Philosophy Weekend: Without Blinders

I was talking recently to a friend, a guy I thought was pretty smart, about all the attention the Tea Party movement’s been getting lately. I’m far from a Tea Party conservative — far from a conservative at all — but I wanted to hear my friend’s opinion on a particular point and was disappointed that he reacted to the very mention of the Tea Party with such revulsion and disdain that it became impossible to talk further with him about it.

He had only one thing to say: the Tea Party movement is reprehensible, racist and completely ignorant. He would not dignify it with words; the only proper response was to spit or cuss. Our conversation ended there, and, for me at least, it wasn’t very fun.

Strangely, most conservatives I’ve tried to talk with about politics react the same way to liberal ideas. Not long ago, I found myself chatting on a train with a woman who told me she worked as a hospital bookkeeper. Hoping to liven up the usual boring train-ride chatter, I asked what she thought of Barack Obama’s health care plan. She reacted with disgust and horror, and when I told her that I was happy the bill had passed I instantly saw on her face that our conversation was over. She could barely comprehend that I could be sitting next to her. A few minutes later, I’m pretty sure I overheard her whispering to a friend on her cell phone about the upsetting encounter she’d just had on the train.

One disappointing experience like this after another has taught me a general truth: most modern Americans (and, as far as I can tell, most non-Americans as well) have little tolerance for differing political opinions. Today’s liberal/conservative divide is only one of many examples of this, but it’s a good example to study, because both liberals and conservatives seem to feel so strongly that their opponents are absolutely hopeless.

Speaking in the broadest generalizations, liberals tend to dismiss conservatives as uneducated bigots, while conservatives tend to dismiss liberals as morally depraved airheads. Thus, followers of both parties have truly convinced themselves that they are smarter, more clued-in, more aware, than their opponents. Their mutual disrespect may be their greatest common ground. Here’s a statement that would probably score 90%+ on one of those opinion polls we see so often on television news: “people who disagree with me are not worth talking to.”

This is very unfortunate. I began this weekend philosophy series on Litkicks because I care deeply about how well I think, and about how well the people who surround me and co-exist with me think. I don’t particularly care about academic philosophy, about what professors and experts think. My interest is in the common philosophies that most of us live by every day.

But I find myself constantly blocked, as I try to think of intelligent things to write here every weekend, by the sheer negativity I encounter when I try to bring up provocative or controversial topics in person with people I know. How can I believe that anyone will read the words I write with an open mind, when so many people I know — smart people, politically conscious people! — are so proud to display their closed minds in public when they talk? It’s hard for me to resist the temptation to simply give up. The “my opponent is stupid” meme, or virus, or whatever we want to call it, has taken a terrible toll on our public dialogue today.

The tendency to believe our opponents are stupid goes hand-in-hand with our tendency to believe our opponents are evil (whatever exactly that word may mean). Liberals may believe that conservatives are motivated by some kind of societal resentment or envy, and are thus implacably destructive to the world’s hopeful future. Conservatives may believe that liberals have lost touch with good, simple values, and present a real danger to their families and their ways of life. It’s hard to resist the passionate power of these highly-charged viewpoints.

But we must resist, if we are going to think clearly, and if we value truth. I’m going to try to lay down this basic principle here today, in the hope that this principle will stand as a pillar in future discussions: a true philosopher will always treat opposing ideas with respect. A person who cares about truth will not wear blinders.

The harder it is to treat an opponent’s ideas with respect, the more important it is to do so. If you are a liberal, you should try as hard as you can to really understand the conservative point of view in its best possible light. If you are a conservative, you should try as hard as you can to really understand the liberal point of view in its best possible light. The reward for doing so will be the greater understanding gained in the process.

If you think your opponents are not just wrong but truly evil and dangerous (and, in fact, many modern Americans do seem to feel this way about their opponents), then you have a harder challenge, but no less an important one. You must protect what you value — your ideals, your family, the rights of your neighbors, the security of your way of life — while still managing to treat your opponents with respect. The good news here is that, even if your opponent does turn out to embody the very spirit of evil, you will lose nothing by having treated this opponent with respect even while guarding against his or her influence.

