the way they do. People began realizing that the left had utter disregard and contempt for them, and for how they see things. And they decided to send the same message back through the ballot box—with the utter lack of subtlety required to ensure that the message was not missed.
We’ve gotten to this place, unfortunately, because political villainization works. People buy it. They begin thinking that those other people really are stupid or evil–more than we all are. And this drives them to the polls. They need to protect themselves! So this is now standard political operating procedure.
But if we’re going to avoid killing each other in the end, and we want a better world, I suggest we resist this temptation. Let’s opt for a better way—exactly the way the left preaches so well but practices so poorly:
Let’s actually listen to each other.
Let’s actually get to know each other.
And let’s actually try to understand rather than misunderstand the other. (“Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” as Stephen Covey puts it.)
We’ll always have our disagreements—though they may actually be reduced. But at least we’ll think less ill of each other. We may think the other is wrong. But at least we’ll understand how an intelligent, ethical person might think that. We’ll be slower to condemn, or assassinate each other’s characters.
We’ll be less likely to end up killing each other.