Democracy Is Infuriating. Stop Taking It Personally
Pulling the United States back from the brink means those living in the “home of the brave” will need to develop a thicker skin
It shouldn’t be that hard to separate the people that are just trying to deflect or stifle debate from those seriously grappling with important questions. But in a society that is experiencing a rapid decline in critical thinking skills, it’s the deflectors and stiflers that are currently ascendant.
I’m not a fan of political correctness either as a phrase or in practice. Correctness and politics ideally intersect only when we translate sound ideas into policy. Originally the term referred specifically to the strict adherence to a particular political view or ideology — one was either correctly or incorrectly towing the party line as it were. Assuming Wikipedia’s history of political correctness is accurate, its contemporary usage didn’t begin to emerge until the early 1970s.
Conservatives, in particular, have turned political correctness into a rhetorical bludgeon. Sadly, their opponents have often been willing to oblige them by providing examples of the practice that range from silly or annoying to loud and occasionally violent. Plain old correctness got lost in the increasingly odious political fog produced in the process. Being respectful and polite shouldn’t require us to avoid controversy. Nor should being rude and vulgar be construed as refreshing authenticity.
That ad hominem attacks are not merely fallacious, but a sign of weakness and insecurity in the individual substituting them for sound argumentation is no longer widely understood. By labeling those with differing points of view everything from fascist to snowflake, the person sticking the label on their opponent is attempting to shut down the debate rather than engage in good faith. Having dehumanized the opposition with a label, they have rendered the other’s views unworthy of consideration. Case closed. Thinking, to say nothing of listening, is no longer required.
Another pernicious form of silencing is practiced by those adopting the intellectually lazy and ultimately relativist stance that they are “entitled to their opinion.” Though it would seem at first glance that these individuals must also recognize that others are entitled to theirs, what they really mean is that having developed an opinion of their own there’s really no need to listen to anyone else’s. Furthermore, because having an opinion is something they are “entitled to,” having one is also rather conveniently its own justification.
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” — and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse. ~ Patrick Stokes, professor of philosophy at Deakin University in Australia
No matter where we might fall on the political spectrum, the attempt to silence others by any means is a betrayal of classical liberalism’s most essential principle: freedom of speech. When our attention is upon identity (our own or another’s) or upon our own right to hold an opinion, the ideas that should be the focus of our conversations with one another are minimized and tossed aside. There is no room for the practice of citizenship in personalized debates that drive individuals into tribal corners or defensive crouches.
In his book The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra writes, “Survival in the crowd seems guaranteed by conformity to the views and opinions of whichever sectarian group one belongs to. The elites,” Mishra continues, “engage meanwhile in their own factional battles and presume to think on behalf of everyone else. The general moral law is one of obedience and conformity to the rules of the rich and powerful.” In the end, “Such a society where social bonds are defined by a dependence on other people’s opinion and competitive private ambition is a place devoid of any possibility of individual freedom.”
But we need not end up in such a society. Some of us are still old enough to remember a time when most disagreements were not taken personally, or at least did not seem to be. We can remember discussions between Republicans and Democrats, and others too, that ended with everyone leaving as friends and wanting to come back for more. Indeed, we can still find examples of such civility between those with different points of view. The friendly back and forth between the conservative David Brooks and the more liberal-minded Mark Shields each Friday night on the PBS Newshour comes to mind as an example.
To get back to civility we must regain faith in the process. Freedom of expression and of the press are necessary to a functioning democratic society not because we have the right view and others need to hear it, but because having all the views openly debated enables the best solutions to emerge from the debate. Only when each of us is able to smooth the rough edges off our position through friction with other perspectives can the best ideas develop and gain popular support.
Single-party states and authoritarian regimes may be more efficient, but they provide limited space for individuals and groups alike to truly flourish. Pluralistic societies necessarily make us uncomfortable with regularity, but they develop in their citizens a greater tolerance for uncertainty that requires faith in the process to take precedence over faith in an ideology. Personal attacks on those with views we don’t share are an indication it’s an ideology or particular leader rather than the process to which we have begun to devote ourselves.
President Trump’s attacks on the press, his insistence upon personal loyalty, and his affinity for authoritarian leaders represent an assault on a process that has served us well even if it hasn’t served us perfectly. Similarly, the idea that controversy represents an assault upon our personal feelings or group identity signals that we no longer believe the marketplace of ideas is capable of separating the wheat from the chaff, or that we have lost patience with the time it often takes for it to do so.
In both cases, the willingness to engage in the hard intellectual work of citizenship has been abandoned in favor of slogans and ad hominem attacks. I’m not sure how to persuade those that have given themselves over to the emotional comfort believing in a “strong leader” or embracing the simplicity of an ideology provides. Democracy is messy, which makes any argument for it unappetizing to those that haven’t developed a taste for it.
“To live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger,” de Tocqueville stated after long and careful observation of America. We are now facing the very real possibility that enough Americans have failed to adapt to these conditions to sustain democracy in the United States. Time will tell, but it doesn’t appear we’ll have to wait long for the answer. We should have it by the end of 2020.
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