This basic principle is hardly my own original idea. It was held tightly by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It’s because the Athenian philosopher Socrates always entertained opposing ideas with bemused respect that Plato’s dialogues are so fascinating and valuable today. Finally, it was Jesus, right there in the Gospels, who told us to turn the other cheek. This wasn’t idle advice 2000 years ago, and it’s not idle advice today.

A person who cares about truth will not wear blinders. With this principle in place, the work of philosophy can begin.

16 Responses

  1. I think we reduce our
    I think we reduce our ideological “enemies” or opposites, or whatever term is used, to the worst possible example of that philosophy. For liberals, all conservatives are like Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and that Texas Congressman (Louie Gohmert) who had a mental breakdown on live TV the other day about “terrorist babies” while being interviewed on CNN. I don’t know who embodies the liberal extremes for conservative, because I am not a conservative. For me, as a liberal who is paid to write a political column for an alternative weekly newspaper, that extreme on the left are the self-proclaimed “anarchists,” who (at least where I live) are mostly the disaffected progeny of rich parents trying to, well, I don’t know what motivates them. But they can be annoying, loud, self-righteous and arrogant, same as Rush Limbaugh, Beck, et al.

    At the present moment, the conservative “philosophy” has hardened around these extremes, and the hate that is at its core is fanning the fear and divisiveness in people with similar views and less self-control (or money) (indeed, I think that Beck and Limbaugh are circus clowns who know where the money is). This cannot be denied. Nor can the fact that this rhetoric is partly (I said, partly) fueled by the fact that a black man is in the White House.

    However, you and I both know that not ALL conservatives are like this. My father, an Army colonel, was as rock-ribbed a Republican as they come and I had, at one time, hair down to my ass and listened to acid rock and yet we still managed to have interesting conversations about current events. That has changed.

    What to do about it? Just as you have tried to do with the people you meet. Stand by your ideals, respect the right of others to their own philosophies and hope the pendulum swings your way again, that the nation’s policies reflect the common good. That’s the part that drives me the most over the edge; that is, that many of the policies that the right wing extremists scream the loudest about are ones from which they too benefit, as American citizens.

    Anyway, that’s my initial reaction. I’ll think some more on this.

    Quite a thoughtful post.

  2. “Speaking in the broadest
    “Speaking in the broadest generalizations, liberals tend to dismiss conservatives as uneducated bigots, while conservatives tend to dismiss liberals as morally depraved airheads”

    ok, but doesnt your whole argument depend on categorically dismissing conclusions that some people are racist and ignorant? that would make sense, as long as we could agree that no one is racist and ignorant.

    of course, i realize thats not what you’re doing. however, using the tea party argument (which, if your friend really did refer to them as “tea partiers,” that puts him a step ahead of me already) is a tough one. because a very rational argument can be made that the nature of the tea party, by directly and outwardly identifying itself as being associated with the original tea party via “taxation without representation” is, on its face, ignorant, and, when you combine provable ignorance (like when they continue to argue that, no, really, the problem IS taxation without representation) with the possibly coincidental but still unexplained (by them) reactionary attitudes toward obama, then it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that there is at the very least some serious latent racism going on.

    whether apparently willful ignorance and possibly subtle racism is “reprehensible” is another question, but not to be simply dismissed, i dont think.

    the philosophical question i would pose to you is: in the realm of debate, is it ever reasonable to “turn the other cheek?” is it possible that you’re conflating two different sets of behavior? while i would never start (or join) a physical conflict with any one of the members of my own family who identify as tea ba—excuse me, tea partiers—i wouldnt hesitate to tell them that i thought their ideas had tinges of racism and ignorance in them, were they to fail to provide better explanations for their apparently irrational points of view. in fact, if that becomes the logical or most reasonable, rational conclusion about their views, in the context of a discussion, isnt it my responsibility to express my conclusions clearly, in order to be understood?

    is it NEVER appropriate to tell someone you think they’re acting like an asshole?

