Can't We Just Be Friends?Yonoson Rosenblum
This state of affairs impoverishes us all
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Recently I stumbled across a eulogy in Mother Jones, a reliably left-wing magazine, of a Tea Party activist whom the author had gotten to know while covering the rise of that movement. Later, the two had bonded further when both were diagnosed with cancer within a short period of time.
In addition to the sadness occasioned by anyone's passing from the world, the piece left me further saddened that tales of friendship across political lines are at present in the class of "man bites dog" stories.
Why so much bitterness? It was not always so.
Today, postmodernism denies the validity of dialogue of any kind. Professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto explains how that happened in a recent book, 12 Rules for Living; An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson himself has run afoul of the guardians of political correctness for his refusal to employ newly minted gender pronouns. (As a happy consequence, this major thinker has been brought to the attention of hundreds of thousands of new readers and listeners.)
The original postmodernists, led by the French intellectual Jacques Derrida, were Marxists. But by the 1970s, even French intellectuals had to acknowledge that all Marxist regimes were "evil empires." So instead of dividing humanity according to economic classes, the postmodernists divided humanity into identity groups, and interpreted all social phenomenon in terms of power relations between different identity groups — i.e., between oppressed and oppressors.
Starting with the observation that there are a variety of ways to interpret a text — or the world for that matter — the postmodernists concluded that all ideas and interpretations are chosen as means of acquiring power.
Based on the assumption that all social phenomenon are "constructed" to gain power, there is no point in engaging in dialogue. Once human beings are reduced to "identities," the possibility of discovering a common humanity is denied, since all relationships across "identity" lines involve some inequality of power. To even engage in dialogue with the "oppressors" is to validate their power and privilege.
The perennials of Western philosophy — What is the good life? How should one live it? — are no longer topics of discussion.
Professor Jonathan Haidt, founder of the Heterodox Academy, an organization devoted to promoting intellectual diversity in university faculties, describes in his 2017 Wriston Lecture, "The Age of Outrage," delivered at the Manhattan Institute, how, as a Yale undergraduate in the '80s, he was provided with multiple lenses for viewing the world. Today there is only one: power relations. Good people versus wicked oppressors.
The American founders were particularly concerned with how to avoid the ruinous religious wars of Europe and escape the human tendency to revert to tribal warfare. By contrast, the radical professorate today seeks to maximize suspicion between groups. They speak not of reconciliation and the search for points of agreement, but of warfare.
This jargon has filtered from the elite campuses to the hinterlands. Professor Scott Yenor detailed in the Weekly Standard last week some of the hijinks committed by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Boise State University. That office exists not primarily to find students from underrepresented groups and assist them on campus, but rather to instruct them (and their "privileged" peers) in the former's victimhood. Students are encouraged to stroll through a "Tunnel of Oppression."
The message of too many professors today, says Haidt, is that all of America is one giant instrument of oppression. And all the oppressed must gather to fight the white male, cisgendered, able-bodied oppressors. Like the anarchists of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, the postmodernists' primary goal is destruction. First, according to Peterson, they wish to destroy the substrate of Western society: the religious, ethical underpinnings built up over millennia. Then, the achievements of the Enlightenment: empiricism, the idea of the individual, rational discourse.
Admittedly few Americans consciously think of themselves as postmodernists. But even among those who have never heard of Derrida, the value of free speech and open debate is no longer a given. Students speak instead of the spurious "right not to be offended," at least if one is the member of a favored minority group. (Jews, by the way, do not qualify, and may be freely insulted.)
THE RELUCTANCE TO ASSUME the basic humanity and decency of those of different political viewpoints, however, goes far beyond campus radicals. In today's intensely polarized America, it is increasingly common to have a circle of friends limited to only those who share one's political views.
That is tragic on many levels. First, echo chambers are a poor environment for refining and developing one's own views. Only those who have defended their views in the marketplace of ideas are generally worth paying attention to.
