Where to Go from Here
As of this moment, it looks like Biden is going to beat Trump for the presidency, though it remains uncertain. [Note: shortly after I originally published this piece, the race was called for Biden.] Even though I voted against Trump, I don’t think that voting out Trump will be sufficient to make things right again, nor do I think that all of our country’s problems are caused by any one group of people or worldview. I think Trump is a symptom of our country’s problems as well as a cause; I view getting rid of Trump as a starting point, not an endpoint for a successful liberal democracy in the 21st century.
I also remain politically conservative. For me, that means a few different things, but first and foremost, it means that I believe in the importance of liberty. I will attempt to defend conservative positions more broadly to some extent in my writing, but my focus right now is on arguing for small-l liberalism. When I say that, I am using this definition of the word:
A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.
That is to say, while I believe that being human is a good thing, I am also skeptical of human nature. To me, this implies that giving people authority over others carries inherent risk and should always be limited in its extent, especially when it is backed up by the threat of violence (as it always is with any government action). Whenever it is not possible to avoid this altogether, I think that it should be done with a significant amount of forbearance and transparency.
This written debate between Cathy Young and Daniel Drezner on the danger, or lack thereof, of left-wing illiberalism is an example of the nuance that can be involved when attempting to define what a commitment to liberalism entails. My read of it was that both authors made some good points in response to the other’s argument but that they agreed on more things than they disagreed. And as Drezner wrote in his concluding response, I believe we need to criticize illiberalism wherever we find it and commit ourselves to promoting small-l liberalism across the political spectrum.
So with that said, here are three commitments that I find valuable for myself when attempting to put the political theory of liberalism into practice. I think of them as general predispositions rather than hard-and-fast rules, but my hope is that my readers will find something to agree with in them. They are:
- Practicing a minimal level of civility
- Considering how others’ intuitions may differ from my own
- Not crying wolf (unless and until I see an actual wolf)
This is much easier said than done, however. Each circumstance will have its own aspects that make it unique, and there are often no easy answers when one’s own values come into conflict with each other. Moreover, I don’t think that it would be very wise or very effective to tell my readers what to do in their own lives. Instead, my goal with this essay is to express my values, do my best to live up to them, and let the reader be the judge of whether they are good ones to hold.
I also want to point out that there are many good organizations that I believe are doing this well. Braver Angels and the Nonzero Foundation come to mind. I started this blog as part of my effort to make a contribution to this broad, overarching goal, which I have summed up in my own words with the title, “You Might Have a Point.” I also plan on starting a podcast with the same name and the same goal, but I wanted to put some of my thoughts in writing first. When it comes to something as complex as explaining my own intuitions and values, I like to put a great deal of thought into it, and I find that writing lets me do that best.
Additionally, I want to acknowledge that my life situation makes this easier for me than it can be for others. I don’t view my identity as being threatened right now, and many of my friends and family cannot say the same for themselves. I also recognize that, by themselves, the words of an Internet stranger by themselves do not mean much. That is part of why I have written this essay in the first person and why I will do my best in this blog to make it clear that I am speaking only for myself. Still, I believe that the values that I have expressed in this essay are generally good ones to have, and I hope that my readers will be able to find something to agree with in them.
So with all of that said, I will explain my reasoning for making each of these commitments in turn.
- Practicing a minimal level of civility
Unlike what we saw in that first presidential debate, I don’t think that nearly-constant interruptions, yelling, and an inability to have any sort of meaningful exchange is what we want. (I will say that I didn’t watch it live because I expected that it might turn into that.) On the other hand, I don’t think that a debate where no interruptions are allowed, and you always have to speak in a calm tone of voice, is what we want either. Put another way, I think it’s good to be committed to the logos of a debate, as it were, while also making room for the pathos and the ethos. From what I watched of the clips from the debate and the discussions about it afterward, there was way too much pathos -- that is to say, appeals to emotion, and not the softer, gentler ones either -- and too little of anything else. It was almost, well, pathological.
So when I say that civility is all in all a good thing, I am not asking, “can’t we all just get along?” No, we cannot, nor should we. If we could, then we probably wouldn’t be arguing over whatever it is that we are arguing over, and I don’t think we should if there are real injustices that need to be addressed.
