Bad People?

Two years ago, I started this blog with the aim of being different from the usual internet sites where people hurl insults at each other.  I hoped for a forum where people who admit their fallibility could strive for humility and civility towards those they disagree with — where they could learn from each other, or at least effectively explain themselves for the sake of mutual understanding.  To do this, I thought it wise to keep my own political views out of it.

I’ve long been one to play devil’s advocate, trying to spur self-reflection by questioning strong convictions.  As a result, many of my liberal friends consider me a real right-winger, and many of my conservative friends think of me as a leftist.  It’s the price I pay for playing devil’s advocate — for thinking that, through discussion, analysis, and genuine listening, I might  better understand those who see things differently than me. That I might profit from remembering the sign I once put on my office wall:

“Agree with me once and I’ll like you.  Agree with me all the time and I’ll think you’re a fool. Convince me I’m wrong and I’ll be in your debt forever.”

In today’s polarized climate, advocacy for the devil is a risky business.  In a conversation last May, a liberal friend asserted that no thinking person could support Donald Trump.  I offered a few examples of people I thought of as “thinking people” who did.  This fellow promptly dismissed me as a Trump supporter.  In the same way, but from the opposite side, when I’ve told some of my conservative friends that there may be good reason to be concerned about climate change or gun violence or celebrating confederate warriors, I’ve been written off as a liberal and everything I have to say (on any subject) is thereafter dismissed as political correctness. Real discourse shuts down. The devil’s advocate is shunned as the devil himself.

After much reflection, I’m coming out of the closet.  Once and for all, I’d like to assure my conservative friends that I am no liberal, and to assure my liberal friends that I am no conservative.  PLEASE don’t label me just so you can dismiss me.  Meanwhile, I wonder if there are others like me who feel that partisans on both the left and the right are making the same kind of mistake — namely, cutting off their noses to spite their faces with respect to people “in the middle” like me.

The Dictionary of Cliches (James Rogers, Wings Books, 1985) defines that old expression about cutting off noses as “seek revenge for some pain or injury to oneself: a self-defeating action.” I like this definition because I think it usually is pain or injury that makes us seek revenge and renders us likely to disfigure ourselves.

The left and the right both want to win converts, right?  Why is it that, from my perspective, both sides do more to alienate those of us in the middle than to turn us into converts?

I suggest this Einsteinian thought experiment: start with a population of 100 people. Try to arrange them by the extent to which they agree or not, so that you get a sort of continuum in which  #1 and #100 disagree with each other about nearly everything.  While none of them think exactly alike, imagine that #32 and #33 agree on a lot of things, as do #75 and #79.

Now, as I see it, the nose gets cut off this way: #1, who doesn’t agree with #100 as to whether the sky is blue, sees the similarities at that end of the continuum and lumps everyone from #95 to #100 together as idiots.  She offers statements or behaviors by #98 and #100 as proof of how idiotic those above #90 are.  Because#92, #95 and #96 actually disagree with #100 about some of those statements and behaviors, they take offense.  

So they criticize #1 for lumping them together on the basis of things they don’t identify with.  But #1 lashes back, pointing to other things that they DO agree with #100 and #94 about.  #1 reiterates her point: everyone above #90 is indeed an idiot.  She then adds, “now that I think of it, a lot of those in the 80’s aren’t much different either, and by their silence, I have to imagine some of them are idiots too.”  

So now a response comes from #84, taking offense and pointing out the many points of difference among the 80’s and 90’s crowd, and lashing back at #1 for being oblivious to those important differences.

#2 and #5 come to the defense of #1.  As they see it, the charge of being “oblivious”amounts to calling #1 (and anyone who agrees with her) “stupid.”  #2 and #5, in agreement with #1,  resent being called stupid.  They demand  “Are you on our side (that of righteousness), or on their side(that of indecency)?”  

Seeking to restore civility, #65 says, “I’m not really on either side, or more precisely, I agree with some things from each side.”  But the answer comes back from #2 and #5, now joined by #8 and #11, “You admit you agree with #100 about things?  An intelligent person cannot agree with #100.  You, too, are therefore an idiot.”

Over time, this lumping together under derogatory labels has an inevitable effect, and it is not the one intended.  It does not win converts. Whereas people in the 80’s and 90’s formerly thought a lot about their differences with each other and with #100, pretty soon, they come to agree with each other that the “bigger problem” is the threat from “those stupid people below #30.”  They start to label them all together, solidifying them, so that #22 and #28 resent being thrown in with #1 under the label “stupid,” decide that those above #60 are the “bigger threat,” etc.   