  3. “Strangely, most
    “Strangely, most conservatives I’ve tried to talk with about politics react the same way to liberal ideas.”

    I’m kind of surprised about that. I think a lot of conservatives would shy away from such conversations, especially with people they don’t know. No one wants to be called names and villified.

    Most of the scapegoating, hate-mongering and hatred comes from the left/liberal side — at least at the higher levels where there ought to be an intellectual argument rather than a visceral one.

    There’s a saying that the left thinks conservatives are evil Conservatives just think liberals are wrong.

    I agree with you Levi, where you are coming from 100%

    Politics is a nasty business though and its best to stay away from it, especially when oddly, politics isn’t all that much about politics.

  4. Thanks for these responses.
    Thanks for these responses.

    Alan, I would say that the liberals most conservatives love to hate are Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton (always and forever) and maybe Michael Moore.

    Sean, that’s a great question about whether or not it’s ever right to just call someone an asshole. I would say yes, it is. But the difference I’m suggesting is that you should always have the patience to try to redeem them. Even when it’s hopeless.

    I mock people a lot. I was just yesterday insulting Ben Quayle on Twitter. But, I always avoid dogmatic positions, and I always consider it possible that I may be wrong about something — who knows, for instance, maybe this Ben Quayle (son of Dan, who appears to be just as much a lightweight as his father) will really amount to something. I’m not saying it’s important to be of two minds, or to change your mind. I just think it’s important to have an open mind.

    And when it’s hardest to do so — when the other person’s opinion or position really drives you up the wall — that’s when it’s most important to do so.

  5. Years ago, as a very minor
    Years ago, as a very minor operative in the Democratic party, I was often as appalled by the intolerance of my so-called liberal colleagues as I was by that of conservative Republicans. My political sympathies evolved from watching the civil rights protests on television as a small boy. I was horrified by the actions of Bull Conner and other southern sheriffs when confronted with the passive resistance of people demanding their constitutional right to equal treatment under the law. Such images made it understandable to me that my party colleagues would react so strongly to the bigotry they perceived in others, but I did not share their strong feelings and did not understand them.

    My exposure to the party hierarchy, however, left me with a different impression. I attended a national party meeting in Denver back in 1981. There was an attempt by representatives of a major party constituency to make a major issue of apartheid. The reaction of the party leadership was swift and strong enough to make it clear to me that the party, basically, had no interest in the views of that constituency. The attitude seemed to be of the nature of, you got your voting rights, your food stamps and your AFDC money, now don’t bother us for more. When one looks back at how “Welfare” came into existence, it is evident from the writings of Clowart and Piven that “Welfare” was viewed as a means of social control, not only of the working class, but of rebellious members of a downtrodden race whose expectations were rising, who could thus be viewed as dangerous. One can’t forget that Crane Brinton made his analysis of revolutions at about the same time.

    So I wonder if much of the political correctness of so many “Liberals” isn’t somewhat akin to homophobia. Not wishing to acknowledge that they are closet racists they vociferously point out racism in others. That sort of ferocity usually stems from projection. One musn’t forget that Liberals, generally, are on the side of the system, and simply wish to save it from its tendency to run amuck at times.

    On the other hand, among Republicans, it is simply about the money. Ever since the Reagan era the wealth of the plutocracy has swelled out of all proportion to what it claims is the principle benefit capital confers on society. This has been made possible by a number of factors: including tax cuts, dispatriation of labor, and increasing socialization of external costs. The Plutocracy has done such a wonderful job of convincing people of the rightness of its cause, and the benefits that will accrue to society as a whole, that anyone who challenges them is viewed as unworthy of speaking to.

    But again, I think denial is at work here. For while most of us have spent the last thirty years believing those benefits would accrue to us, they most manifestly have not, and this makes people angry, and they simply do not wish to believe that they could have been so easily defrauded.

