When I was a younger reporter, Howard Dean visited my town to hold a rally and for a private fundraiser. Journalists weren’t allowed into the fundraiser — but Dean spoke in the backyard, over a sound system, so I just sat outside the fence and took notes on what he was “secretly” telling Democratic donors.
And one of the things he said was this:
“This is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good.”
Republicans nationwide howled. Drudge featured it on his website. The traffic nearly killed the servers of the newspaper where I worked. And it surprised me. Isn’t this the kind of thing politicians say about their opponents all the time?
I was reminded of that moment today by a blog post from conservative writer David French. French is a social conservative, with beliefs about sex and feminism that I don’t countenance. And in the current Supreme Court brohaha, he has taken the side of Brett Kavanaugh. But I believe him to be honest and even rigorous about how he approaches such questions.
There was a moment in Season 7 of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones that perfectly summed up the state of American politics in a time of negative polarization. Lord Petyr Baelish (better known as Littlefinger) is attempting to poison Sansa Stark against her sister. He approaches her and says, “Sometimes, when I try to understand a person’s motives, I play a little game. I assume the worst. What’s the worst reason they could possibly have for saying what they say and doing what they do? Then I ask myself: How well does that reason explain what they say and what they do?”
I’d submit that we’re all living in Littlefinger’s world, and that we simply can’t understand the fury of either side of the political divide without understanding that this fury develops amidst a presumption of evil. And when there’s a presumption of evil, it’s virtually impossible to cleanse yourself of the stain of any allegation.
…if you want to prove your thesis, there is no shortage of truly bad and truly evil actions — especially online — that can serve as evidence. Each terrible tweet (especially from a blue checkmark) is proof of the “the Right’s” or “the Left’s” true agenda.
I think French is onto something here. We — nearly all of us — have a belief that we’re on the side of the good guys. People who think differently? Bad guys. We’re good at recognizing the side’s motivated thinking. Less great at evaluating our own.
The other day, I mentioned to Rebecca that I have a billion WordPress drafts for this website, essays begun and abandoned because I started to believe I’d was being unfair.
What almost drives me to silence sometimes:
* A belief in my values.
* A recognition that other people also believe their different values are good.
* The possibility they’re right.
* The possibility I’m wrong. (I’m human after all.)
* And, after all that, the need to stand up for what I think is right.
I think the best I can do is to do that standing up, but also to try and extend some charity to people who think differently.
But, mucking it up again, to recognize there have to be limits to that charity. Sometimes wrong is wrong.
There are a few unalloyed heroes and villains in life. Most people, I think, fall in the vast middle ground — often wanting the best, ofen being a bit selfish, and almost as often seeing their own good intentions go completely awry. Life’s a mess.
What does this all mean for debate and inquiry? Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Instead of “Why do those bad people want to do that bad thing?” we should ask instead: “Why do those people think this thing is good? Why do they think the thing I want is bad?”
Asking those questions will only go so far: There are some disagreements, some gaps in values, that simply can’t be bridged. But maybe we can — and should — find a way to be more humble about our stances and a bit more charitable to others, all while standing up for what’s right and against evil where we find it. That’s a godawful balancing act, I think, but the alternative is to rest easy in the comfort of our own self-righteousness. That’s not a belief I trust.