My personal summary of US politics, covering the last three years and [at least] the next year: Starting in 2016, Democrats needed to do only one thing to succeed: be less crazy than Trump. They could sit back, watch Trump duke it out with (and probably divorce from) the GOP, and be the grown-ups designated to clean up. Instead, they decided to out-crazy and out-corrupt Trump. There are no grown-ups, so let’s move on. The end.
The problem I see is this: “Religion” has become an escape clause from civil conversation and civic tolerance.
Benignly, it can be used like this: “Religion is personal and sensitive; therefore, I’m turning the conversation away from potentially offensive content.” Unfortunately, it’s increasingly used not-so-benignly: “Religion is irrational; therefore you are irrational, and I’m shutting you out of the conversation.” I can respect the first instance; the second instance is intolerant and unworthy of respect, for reasons I will attempt to explain.
Learned people will rightly quibble with my use of the term, but for simplicity and illustration I use the term “religion” here to mean a set of assumptions about myself and the world around me. In this very broad sense, everyone has a religion, even if it is not organized into a creed, institution, or society. Every person thinks, feels, and acts according — and often in contradiction — to this set of assumptions. In this sense, everyone’s religion is rational to a degree and also irrational to degree.
The problem with the second statement above is this: it’s not stating that all belief systems are a mixture of rational and irrational assumptions; it’s actually claiming that the speaker’s assumptions are more rational (and that the recipient’s assumptions are less so). In other words, it establishes the speaker as superior and freezes the recipient out of the conversation. If we aim for a secular, pluralistic society, it is incongruous to make such a claim — even if it is done in the name of secularism or pluralism. Put another way, even if it the statement was facially neutral, its effect was discriminatory.
My point is that it would be better to acknowledge that we all come to conversations and controversies with a set of assumptions about our own being and the world around us. That takes some humility and bravery, but it enables us to “negotiate” solutions that allow us to truly “tolerate” our differences in a diverse society.
For the record: I’ve never liked Roy Moore, and recent accusations (a topic unto themselves) did nothing to change my perspective. That said, even though I may not like this choice, I can understand why people voted for him. You see, I sometimes have this thing called “empathy,” which used to be considered a positive human trait. It allows me to see how someone can be rational and good-natured, even though we are different.
Empathy played an ironic role in the Alabama election: one of the factors that led rational, good-natured people to vote for Moore is that, from their perspective, their political opponents lack empathy and see them as “others” to be used or eliminated. And their perception is, regrettably, not unfounded. Empathy communicates that you see the other person as fully human, capable of intellect and emotions not unlike your own, and worthy of a dignity equal to your own. A refusal to empathize demonstrates that you count the other person as an “other,” devoid of value beyond your ability to control and use the other. Further, and more frightening, an inability to empathize is a grotesque pathology of the mind and of the soul. Here is my theory: the lack of basic empathy toward our political opponents is crippling our politics and our civil society. The inability, or unwillingness, to respectfully afford people the opportunity to disagree will only have the deleterious effect of pushing people toward extreme options. Conversely, letting people disagree “without casting aspersions on their good sense or moral character” will lead to less extreme outcomes, and perhaps, better solutions for the problems that face all of us. So back to Alabama and Moore (or pick another question, as there will always be grotesque choices to be decided), where you find yourself exasperated by the ugliness and ignominy of others. Take it as an opportunity to exercise, and identify why and how they felt and thought as they did; and for a moment, attempt to relate as a fellow human, perhaps even more fully-human than yourself. Even if my theory on empathy is proven wrong, I’d rather go down as having tried to revive this forgotten-and-gasping quality. The alternative, as best as I can tell, is to scrap for my preferred version of human ugliness over an other’s version of ugliness.
I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.
Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).
Much could be–and has been–written about the cultural fall-out of Obergefell, and there is no sense replicating it here. All I can do is point to the prescient arguments made by the dissent, grasping at straws to preserve the freedoms of conscience and expression.
This week’s Constitutional Law class provided a ready example, anecdotally (and ironically) proving the justice’s point. As the Socratic method of instruction does, the class was asked to explain the Court’s ruling, explain the dissent’s opinion (four separate dissents, in this case), and then choose a side to argue. No one dared to acknowledge that the majority of the Court offered almost no rationale. And no one dared to acknowledge the rationale of the dissent, let alone advocate for it, even if they wanted to.
And for good reason. Despite the Court’s quaint hope that there would remain room for respectful disagreement, no such room exists. To publicly question or doubt the wisdom of same-sex marriage is to commit an unpardonable sin, worthy of the scarlet letter B.
Academia is not safe for dissent. The market is not open to dissent. And a future lawyer has no place to dissent, as even a profession that is built upon tradition, rational arguments, and vigorous dissent has adopted a self-limiting rule against dissent on this matter.
So here I sit, whispering from the recesses of my home, just as Justice Alito predicted.