    Moreover, the Plutocracy is so effective at thought control (through control all the major media outlets,) by pointing fingers hither and yon, anywhere but at itself. People are so spun around that finding the right culprits becomes like the child’s game of pin the tail on the donkey. People continue to believe everything they are told by their leaders not only because the worst of them are so outspoken, but those who would seem to be the best, not only lack all conviction, but in truth, are silently complicit.

    With no resistance from any quarter, including the captive Oval Office, the rich will continue to hold sway, until no cards are left to prop up the house.

  6. i agree completely.
    i do find

    i agree completely.

    i do find it curious, tho, that there seems to be an increase in pleas for tolerance lately, and that they seem connected to the tea party thing.

    irrational conclusions about people are bad but what makes them irrational is the process of drawing the conclusion, so i think it’s important to point out (because there a lot of people suddenly advocating moral relativism, i think, on the basis of the appearance of the conclusions, even as they ignore the process) that extreme conclusions are not the same as irrational conclusions, even though they often look the same when the conclusions are actually made.

    the tea party thing is a very specific, very narrow, very clear issue.

    maybe the rise of internet, word-based exchanges of ideas is causing part of the problem…i think some people see it as an exchange of ideas alone, and some people attach more emotional significance to it, but there is more of a disconnect than there used to be, when people actually argued directly, involving physical and direct emotional implications, which might explain why some people are more likely to “call a spade a spade” and why others may tend to interpret rhetorical attacks as personal attacks. both, i guess, are reasonable responses…we’re still in a period of adjustment, with lots and lots of “new” people joining the fray every day, and both groups are probably making tons of mistakes.

  7. Well said Tim Chambers.

    Well said Tim Chambers.

    I’d say though that the plutocrats are, or use, Democrats about as much as Republicans nowadays.

  8. By just writing that you are
    By just writing that you are defeating all the negatives you mention.

  9. extreme polarization sludge
    extreme polarization sludge has taken over the politics of the county due mainly to the re-election process. the parties have reduced themselves to leveraging media to ignite political media bombs. collecting enough donations and getting enough votes. the actual legislation is just pay back, usually. there really should be an effort to limit terms. the unfortunate part is that what they do is actually very important and has consequences. if we got their minds off getting re-elected, they could do very good things. important things. and they still do good and important things despite the sludge. however, the other aspect of our current political state is the pure entertainment value. because this is interesting and very funny. fox and msnbc illustrate this firmly. to my daughters disgust, when i watch tube i flip around. flip from fox to msnbc. watch them cover the same stories. this might be a way to start the process of understanding both sides. the stars are in the media. the caricatures are mainly true. since downgrading politics to an entertainment level as opposed to a guiding light level in the volatile regions of my mind, my perspective has broadened considerably. if the truth were told, bush and obama were and are disappointments to the extreme reaches of their parties, especially economically. we muddle in the sludge, day after day. we get updates every night. debates, 6 on the screen at the same time. all talking. some disagreeing, some not. eventually, scope broadens and blinders fall. the proper citizen’s perspective is gained.

  10. Levi, I know this isn’t
    Levi, I know this isn’t really the point, but I’m curious as to why you approve of the health bill passing?

    I was laid off from my job on May 24th and it just so happens that because of the health bill, I only have to pay 35% of my COBRA fees per month. I made the cutoff date by one slim week.

    So I’m personally benefitting right now from that health bill passing. Puts $1100 per month bac in my pocket.

  11. I suspect when Jesus said
    I suspect when Jesus said ‘turn the other cheek’ he may have been teaching people how to duck. I think Jesus was actually pretty good with his fists. I’ve heard that he beat up a bunch of guys in a temple once.

    In general, I agree with your view on an intellectual level, Levi. However, this is a country built on the shocking and horrendous idea that some humans have a divine right to the earth and others do not have any rights whatsoever. That is the founding principle of this country, whatever one might read in a document or hear in a political speech. It is the actions that have spoken clearly, while the words have provided the cover story.

