A recent debate on my Facebook page raised the issue of whether there is a double standard among Progressives as to where and when indictment of political opponents is warranted. Taking this a step further, the discussion evolved into the appropriateness of vilification of someone’s opponent in an argument, and whether that vilification was one-sided with regard to political party leanings.
I have my opinions on this, but I want to set them aside for a moment and simply delve into the issue of vilification as the outcome of disagreement, and how we devolve to that extreme.
As a noble sidebar, let’s take a quick run down a philosophy bypass in summarizing the works of Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish philosopher largely focused on making sense of his devout Christian faith in an increasingly modern and existential world. Kierkegaard suggested we live our lives in three realms: the aesthetic, where we act simply in our own interest and do whatever we enjoy; the ethical, where we act according to agreed laws to avoid punishment; and the religious, where we do what is right in an absolute sense because we see no other acceptable alternative. From the religious realm, comprehensively embracing the tale of Abraham’s test by God to sacrifice his own child, Kierkegaard describes faith ultimately as an absurdist paradox. You believe or you don’t. You don’t owe anyone an explanation because you decide in your heart what God believes is right.
You don’t have to buy Kierkegaard’s framework to apply it. You simply have to understand that our values are substantially derived from the religious realm as he describes it, regardless if we consider ourselves traditionally religious. They are belief sets we acquire however we acquire them, and we don’t feel we have to justify them to others. Returning to the realm of the political—the ethical set of laws we choose to accept in our Constitutionally defined secular society—my sense is that our act of vilification emerges with the full erosion of our shared values. If we don’t have enough places we agree on critical laws reflecting deeply held values, then the opposition to our views becomes moral and absolute vs. legal and relative.
Consider some examples: Whether taxes should be increased 2% or 4% is essentially an intellectual argument where we are unlikely to vilify someone who disagrees with us. Whether health care is a human right or an imposition of authority is less intellectual, so we become emotional. Whether a woman’s right to choose is absolute or controllable takes us to fundamental beliefs, where the opposition becomes the enemy. The more we disagree at the fundamental level, the less we have in common and the more we reject the opposing argument as an assault on our basic living principles.
Here’s the rub: Without a set of some shared values embodied in our ethical laws, we can’t be much of a unified, strong nation. This is a danger of our profound experiment in democracy, and at the moment I believe we are fully putting it to the test. If you extrapolate the tenor of our current discourse to the full extreme, where all we can do is vilify one another because we cannot find a set of shared values, we might indeed be one national crisis away from ending our time in the sun—no matter how many nukes we have in our inventory, or how many gold bars we have in our repository. Call it the challenge of WWIII, or perhaps an economic meltdown without a reachable escape hatch. If we can’t find the shared values that lead us to an agreed solution with a clock ticking, everything we have accomplished together to date becomes a footnote.
How scary is it, and how much do we cross into each other’s most sacred space? Consider this starter list of how little we value in each other’s convictions:
- We don’t agree on a woman’s right to choose.
- We don’t agree on the universality of health care.
- We don’t agree on how to deploy military forces in the Middle East or otherwise around the world.
- We don’t agree on the basics of immigration reform, or for that matter, who can or can’t enter the United States, short or long-term.
- We don’t agree on gun control, with our interpretations of the Second Amendment light years apart.
- We don’t agree on how to address poverty and homelessness in our own nation, let alone abroad.
- We don’t agree on how to address controlled substances, or whether the war on drugs is worth continuing in anything resembling its current form.
- We don’t agree on where to set minimum wage, or if a minimum standard of living should be possible if minimum wage is what one earns working full-time.
- We don’t agree on who has the right to be married, even though the Supreme Court has ruled on it.
- We don’t agree on climate change, whether it is a scientifically proven global concern, and if it is, how much a priority it should be for U.S. business policy and financial attention.
- We don’t agree on what constitutes a basic education, or what we can hope to expect in the form of presumed literacy and interpretation skills by the time a person reaches adulthood and takes on the responsibilities of independent living.
- We don’t agree on an approach to reasonable tax reform or the proper tax structure for the rich, the middle class, or the poor.
That is an awful lot that drives us apart. All of those involve values—currently reflected in laws—that we do not seem to share or want to share.
So my ultimate two questions are simple: What shared values do we maintain as a vast majority? And if we can’t find enough of them, where do we go from here?
Perhaps we still maintain shared values around the hope that our children will thrive, our government will remain in humble service to the people who select its leadership, that charitable activity will be lauded, and that criminal activity will be addressed with justice. Yet even as I form those thoughts, I am inevitably driven to the specifics of definition and implementation, and find us back at war among our various convictions about how we bring such affirmative notions into everyday reality.
I guess in the end there really aren’t 12 reasons we vilify. There’s just one: We vilify when we fear the imposition of someone else’s will on our own that crosses the bounds of our most cherished values. Daunting challenge to overcome, don’t you think? And as we let it get out of hand and don’t find a way to bridge the gap, the likelihood that we can find any unifying shared values at all diminishes in our anger and ultimate silence. That’s when we lose everything, and damn if we don’t seem to be hell-bent on flushing away almost 300 years of what we thought was shared progress.
Sometime when I listen to the anonymous, unfiltered invective swelling all around me, I wonder if we ever truly shared it at all.
This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
Photo: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.
Great post Ken. I think about this a lot. I am glad you recognize that a root of our long-standing shared values was (past tense increasingly), religion. More precisely, our Judeo-Christian heritage , but echoes in other religions as well (many progressives dispute this notion vehemently, and believe values and ethics are intrinsic, and frankly, situational/”relative”). But I believe that in an increasingly humanistic society, something has been lost on that front. We threw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. Irony…I’m an agnostic myself.
This is the real issue, not democracy per se. Lack of shared values…and in our fragmented media world, shared information and experiences, means consensus is hard to find. Having said that, as I review the list of issues where we “don’t agree”, I once again can’t help but believe that on the vast majority of them, we don’t have to agree in absolute terms. I can easily identify positions that the 30% on either side of the “divide” could support…but that combined 60% is left out and the 20% on each extreme are running the show. We must find mechanisms..and leadership…to define the middle ground, and evolve towards consensus and progress, not turn everything into binary choices. But that is what our whole political system is pushing…yes/no, either/or, win it all/lose it all showdowns at the OK Corral.
I agree with you…this is not sustainable.
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Thanks for your feedback, Ron. I think one of the hardest things for all of us to understand is that whatever passion we feel for an issue, the opposing point of view is equally heartfelt. That makes it even more important that we don’t give up on each other and just accept stalemates (or temporarily held majorities) as viable answers. Somehow we have to find ways to say, “I know you don’t agree with me, but let me do what I believe and I will let you do what you believe and then we can live together and agree on other things.” Yes, very hard to do with universal issues that impact us all, and there aren’t a lot of win-wins easily found, but the alternative to working toward that is going to take us all down. How can that possibly be better?
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