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Politics, Disagreement, and Disrespect

A dear friend wrote to me recently. Paraphrased, his comment was, “I hope our friendship survives this election cycle.”

I assured him that this would not be — could never be — a problem. I have always believed that the foundation of every adult friendship is to be able to part company while firmly convinced that the other party is woefully wrong. Adults don’t always agree. We either let it bother us that people in our lives don’t hold the same opinions we do, or we let it slide.

A normal, well-adjusted human being does not insist on ideological orthodoxy among his or her acquaintances, friends, and family. This is true for several reasons, the first being practical. If you insist on constructing about yourself an impenetrable echo chamber of ideological purity, you will quickly run out of friends. This is because even the closest of friends rarely agree on every issue. In practice, most of us have wildly differing views, even when we agree on the broad strokes.

Another reason well-adjusted people don’t enforce orthodoxy of opinion is because this is both self-centered and arrogant. I don’t mean that as a criticism; we are all guilty of arrogance and solipsism to different degrees.  What I mean is that every single person engages in a process of reason in forming opinions about the world. We integrate the data of our senses, and the information we gather from the world around us, and draw conclusions — form opinions — based on our reason. Every one has a different process, which is why opinions vary. Some people’s processes are more logical than others, but every person is entitled to the acknowledgment that such a process occurred.

If we declare that it is impossible for a person to arrive at conclusions contrary to our own, if we believe that only our opinions are valid and legitimate (and that anyone opposing our views is not merely wrong, but bad, and therefore must be shunned as we enforce our ideological purity), we engage in a very common type of arrogance: We believe it is not possible for us to be wrong. Accepting that other people can and will arrive at different conclusions does not mean we don’t disagree (or explain why we do). It simply means we acknowledge that we are not infallible, and therefore dissent is possible.

If we are, in turn, offended by expressions of opinion that contradict our own — if we find them insulting, or disrespectful — this can be solipsism. This is believing that we, as the center of the universe, must never encounter a thought with which we personally disagree, on the grounds that this thought is an affront and that the thinker offers deliberate insult. If you walk through the world believing any opinion you dislike is an attack, you will never run out of reasons to take offense.

Ironically, believing that dissenting opinions are disrespect is itself disrespectful. If we cannot give other people the benefit of the doubt — if we can’t acknowledge that they engaged in a process of reason to form their opinions, even if we don’t agree with that process or its conclusions — we are saying that only our opinions are even possible. If your only interpretation of a disagreement is that it is an insult — or that the person insulting you is doing so because they are bad — you are telling them they have no right to disagree. Only your opinions are acceptable; only your conclusions are permitted.

Sadly, this is where we’ve arrived in today’s political landscape. The Left has worked hard to marginalize all thought and opinion they oppose. In the eyes of a progressive, your conservative or libertarian opinions aren’t just wrong; they’re bad, and you’re a bad person for having them. You are so bad that you must be shunned, drummed from polite society, and cut from your friends’ lives. There has been at least one study (probably more) concluding that progressives and those on the Left are much more likely to shun friends and family with different opinions. This makes sense and squares with my experience.

In truth, I think this is because progressive ideology makes its adherents miserable. When you adopt an external locus of control, when you believe that all of American society is evil and wrong, built on racism and social injustice, then of course you will spend your days gnashing your teeth and screaming at the sky. Do the ardent progressives in your life strike you as happy? Or are they miserable people, constantly hunting for deviations from their orthodoxy, eager to cut and slash from their lives those people who dare to have different opinions?

Conservatives and libertarians, on the other hand, are fairly confident in their beliefs (to grossly generalize). They believe they can win arguments because they believe the facts coincide with their opinions. They are happy to tell people so. Even when living under opposition rule — such as the 8 years of Clinton and the 8 years of Obama we endured — they somehow find a way to be reasonably happy with life, even as they fight a losing battle against progressive popular culture. Their progressive counterparts, meanwhile, search endlessly for more people to cancel, more concepts to call racist, more traditions to call unjust. The contrast could not be more stark.

In 1999, Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger coined the term named for them. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a “cognitive bias” in which people who are stupid or incompetent are unable to tell they are stupid or incompetent because they are stupid or incompetent. I’ve no idea what we’d call it, but there’s an analog in progressive politics. Progressives are unhappy people whose politics are self-destructive and corrosive… but they can’t see that because they’re unhappy people with corrosive, destructive opinions.

They also can’t see that disagreement is not necessarily disrespect. Dissent is not necessarily insult. Opposition is not necessarily affront. Refusing to acknowledge this, refusing to respect other people’s differing processes of reason, is one of the fundamental problems with the progressive worldview… and the reason so many of us can’t seem to stay friends.

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