Our beliefs, political and religious beliefs in particular, divide us and ignite sometimes murderous passions. A radical cure would be to find a way to abstain from belief, to live without beliefs, adoxastōs. Is this possible, and if possible, desirable?
No on both counts. Such is the interim conclusion of my ongoing series on Pyrrhonian skepticism, the infirmity of reason, and cognate topics. But I continue to inquire . . . . That's what a philosopher does. That's how he lives.
Clearly friendship can survive deep disagreement if it is over some abstruse topic in the philosophy of language, say. The question I intend, however, is whether friendship can continue among those who find themselves in profound disagreement over matters that touch us 'existentially.' Politics and religion supply plenty of examples. Here too friendship can survive and even thrive. It may be worth reminding ourselves of this in these dark times.
In an optimistic piece entitled "The Value of Unexpected Friends," K. E. Colombini cites examples of prominent ideological opponents who were on friendly terms. The case that surprised me was the friendship of Ruth Baader Ginsburg with the late Antonin Scalia.
When Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia passed away unexpectedly in February 2016, perhaps the colleague who mourned the most was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While they differed greatly in their day jobs, they formed a surprisingly deep friendship based on mutual respect and interests. [. . .]
“From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies,” Justice Ginsburg’s statement reads, in part. “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”
[. . .]
One of Scalia’s more famous quotes, shared often in social media these days, was given in a 2008 interview on 60 Minutes: “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people—and some very good people have some very bad ideas.”
[. . .]
Separating ideas from people, like hating the sin but not the sinner, is a challenging act, but it is one that is ultimately valuable. Taking the time to get to know someone—even the person we battle with—opens doors that help us understand not only the debated issue, but also ourselves, better.
While there are cases of ideological opponents who remain on good terms, there are even more cases in which they don't.
Why do we disagree so fundamentally about so many things? And can anything be done about it? Jonathan Haidt offers a solution in terms of more proximity and interaction and less separation; if people in opposing camps just got to know each other they would find common ground. Really? Consider the following opposing views of Trump's election triumph. The first passage is the opening paragraph of An American Tragedy by David Remnick writing in The New Yorker:
The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.
Had she been elected it would have said much more about us than about her. We would have shown ourselves a soulless and heartless people, beyond hope, beneath contempt.
There was so much at stake. Much of our work here at The Remnant, for example, would have been criminalized over the next four years. Our home schools would have become illegal enterprises in the village Mrs. Clinton had in mind. Even our ability to move about freely would have been exponentially undermined. (As the “leader of a hate group”, according to the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center, it isn’t difficult for this writer to imagine how enthusiastically President Hillary would have enforced hate crime legislation against Christian America.)
So, yes, like everyone else, we’re still trying to process the news of this truly awesome political and moral and even spiritual upset (if Trump repeals the Johnson Amendment, even the Catholic Church in this country might become relevant again). There’s much to learn from what we saw last night, not the least of which is that the mainstream media, far from omniscient, are in fact clueless ideologues never to be trusted again.
No matter what happens with a Trump presidency, we now know that a substantial percentage of the American people are not beyond hope—that they still have enough Christian sense to recognize and reject the demonic when they see it. And what’s the takeaway from that? Demons are not invincible. In fact, last night they had their tails handed to them by a “buffoon” they’d mercilessly mocked for 18 months, and who decided he’d be the first politician in decades to give God-fearing Americans a voice again—a comparative small concession that nevertheless silenced the left-half of this country for the first times in decades. Donald Trump let pro-life, pro-God, pro-family America loose from their shackles—and the demons scattered before them like roaches.
My thesis is that the differences exemplified above run so deep as to be irreconcilable. No amount of conversation, however well-intentioned and amicably conducted, could possibly lead to agreement on fundamentals.
What then is to be done?
I suggest that what we need to mitigate tribal hostility is not more proximity and interaction, pace Haidt, but less, fewer 'conversations' not more, a government restricted to essential functions, more toleration, voluntary segregation, a return to federalism, a total stoppage of illegal immigration, and a reform of current immigration law to favor people who share our values. (Sharia-supporting Muslims are an example of a group that does not share our values.)
At the moment the MavPhil commentariat includes a couple of sharp young philosophers whose views are to the Right of mine. My brand of conservatism takes on board what I consider to be good in the old liberal tradition. Their brand looks askance at paleo-liberalism and sees it as leading inevitably to the hard leftism of the present day. So a fruitful intramural debate is in progress, and I thank these gents for their commentary. Who knows? Perhaps they will shift me a bit in their direction.