Both sides end up with placards and microphones, parading through the streets chanting,”If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Your silence condemns you.”  And pretty soon, #45 through #55 get squeezed out, compelled to side with one side or the other in order to avoid being trampled by both.  At this point, everybody is somebody else’s deplorable.

Presenting this purely as numbers, as I have here, I’m curious how many people, right and left, would say, “well, of course that happens,” but not recognize  their “own side’s” role in the process.

Suppose, for example,that I mention one small part of my personal political beliefs: namely that Donald Trump has done a good job of representing American interests in negotiations with China, North Korea, and Mexico.  Or what if I mention that I approve of his judicial appointments?  Does that anger my liberal friends?  Am I now an “idiot” or a “Trump supporter” or a neo-Nazi because I approve of those particular actions?  

Frankly, I suspect so, in the minds of many.  Because of that realistic possibility, now, out of the closet I must come.  I started WMBW in the autumn of 2016 because I was aghast at the degree of polarizing rhetoric and incivility I saw in the country.  I wanted to work toward harmony between combatants.  The primary impetus was what I saw coming out of candidate Donald Trump. And while I hardly thought he had started the centuries-old process of polarization, and while I hardly thought he was the only arrogant and uncivil public figure around, I did think that some of his statements were among the most arrogant and uncivil  I’d ever encountered.  So I resolved not to vote for him. 

I mention my extreme distaste for the way Donald Trump campaigned –and I now add my extreme distaste for a number of divisive statements and actions he has made since his election — only because of what comes next: namely, my appeal, to my liberal friends and readers, not to cut off your nose to spite your face by driving me into Trump’s camp.  Please don’t alienate me, please don’t turn me into your enemy, by demonizing me as a “Trump apologist” just because I see some good in him and haven’t demonized him with all the venom you have.

Somewhere between #40 and #60, I feel like both sides treat me as their enemy.  The side that’s likeliest to win me over to their thinking is the side that’s going to treat me with respect, to listen to my thoughts, to share their own and to see if we can reach some sort of mutual understanding about the issues (not the people) that separate us.   What I don’t understand is why neither side does that.  What I hear from both sides seems, at times, to insult me, to treat me as an enemy because I sit somewhere in the middle.  Both sides demand my 100% loyalty.  Both sides tell me, in effect, that I’m either with them or against them.  Neither side respects my desire to engage in open-minded discussion of specific issues, whichever side of it I happen to be on

A few weeks back, I posted on this site a piece I titled “The Corruption that Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  The piece contained a number of posters created by graphic artist Jeff Gates.  I’d been attracted to the posters by their message that divisiveness and polarization were doing great harm to the country.  But my deeper look into Mr. Gates’s work revealed that the vast majority of his wrath was directed, not only at President Trump, but at the Republican Party as a whole — and that his attacks on them were highly insulting. 

This past Saturday afternoon, Mr. Gates posted a comment on this website in response to my piece.  His comment included a reference to an article he’d written last year, “Choking on Our Words,” which he said would explain his perspective in greater detail.  You can find his comment and its link to “Choking on Our Words” here on this website.   I encourage you to read both for yourselves.  Meanwhile I have my own observations to share about them.

First, there is much in them I like.  When Gates draws a distinction between “debate” (it “means you’re trying to win”) and “dialectic” (it “means you are using disagreement to discover what is true,”) he gives voice to the raison d’etre for WeMayBeWrong.  (Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more.)  When he writes, “Like many, I’m tiptoeing through a cultural minefield.  Both the left’s politically correct orthodoxy and the right’s intransigence are corrosive,” I feel I’m reading the work of a kindred spirit. When he criticizes the right and left for using phrases like “political correctness” and “racist”as marks of scorn that shut down intelligent dialogue, I want to cheer.  When he writes,“I’m fighting hard to make my way to higher ground, out of this filthy, smoggy air, to a place where we can communicate more constructively,” I want to ask him to dinner — or at least to create another poster, giving visual life to that feeling he has had that I so strongly share.

But there was a reason I titled my post “The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  Those of us who feel aghast at many of Donald Trump’s arrogant statements, who deplore the derisive and polarizing way he insults his opponents and detractors, who feel we’re performing an act of justice by criticizing those specific offensive behaviors — can be corrupted, I believe, by the very self-righteousness our condemnation of such conduct inspires.  We can feel so pained by the behaviors we deplore that we want to strike back, and we do – and that, I think, is when we risk cutting off our noses with tactics designed to win debates rather than get at truth through dialectic.

