“To understand all is to forgive all.”
“Coming from a legal man I find that remark astonishing.”
–Blott on the Landscape
So … a week ago I got unfriended on Facebook.
The basic sequence of events went like this.
1 – someone (who shall rename nameless) posted an article.
2 – I wrote, rather snippily I will admit, an observation that the article boiled down to ‘everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.’
3 – Said nameless person posted a rather snippy reply of his own and then unfriended me.
This bothered me so much that I was completely inconsolable for …oh, around five nanoseconds.
The article in question – which I have managed to lose, because Facebook doesn’t seem to record notifications more than a week old – basically asserted that everyone who voted for Donald Trump was stupid because there are no good reasons to vote for Donald Trump. I read it in amused disbelief because the article writer suffered from what I tend to call ‘rampant intellectualism,’ the belief that one is so clever that one is never wrong and anyone who disagrees is wilfully wrong. It is not an attitude conductive to healthy political debate.
Intellectualism is, at base, the ability to think through will happen if … And it isn’t really a bad thing. But what can turn it into a bad thing is the willingness – to borrow a line from Sherlock Holmes – to start altering facts to fit theories, rather than altering theories to fit observed facts. Because most intellectuals – in my experience – surround themselves with people who agree with them, it is quite easy for the intellectual to find himself trapped in an echo chamber and lose touch with the real world. Eventually, an intellectual will find himself supporting socialism or communism (or another system that basically relies on human nature being inhuman) because everyone he knows will support it. And, because he has lost touch with the real world, he will be unable to comprehend that not everyone will agree with him.
This, I suspect, is what leads to the twin fallacies of ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism.’
If you happen to live in an echo chamber – and far too many intellectuals do – it is easy to convince yourself that everyone is the same. Why not? Everyone you meet sounds exactly like you. But the real world is a very different place. People can and do think differently and one man’s idea of a good place to live might be very different from someone else’s idea of a good place. Or one man may feel that extending tolerance is a good idea and another may think that another word for a tolerant man is ‘sucker.’
And if you happen to believe that your view of the world is correct, you may come to believe that anyone who disagrees is evil, that they are driven by racism, sexism, phobias of one kind or another, etc. It’s easier to believe that they are fundamentally irrational, fundamentally evil, than try to comprehend that they might have good reasons to feel the way they do.
The problem here is that far too many people believe that understanding something – and showing empathy – is exactly the same as condoning it. I disagree. I can understand why a gay couple would want to punish a bakery that refused to bake them a wedding cake – I can understand it, but not condone it. Equally so, I can understand why people might want to vote for Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump without wanting to support either of them myself.
I can understand – hah – why some people might feel differently. Everyone constructs a narrative that shows themselves as the good guys and everyone else as the bad guys. To accept that the other side has a narrative is a step towards accepting that narrative. But you do not have to accept that narrative to understand that they do accept it themselves. I can flatly refuse to accept that religious fanatics have the right to riot and kill without losing sight of the fundamental fact that they believe they do.
You can, if you wish, look down on Trump’s supporters. But do you really think that will change their minds? Why should they listen to someone who is not only sneering at them – and most of Trump’s detractors pour scorn on his supporters – but doesn’t have the slightest comprehension of why they feel the way they do? Why should they?
As Oliver Cromwell said, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
Consider, if you will, that a person who disagrees with you may not be evil. Evaluate what they have to say. And if it doesn’t stand up to examination, you can explain – calmly and rationally – why it doesn’t work. Who knows? You might make a convert. But if it does stand up to examination, then … maybe you’re the one in the wrong. Changing your mind is not actually a bad thing, if you know why you’re doing it. Political debate doesn’t have to be a cutthroat sport.
In olden days, kings (the bad kinds, at least) used to shoot the messengers. And when they did, they eventually ran out of mail. And then they got blindsided by something they didn’t see coming because no dared to tell them about it. Now, people get unfriended on Facebook instead …
… Which may be more civilised, but the long-term result is just the same.