I am re-posting the following 2010 entry so that the young guys can tell me what they think, especially with regard to the Horowitz quotation below. I have bolded the sentence that I expect will be the cynosure of their disapprobation.
The qualifier 'conservative' in my title borders on pleonasm: there is is scarcely any talk radio in the U.S. worth mentioning that is not conservative. This is part of the reason the Left hates the conservative variety so much. They hate it because of its content, and they hate it because they are incapable of competing with it: their own attempts such as Air America have failed miserably. And so, projecting their own hatred, they label conservative talk 'hate radio.'
In a 22 March op-ed piece in the NYT, Bob Herbert, commenting on the G.O.P., writes, "This is the party that genuflects at the altar of right-wing talk radio, with its insane, nauseating, nonstop commitment to hatred and bigotry."
I find Herbert's vile outburst fascinating. There is no insanity, hatred, or bigotry in any of the conservative talk jocks to whom I listen: Laura Ingraham, Dr. Bill Bennett, Hugh Hewitt, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager or Michael Medved. There is instead common sense, humanity, excellent advice, warnings against extremism, deep life wisdom, facts, arguments, and a reasonably high level of discourse. Of the six I have mentioned, Prager and Medved are the best, a fact reflected in their large audiences. Don't you liberals fancy yourselves open-minded? Then open your ears!
So what is it about Herbert and people of his ilk that causes them to react routinely in such delusional fashion?
It is a long story, of course, but part of it is that lefties confuse dissent with hate. They don't seem to realize that if I dissent from your view, it doesn't follow that I hate you. It's actually a double confusion. There is first the confusion of dissent with hate, and then the confusion of persons and propositions. If I dissent from your proposition, it does not follow that I hate your proposition; and a fortiori it doesn't follow that I hate the person who advances the proposition. This double confusion goes hand in hand with the strange notion that the Left owns dissent, which I duly refute in a substantial post.
I leave you with a quotation from David Horowitz, Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey (Spence, 2003), p. 273, emphasis added:
The image of the right that the left has concocted -- authoritarian, reactionary, bigoted, mean-spirited -- is an absurd caricature that has no relation to modern conservatism or to the reality of the people I have come to know in my decade-long movement along the political spectrum -- or to the way I see myself. Except for a lunatic fringe, American conservatism is not about "blood and soil" nostalgia or conspiracy paranoia, which figure so largely in imaginations that call themselves "liberal," but are anything but. Modern American conservatism is a reform movement that seeks to reinvent free markets and limited government and to restore somewhat traditional values. Philosophically, conservatism is more accurately seen as a species of liberalism itself -- and would be more often described in this way were it not for the hegemony the left exerts in the political culture and its appropriation of the term "liberal" to obscure its radical agenda.
One more thing. You can see from Herbert's picture that he is black. So now I will be called a racist for exposing his outburst. That is right out of the Left's playbook: if a conservative disagrees with you on any issue, or proffers any sort of criticism, then you heap abuse on him. He's a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, a 'homophobe,' a bigot, a religious zealot . . . .
Arthur C. Brooks deplores the lack of ideological diversity and the prevalence of 'groupthink' in academia in an October 30th NYT editorial entitled "Academia's Rejection of Diversity." He is of course right to do so. But this is nothing new as any conservative will tell you. And we don't need studies to know about it, which is not to say that studies are not of some slight use in persuading doubters.
What I would take issue with, though, is Brooks' apparently unqualified belief that "being around people [ideologically] unlike ourselves makes us [intellectually] better people . . . ." I have added, charitably I should think, a couple of qualifiers in brackets.
Interaction with ideological opponents can be fruitful, and sometimes is. That goes without saying.
But I think it is very easy to overestimate the value of interactions with people with fundamentally different views. It is a mistake to think that more and more 'conversations' will lead to amicable agreements and mutual understanding. This mistake is based on the false assumption that there is still common ground on which to hold these 'conversations.'
I say we need fewer 'conversations' and more voluntary separation. In many situations we need the political equivalent of divorce. In marriage as in politics the bitter tensions born of irreconcilable differences are relieved by divorce, not by attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. Let's consider some examples. In each of these cases it is difficult to see what common ground the parties to the dispute occupy.
1. Suppose you hold the utterly abhorrent view that it is a justifiable use of state power to force a florist or a caterer to violate his conscience by providing services at, say, a same-sex 'marriage' ceremony.
2. Or you hold the appalling and ridiculous view that demanding photo ID at polling places disenfranchises those would-be voters who lack such ID.