As far as being willing to hold a civil conversation with someone, however, my level of tolerance is fairly high. I am willing to discuss topics on which there is strong disagreement with people who hold a broad range of perspectives, whether you are a Marxist or an anarcho-capitalist, whether you voted for Trump, Biden, or neither of those two candidates, and whether you are an ardent atheist who views religion as a mind virus or you are a deeply religious person who views atheism as a tool of the devil.
This might make me an outlier; part of the reason that I hold this mindset is that I have always been extremely interested in abstract ideas. Yet while my temperament leans heavily towards dispassionate discussion and less towards passionate argumentation, I believe that is important to not ignore the consequences that ideas about politics can have. Disagreements over politics impact real people, and policy decisions have real effects on their lives; to treat a discussion of these issues only as a reasoned intellectual debate would be to ignore the gravitas of the issues that we are discussing. I believe that people can and should express how they feel, and asking them not to, or discounting their feelings as irrelevant, would be wrong.
This is why I am willing to hold different ideas in my head without sacrificing a commitment to say what I believe is right and what I believe is wrong. My desire to seek the truth and to advocate for justice leads me to believe that this is a good and necessary thing to do. While my motivation for having a civil conversation with others with whom I strongly disagree is partly intellectual curiosity, the main reason that I do this is because I believe that it is necessary in order to increase tolerance and show compassion for my fellow humans.
In order to do this effectively, I think that a definition of what civility means in practice can be useful. The one that I like best is the one Teresa Bejan offers in her book Mere Civility: “a minimal, occasionally contemptuous adherence to culturally contingent rules of respectful behavior.” To put it in my own words, I think it can sometimes be appropriate and necessary to express contempt for someone’s views, but it is never appropriate to show a lack of respect for their dignity as a person, even if they don’t show it to you. I say this not only because it goes against my religious beliefs but also because I think that it is not a very effective approach for winning someone over to your side.
Still, doing this is emotionally difficult and takes hard work, and everyone has to decide for themselves what they are willing to put up with. I think that it is hard to hear something from someone else in the best possible way that they could have meant it, and it can often be easier to just stop listening, especially on topics that are emotionally sensitive and with a long and painful history. When your gut is telling you “this person’s views are disgusting, and they have, or they will, lead to a great deal of evil in the world,” then it can sometimes be too much to ask.
Moreover, I think you can and should listen to your gut, and not just your brain, when determining what is right and what is wrong. I mentioned this in my post on the election, but I think it is worth repeating: I think it is possible to do the wrong thing either by relying too much on your gut instincts or by dedicating yourself to logic and reason at the expense of all feeling.
So I want to make it clear that I believe it would be naive to look past our real differences when having a civil discussion, and I don’t believe that we are capable of getting along in the sense of believing in some idyllic fairy tale that ignores reality as we know it. In addition, I also find engaging with ideologies that espouse hatred for others to not be worth my time. Nevertheless, I believe that stretching my ability to understand different viewpoints, without developing a tolerance for hatred or injustice, is well worth it, and I think that a commitment to a minimal level of civility is a key part of that.
2. Considering how others’ intuitions may differ from my own
Intuitions are a tricky thing to define or discuss. One definition of an intuition is “the faculty of knowing or understanding something without reasoning or proof,” but that leaves a lot more that can be said about what it might mean to have an intuition about something.
To describe what this is like in my own head, I’ll reference the beginning of this blog entry (which is not about politics at all but is instead about making career decisions). As that author wrote, my thoughts often start out as feelings which I then try to clarify until they are sound, rational conclusions about what to do or what to say. In his words, “Many of these thoughts often started surfacing as ‘feeling something is not right,’ without consciously understanding what was going on.”
I think that he hit on a subtle point: Negotiating the muddy boundary between feelings and thoughts can be difficult and takes a lot of effort. At minimum, I try my best to avoid being irrational. I also try to be consciously aware of my thoughts, feelings, and intuitions even though I don’t believe that it is possible to come to any conclusion about how to act or what to say by pure reason alone.
Instead, I believe that we speak and act according to what we value. Sometimes we choose to emphasize what we value in that moment, and sometimes we choose to emphasize what we value for all time. Oftentimes our values conflict with one another, making the choice much more difficult. Because of this, I think that it can be useful to recognize that our values are sometimes expressed in the form of intuitions about what the right or wrong thing to do is as opposed to a deliberate reasoning process where we are conscious of exactly what our competing priorities are.