    By the way, there have been philosophers who thought other people and opponents were completely stupid and pathetic. Nietzsche comes to mind.

    The United States is built on the backs of broken people without whom the country would not exist. It is this corrupt foundation that underlies what is emerging today with our first real steps toward maturity. The festering wounds are opening for some reason and it’s all spilling out. We happen to be living in a time when the country is fragmenting in a very real sense. It’s a very dangerous time. You have law enforcement in places like Arizona talking about being at war with the federal government. This is very significant and real revolt talk. People are talking about ideas while other people are putting guns in their basements getting ready for something.

    Martin Luther King made many changes but he did not change any minds. Those minds are still out there in just the same numbers they were in 1960. They have not changed. They have just been on their best behavior. Lying low. Smiling and waiting. And their children too.

    I think it all boils down to a very simple thing. There are still people who believe in slavery and those who don’t. Fundamentally, when you push through all the bullshit, that’s what it comes down to.

    You cannot reconcile those two groups through intellectual means under most circumstances. No one has done it yet. It remains to be done.

  12. Woa. I’m late to the party.

    Woa. I’m late to the party.

    I think both sides act this way because it is now our default behavior to characterize people who disagree with us as different and separate from us.

    It is much easier for us to feel hate/disgust/disdain for them or to harm them if we feel that they are different from us, if we feel that they do not love people and the country as we do. If we feel they are not as educated as we are.

    Soldiers use more extreme versions of this behavior when they refer to people they must harm as targets or bogeys. Depersonalization always makes it easier.

  13. Thanks again for the further
    Thanks again for the further responses …

    Steve, I don’t want to blather about “politics” but I wrote a bit about the Health Care debate (and touched on some of the same points I mentioned here) back in March, after seeing Obama speak at a rally for the bill in Fairfax, Virginia.

  14. “Could barely comprehend that
    “Could barely comprehend that I could be sitting next to her”–that’s great!

    I always end up conflicted on this issue. On the one hand I, like you, think that people would be better off if we could have respectful discussions on the issues.

    On the other hand, I really believe that the people who dug this country into a ditch in the previous administration did something that was smug and really harmful. Can I feel anything other than that they were wrong, and unrepentant? Would I rather be politically correct (tolerant) than stand up against something bad?

  15. Coming across this post is
    Coming across this post is exceptionally apt for me today — I’m Australian, and today is voting day for our federal election. The thoughts you’ve expressed in this piece have really resonated with me. Throughout the election campaign here I’ve noticed a lot of personal vilification against candidates by people I know (Facebook seems to be a wonderful outlet for these attacks), with grandiose, general and largely ignorant solutions suggested. My social circumstances have me surrounded by a lot of people who identify with the left, so most of my frustration stems from the attitudes I’ve seen expressed on this side of the fence. It’s disturbing how far reaching ignorance stretches these days. For instance, I’ve heard and read so many claims of outrage against major Australian parties’ intolerance and close-mindedness when it comes to helping vulnerable members of our community. In the next sentence though, there’s often a dig at candidates personal attire, physical appearance, even how they walk!

    I consider my political and social views to reside left of the middle, but I find myself more and more disillusioned with the overall mentality of absolute right and wrong that seems to have permeated amongst a lot of people that I interact with. Throughout this election, people have taken to posting profile pictures stating the political party they are voting for onto their Facebook page. It seems like a lot of people are using their voting preferences as a means of asserting some kind of moral superiority amongst a perceived or imagined populace. Perhaps it has always been like this, and I’m only just waking up to it. The whole attitude doesn’t shout political awareness to me, but rather an adolescent, close-mindedness regardless of what side of politics you subscribe to.

    BTW, I am looking forward to reading more posts in this series!

  16. Levi, I agree with what you
    Levi, I agree with what you say about intolerance in both parties (towards each other). Political dogmatism is especially absurd–and glaring–when, from an external perspective (like European points of view), the two main parties in the U.S. are strikingly similar, not radically different.

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