Among liberals (I number myself among them) there has been an ongoing conversation about how those on the Right can possibly believe the ridiculous things they believe. Underlying this liberal disbelief that anyone can possibly hold such stupid ideas are often a couple of other assumptions about the nature of belief itself.
It is worth looking at the assumptions that inform the Left’s incredulity in an attempt to think more deeply about the nature of belief and ideology in general but also perhaps to rethink the Left’s way of reacting to the Right. It is worth pointing out, of course, that those on the Right have their own assumptions about how and why those on the Left can possibly hold the stupid beliefs they do too. What I say here about the Left can apply as well to the Right.
The first point, which is in some ways a self-evident yet profound one, is that when we hold ideas, we think ours are intelligent, compelling, moral and based on fact. Our ideas, therefore, don’t need to be explained because they make sense and are true. Ideas that not our own often seem stupid, illogical, self-defeating, and they need to be explained, as fulfilling some other purpose. They can’t stand on their own.
This realization that other people’s ideas seem less rational than ours by definition, was a hard won yet profound insight in Western culture and one that we still often forget, as we slip into stereotyping Otherness in general.
Coming To Terms With Otherness
In the history of the West, Christianity was very good at declaring other religions and other peoples and traditions as inferior, irrational and demonical. In the preReformation period, demonization of otherness lay at the heart of antiSemitism, the Inquisition, the burning of witches and the conquest of the Americas, just to name a few ways in which Christianity portrayed and came to term with difference.
With the Reformation, the attack on Otherness insinuated itself into Christianity itself, as varieties of Reformation Protestants attacked Catholics, and vice versa. The Thirty Years War was in part about whose version of Christianity was right and whose was wrong. Nor did the Enlightenment for all its emphasis on reason do away with this the tendency to depict Otherness as irrational. To Europeans who celebrated reason, non-Europeans seemed irrational, savage and primitive. Indians were thought to lack sufficient reason to be able to rule themselves.
One of the interesting and arguably important developments in Western thought was the ability to overcome the tendency to view other religions and other peoples as primitive, irrational and stupid. Protestants and Catholics came to see the coherence of each others’ versions of Christianity. Christians (at least some of them) came to see Judaism as having its own respectable coherence. Liberal religious thinkers of all stripes came to see the world’s religions as all striving towards the same God along different paths. Twentieth century anthropologists and ethnographers discovered that so called primitive thought actually had a natural intelligibility about it. Western medicine realized that some of the nonwestern medical treatments actually did work. In some sense, this discovery that other people are not so stupid and not so different has been one of the great themes of our Western postenlightenment and postcolonial thought.
Otherness is Harder at Home
It is ironically more difficult in some ways to adopt this same stance towards the Otherness of those who share our same culture. There is both more in common and thus more at stake. Our opponents share our language, our history and our political institutions. They should see the world the way we do. And the fact that they don’t means that the world that we want to create is at risk from their actions. Thus to confront a person who seems so much like us, on the one hand, but who has so radically different views of the world, on the other, is exasperating and threatening. The “Other” at home can be as or more perplexing in some ways than those who inhabit other cultures and religions.
In some sense, this is the dilemma that the liberal faces in trying to come to terms with conservative ideologues (and vice versa). The views of those on the Right seem incomprehensible, irrational, illogical and even stupid to those on the Left. The Left, therefore, tries to explain why people could hold such views. Those ideas must be explained because they are otherwise intelligible or irrational. Liberals thus conclude that conservatives hold ideas that serve the economic benefit of the wealthy one percent. Or, liberals say that conservatives hold they ideas they do because they are racists. Liberals say that conservatives are also fueled by paranoia and backlash. They don’t really believe what they say. One can find variations of these various explanations among liberal thinkers, trying to come to term with the sheer “Otherness” of conservative thinking. Books such as Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas and Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal fall into this genre of trying to help liberals make sense of the otherness of conservatives. Both attempt to explain how conservatives can possibly hold the ideas they do. (Don’t forget conservatives have similar ways of dismissing liberal ideas).
There is a certain advantage in seeing the other’s views as irrational, stupid and wrong. The advantage is that one can solidify certainty in one’s own positions and gird one’s loins for the battle over what is at stake. Yet, there can be a cost as well. The failure to see the other as a rational, moral, and intelligent being means that it is harder to achieve understanding and perhaps compromise. As long as the other is irrational and stupid, how can you possibly give in?
In this particular period of time, when government seems broken, when there seems to be so little ability for those on either side of the aisle to reach across, it is perhaps time to revive the proposition that the other’s thinking can be as coherent and as logical as our own, even if we don’t ultimately agree with each other. To hold that position means acknowledging that we can understand why those with whom we disagree find their view of the world coherent, moral and intelligible. Of course, if we take that risk and the favor is not returned, then we compromise the strength of our own convictions. But doesn’t someone have to take that risk and reach across the gap in understanding and treat the other as sane? Call me stupid, perhaps, but don’t we have to try something new?