Second, it destroys all social cohesion and turns us into truncated human beings. Conservatives are somewhat more protected from this tendency. For one thing, if they have attended elite institutions, they know that not all intelligent people think like them. Liberals on elite campuses may never have to confront that possibility. Second, conservatives place a higher value on the private, non-state side of life, and as such are less focused on politics.
But partisanship and self-selection for only like-minded friends cross the political spectrum. How can we get beyond this state of affairs that impoverishes all of us?
George Will's invaluable distinction between values and virtues — values are easily proclaimed, virtues with difficulty attained — strikes me as a good place to start. To paraphrase Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., try to judge others by their character, not their professed political views.
If we keep our eyes open, we should have noticed long ago that political views and character have little to do with one another. For me, the eureka moment came while I still inhabited the left-end of the political spectrum. On a long drive from Chicago to the East Coast, I observed that those sporting the liberal bumper sticker proclaiming "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts," (meaning, for those too young to remember, "I'm from the only state to have voted for McGovern over Nixon") were no less likely to cut you off in traffic or exhibit other forms of boorish driving. Many women have discovered to their dismay that just because a man wears all the requisite feminist pins does not mean that he will treat them in a respectful fashion.
In choosing with whom to associate, virtues such as trustworthiness, humility, discretion, faithfulness, diligence, and unselfishness should trump political opinions. Different virtues may take on greater and lesser importance depending on the nature of the relationship. Those that you look for in the guy next to you in the foxhole are not necessarily the same as those one searches out in a business partner.
Nor are values irrelevant. No matter how much we respect another's many virtues, no Torah Jew would marry someone who did not share his or her religious commitments. In the context of building a family, shared values are crucial.
Common experiences are crucial to the ability to recognize the virtues in those unlike ourselves. And in contemporary America, such experiences are increasingly rare. People on the coasts and a handful of urban enclaves may not know anyone living in flyover country and vice versa. Military service is perhaps the most effective way of bringing people from diverse backgrounds together. A Yale Law School mailing recently featured two members of the YLS Veterans Association, not a big group. One, Tian Tian Xin, was born in China and raised in Texas; the other, Aaron Haviland, traveled around the world growing up in the various countries to which his diplomat father was posted.
They inhabit opposite ends of the political spectrum: He is active in the Federalist Society and she, I gather, far to the left. But the common experience of having attended the service academies and having seen combat close up makes it easier to ignore those differences and to appreciate one another's virtues.
Interestingly, one of the qualities that both appreciate in the other is the ability to make friends with those who do not share their politics. I wonder if the far greater national unity I remember from my childhood doesn't owe in part to the fact that so many of our fathers had seen service together in World War II or the Korean conflict.
Sometimes shared pain brings people together from divergent backgrounds. A close friend of mine once spent an intensive month with others suffering from chronic, debilitating pain. At the outset, she wondered what she, an Emmy-award winning documentary maker and Orthodox Jew, could have in common with the others in the group. By the end, the group had bonded closely.
Emily Esfahani Smith describes in The Power of Meaning an organization called the Dinner Club, which brings together those who have suffered the early and sudden loss of a parent. Over dinners together, they work through their pain. I doubt that politics plays a large role in those conversations.
All this is not to say that politics is irrelevant or to deny that we are drawn to others who share our political or religious views. But even political and religious discussions across lines of affiliation need not be bitter. The key is to avoid the assumption that anyone who disagrees must either be a cretin or evil. Avoid eye-rolls.
Instead, listen to opposing arguments and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Be prepared to fulfill writer Conor Cruise O'Brien's definition of an intellectual as one who can admit when another has made a point in a debate.
The Heterodox Academy has put together liberal and conservative academics to work together fruitfully on papers analyzing means to alleviate poverty. In Israel, scientists and talmidei chachamim have addressed together various ethical dilemmas from their respective perspectives. I have witnessed personally how much more powerful meetings with nonobservant Jews are when we start with the assumption that they too possess something about them from which we can learn.
Perhaps then we can take to heart Lincoln's invocation of the cherished Union in his first Inaugural: "We are friends, not enemies. We must not be enemies." If we follow that advice, our horizons will be widened and our lives enriched.