3. Or you refuse to admit a distinction between legal and illegal immigration.
4. Or you maintain the absurd thesis that global warming is the greatest threat to humanity at the present time. (Obama)
6. Or, showing utter contempt for facts, you insist that Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri was an 'unarmed black teenager' shot down like a dog in cold blood without justification of any sort by the racist cop, Darren Wilson.
7. Or you compare Ferguson and Baltimore as if they are relevantly similar. (Hillary Clinton)
8. Or you mendaciously elide distinctions crucial in the gun debate such as that between semi-auto and full-auto. (Dianne Feinstein)
9. Or you systematically deploy double standards. President Obama, for example, refuses to use 'Islamic' in connection with the Islamic State or 'Muslim' in connection with Muslim terrorists. But he has no problem with pinning the deeds of crusaders and inquisitors on Christians.
10. Or you mendaciously engage in self-serving anachronism, for example, comparing current Muslim atrocities with Christian ones long in the past.
11. Or you routinely slander your opponents with such epithets as 'racist,' 'sexist,' etc.
12. Or you make up words whose sole purpose is to serve as semantic bludgeons and cast doubt on the sanity of your opponents. You know full well that a phobia is an irrational fear, but you insist on labeling those who oppose homosexual practices as 'phobic' when you know that their opposition is in most cases rationally grounded and not based in fear, let alone irrational fear.
13. Or you bandy the neologism 'Islamophobia' as a semantic bludgeon when it is plain that fear of radical Islam is entirely rational. In general, you engage in linguistic mischief whenever it serves your agenda thereby showing contempt for the languages you mutilate.
14. Or you take the side of underdogs qua underdogs without giving any thought as to whether or not these underdogs are in any measure responsible for their status or their misery by their crimes. You apparently think that weakness justifies.
15. Or you label abortion a 'reproductive right' or a 'women's health issue' thus begging the question of its moral acceptability.
On each of these points and many others I could write a book demolishing the hard Left position that underlies the points and that dominates the universities, the mainstream media, the courts, and our current government. So what's to discuss? What conceivable motive could a conservative have to enter into debates with people who, from a conservative point of view, are willfully wrongheaded and demonstrably mistaken? There are open questions that need discussing, but the above aren't among them.
More and more, I find myself attempting to have difficult conversations with people who hold very different points of view. And I consider our general failure to have these conversations well—so as to produce an actual convergence of opinion and a general increase in goodwill between the participants—to be the most consequential problem that exists. Apart from violence and other forms of coercion, all we have is conversation with which to influence one another. The fact that it is so difficult for people to have civil and productive conversations about things like U.S. foreign policy, or racial inequality, or religious tolerance and free speech, is profoundly disorienting. And it’s also dangerous. If we fail to do this, we will fail to do everything else of value. Conversation is our only tool for collaborating in a truly open-ended way.
[. . .]
. . . conversation is our only hope.
Fascinating and worthy of careful thought. Here are the main points I take Harris to be making.
1. A successful conversation produces a convergence of opinion and an increase in good will between the participants.
2. The failure to have such conversations is the most consequential problem that exists.
3. Apart from violence and other forms of coercion, all we have is conversation with which to influence one another.
4. Our failure to have civil and productive conversations about important matters of controversy is dangerous.
5. If we fail to do this, we will fail to do everything else of value.
Should we agree with any or all of these points?
Ad (1). We shouldn't agree with this. It would not be reasonable to do so. Neither of the two conditions Harris specifies are necessary for a successful conversation. I have had many successful philosophical and other conversations that do not issue in agreement or convergence of opinion. And I am sure you have as well. What these conversations issue in is clarification. The topic becomes clearer, as well as its implications for and relations with other topics, the arguments on both sides get better understood, as well as one's views and one's interlocutor's views. Mutual clarification, even without agreement, even with intractable disagreement, is sufficient for successful conversation. If we come to understand exactly what it is we disagree about, then that is very important progress even if we never come to agree.
In fact, I consider it utopian and indeed foolish to think that one can achieve (uncoerced, rational) agreement on truly fundamental matters. On some matters rational agreement among competent interlocutors is of course possible; but on others just impossible. If this is right, then agreement on all important matters of controversy cannot be an ideal for us, a goal we ought to pursue. Ought implies can. If we ought to pursue a goal, then it must be possible for us to achieve it. If a certain goal is impossible for us to achieve, then we cannot be obliged to achieve it.
A reachable goal is clarity, not agreement; toleration, not consensus.