Mr. Gates writes that the bipartisan posters I liked were “from those early years when it seemed that bipartisanship was possible.”  He writes that there is “no equivalence between the behavior of the GOP and the Democrats.”  He writes that “the fact that the rest of the GOP is silent … is the saddest of all.”  He writes that, as a result, not only Mr. Trump, but the GOP as well, are “valuable subjects for critique and criticism” in a way that he apparently believes is not just a difference in degree, but in kind, from the excesses and failures of various Democrats.

I think it sad that Mr. Gates seems to have given up on bipartisanship. I and many Republicans who remain interested in bipartisanship feel many points of difference between us and our current President.  But the fact that we still agree with some of the things he has done and don’t demonize him in every possible respect, puts us at risk of being lumped together with him in every respect, due to our alleged “silence,” i.e., our lack of complete and total condemnation.  So the Gates posters now attack the entire GOP — and, may I say, insultingly so. To the extent that I (sort of) still consider myself a Republican, he has attacked me.

Am I to mourn the loss of someone who seemed so recently to aspire to bipartisanship?  Or, if Mr. Gates still really desires bipartisanship, should I wonder whether his insults directed at all Republicans are meant to bring them around to his point of view?  If so, I suspect he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.  I don’t see how the insulting criticism of one’s opponents — and even those who occupy a middle ground between one’s self and one’s opponents — gains converts, rather than more enemies.

On November 26, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg titled “Maybe They’re Just Bad People.”  In her piece, Goldberg wrote, “Trump is hardly the first politician to attract self-serving followers…  But Trump is unique as a magnet for grifters, climbers and self-promoters, in part because decent people won’t associate with him.”

Really?  What is the sole basis Ms. Goldberg offers for finding Trump  “unique”? Because “decent people won’t associate with him.”

Well, well. I gather that how many people are”indecent” or just plain “bad” because they associate with Trump depends on how you define “associate with.”  Maybe, Ms. Goldberg is only calling all of Trump’s immediate family bad.  Maybe it’s just everyone who works in the White House, or anywhere in the administration.  Or, more broadly, maybe it’s everyone who ever voted for him, worked for him, or said hello to him on the street one time.  Maybe I’m bad because I’ve approved of some of the things he has done.  Who knows? I know only that, according to Goldberg, decent people simply don’t associate with him, so if I do, I’m bad.

The wide broom that sweeps together anyone who even “associates with” your enemy is the tactic that energized the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, and the worst excesses of McCarthyism — all movements I’d venture to guess Ms. Goldberg deplores.  It’s the wide broom of animosity toward all Muslims that drives some Muslims to become terrorists.  And since Mr. Gates says that Trump is woefully ignorant of the constitution, maybe he can remind Ms. Goldberg that the Constitution guarantees us freedom of association — and that inclusiveness is all about associating with people you may not agree with.  If liberals are so self-righteous in their condemnation of President Trump that they can’t look in the mirror and see this wide broom in themselves, then maybe Mr. Gates is right, maybe there’s no hope left for bipartisanship.   Gates writes that you can’t achieve bipartisanship “when one party refuses to participate.”  I wonder what he’d say about the example Ms. Goldberg appears to endorse.  

In my view, one way to combat polarization is for people on both sides to stop sweeping with such wide brooms.  To stop blaming entire political parties, or religions, or movements for the excesses of individuals among them.    That’s what drives moderates into the opposing camp.  If we don’t like Mr. Trump, or any other politician, let’s start talking about the specific statements and behaviors  we disapprove of — that is, the issues, not the people, or the “team,” we support or deplore.   When people of one party see polarization entirely as the fault of the other — and certainly when they suggest that anyone on the other side may just be “bad people”— then my question is, is any one party to blame, or is it just the difficulty we all have of seeing ourselves as others see us?

Best to all this holiday season,


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4 thoughts on “Bad People?”

  1. I just know, as I tell the college kids at school, my life gets grayer every year. Not much left of black and white anymore.

  2. I must be purely deploable because as time has passed I’ve actually grown to dislike Donald Trump less. I think it’s a built in underdog sympathy I have. i still won’t vote for him but frankly at this point I hope he kicks arse and takes names.

    1. The reaction you describe is predictable, and that’s exactly the point of my “thought experiment.” I think the president’s excesses should be criticized, but when they are met by the excesses of his enemies, it can and does cause a degree of odd, reluctant sympathy for him. Being the most hated person in the world can’t be easy. When the executioner fails to wet the sponge on the serial killer’s head in order to make his death by electrocution more painful, it causes people to feel sympathy for the serial killer. I predict that Mr. Trump will go down, but I don’t want to be among those kicking him in the face as he does so.

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