In other words, it seems to me that much of the disagreement that we are seeing in our politics stems from competing intuitions over what values we should hold, who has the most power, and what is worth fighting over.
In addition, even though there are obviously real differences in what Americans value, I think that we can sometimes overestimate these differences if we rely too much on hasty generalizations or quick summaries of what the other side thinks. I find it worthwhile to try to do what I can to work against this tendency without papering over our differences or resorting to cliches.
One of the reasons that I believe in having a discussion over differing intuitions and values is because I believe that, at the macro level, it is necessary in order to prevent violence. While I don’t think violence is justified in America today, my sense is that a tendency to support violence is increasing, and I don’t think that I am alone in this impression: 80% of Americans say they are worried about the possibility of violence in the coming days. Because I share this concern, I believe in doing what I can to work against this trend over the long term.
3. Not crying wolf (unless and until I see an actual wolf)
“It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” -- R.E.M.
Stoking fear and anger is a great way to get people to vote and to donate money, and it is an enduring feature of American politics. I am also not opposed to it for the reason that politics has and will always have significant moral consequences; I think it would be a fool’s errand to try to completely remove our emotions from our decision to support a candidate or to spend money in favor of a cause.
Still, I think that fear mongering is used far more often than it is warranted. As I see it, most campaigns and advocacy groups rely on this tactic when it isn’t justified, and it often leads to some pretty bad side-effects. One of them is that eventually, the politicians and talk show hosts start acting as angry and afraid as they have been claiming that you should be, even if they didn’t believe their own talking points at first. I have seen enough of this from members of both parties on the Senate floor to worry me a great deal about whether they truly have their priorities in order.
Regardless of one’s particular political beliefs, if one sees something that stirs in them a deeply felt moral outrage, I think it is worth considering whether the people who are in power right now, whose side they support, really care as much as they do about their cause. My understanding of human nature leads me to believe that it is more likely that they are manipulating people’s moral consciences for their own cynical purposes. Even if one side is guilty of blatant hypocrisy, I think it is often the case that the other side is as well, even if it’s not to the same extent. I simply don’t trust humans all that much, and I think it can be easy to support the right thing for the wrong reasons, just as it can be easy to support the wrong thing for the right reasons.
I also think that it’s important to recognize these advocacy groups' incentive is sometimes not to speak the truth about the complexities of an issue. Instead, they are using messages, which nowadays they are crafting through clever and technologically sophisticated means, that have the maximum likelihood of getting you to be angry, to share the post, to donate, and whatever you do, to never, ever do anything to support the other side because they are so undeniably evil.
As a Christian, I do think that there is still a lot of evil in the world that I should do my part to combat, but I also agree with Tim Keller that the Christian belief system does not lead one to any easy conclusions about which political party to support. So I am not arguing that expressing anger about injustices in the world is the wrong thing to do, but I do think that it is right to be skeptical of those who seem to be claiming that putting my faith in politics will be the means by which we will finally bring about a world that is perfectly just.
So instead of giving in to alarmism, I am committed to not crying wolf when all I know is that I have been told by my friends on social media that a wolf is just around the corner, or when I think that my neighbor’s vicious-looking dog might as well be a wolf, but instead crying wolf only when I actually see a wolf.
I am making these commitments to myself as part of my effort to advocate for small-l liberalism generally. As I’ve tried to express, I don’t think this is easy, but I think it is worth it. A general predisposition towards civility, cultivating an awareness of others’ differing intuitions, and not overstating my case runs contrary to some of my natural tendencies as a human being. I must admit that I have failed to hold to these things in the past, and because I am human, I will probably do so again. Yet even though holding to these commitments is difficult, I am nevertheless going to do my best to stay true to them anyway.
Finally, while part of me will always have my head in the clouds, thinking of universal principles and general predispositions, I also try to keep my feet on the ground, keeping in mind what is going on right in front of me. Right now, that seems especially hard. Even though, for the most part, it looks like people are not literally coming to blows over this election, it worries me that that was and is a serious possibility.
Things may get worse before they get better, and I can’t know what the coming years will bring. It can feel tempting to despair, and it can feel naive to have hope. Yet even amidst all of the hatred, violence, and grief that is far too common right now, we press on, as individuals, and as a country. So despite all of the legitimate reasons for conflict and all of the real reasons for worry, I pray that your days are filled with a real sense of peace, even if it is temporary, and a real sense of joy, even if it is fleeting.