Consider religion. Is it a value or not? Conservatives, even those who are atheistic and irreligious, tend to view religion as a value, as conducive to human flourishing. Liberals and leftists tend to view it as a disvalue, as something that impedes human flourishing. This is an important, indeed crucially important, question. Does Sam Harris really think that, via patient, civil, mutually respectful conversation, no matter how protracted, he is going to convince those of us who think religion important for human flourishing to abandon our view?
If he thinks this he is naive. I respect Harris, something I cannot say about some other New Atheists. But Harris is out beyond his depth in philosophy and religion. And he has a foolish belief in the power of reason to resolve the issues that are of deepest concern to us. Reason is a magnificent thing, of course, but Harris appears to have no inkling of its infirmity.
As for the other condition, an increase in good will, surely it is not necessary for a successful conversation. The quantity of good will may stay the same in a discussion without prejudice to the discussion's being productive. It may even decrease. Admittedly, without a certain amount of initial good will, no fruitful conversation can take place. But it is false to say that a successful conversation increases good will.
Ad (2). If (1) is false or unreasonable, then so is (2). Suppose I have a conversation with an atheist such as Harris and fail to budge him from his position while he fails to budge me from mine. Such a conversation can be very productive, useful, successful, not to mention transcendently enjoyable. The life of the mind is of all lives the highest and best, and its being these things is not predicated on achieving agreement about the lofty topics that engage our interest while quite possibly transcending our ability to resolve them to our mutual satisfaction. The failure to meet Harris's conditions need be no problem at all, let alone the most consequential problem that exists.
Ad (3). Harris tells us that it is either coercion or conversation when it comes to influencing people. This is plainly a false alternative. One way to non-violently and non-coercively influence people is by setting a good example. If I treat other people with kindness, respect, forbearance, etc., this 'sets a good example' and reliably induces many people in the vicinity to do otherwise. In fact I needn't say a word, let alone enter into a conversation. For example, with a friendly gesture I can invite a motorist to enter my lane of traffic. In doing so, I ever-so-slightly increase the good will and fellow feeling in the world, profiting myself in the process. In this connection, a marvellous aphorism from Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, #1056:
The essential sermon is one's own existence.
But more importantly, there is teaching which in most cases is a non-violent but also a non-conversational mode of influencing people. For example, teaching someone how to change a tire, play chess, use a computer. If I have a skill, I don't discuss it with you, I teach it to you. Much of elementary education is non-violent but also non-conversational. Teaching the alphabet, the moves of the chess men, the multiplication tables, and so on. There is nothing to discuss, nothing to have a conversation about. The elements have simply to be learned. Controversial topics open to debate will arise late on. But there is no point in discussing the Peano axioms if one does not know that 1 + 1 = 2.
What about ethical instruction? Only a liberal fool would advocate conversations with young children about theft and murder and lying as if the rightness or wrongness of these acts is subject to reasonable debate or is a matter of mere opinion. They must be taught that these things are wrong for their own good and for the good of others. Discussion of ethical niceties and theories comes later, if at all, and presupposes ethical indoctrination: a child who has not internalized and appropriated ethical prescriptions and proscriptions cannot profit from ethical conversations or courses in ethics. You cannot make a twenty-year-old ethical by requiring him to ake a course in ethics. He must already be ethical by upbringing.
Harris's thesis #3 is plainly false. But this is not to deny that respectful conversation is much to be preferred over coercive methods of securing agreement and should be pursued whenever possible.
Ad (4). Harris tells us that it is "dangerous" to not have civil and productive conversations about important and controversial matters. But why dangerous? Harris must know that even among competent and sincere interlocutors here in the West who share may assumptions and values we are not going to come to any agreement about God, guns, abortion, capital punishment, same-sex 'marriage,' the cluster of questions surrounding 'global warming' and plenty of other economic, political, and social questions. How can it be dangerous to not have interminable, inconclusive conversations? Conversations that go nowhere? That are more productive of dissensus than consensus? That contribute to polarization? Well, I suppose you could say that if we are talking we are not shooting.
Ad (5). Harris is really over the top on this one. Exercise for the reader: supply the refutation.
Conclusion: Conversation is overrated. If it is our only hope we are in very bad shape. We need fewer 'conversations,' not more. And we need more tolerance of opposing points of view. More tolerance and more voluntary separation. We don't need to talk to get along. We need to talk less while respecting boundaries and differences. We need less engagement and more dis-engagement. Everybody needs to back off. Trouble is, totalitarians won't back off. They want a total clamp-down on belief and behavior. And it doesn't matter whether they are 'liberal' totalitarians or Islamist totalitarians.
So there looks to be no way to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, it is reason herself who teaches that it is often the hard fist of unreason that prevails and settles the issue when the appeal to reason is unavailing.