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A time for pity and contempt


The most urgent resolution we need for 2021 is simple: Americans need to learn to hate each other less. It will sound paradoxical, but that means we need to cultivate pity and contempt.

We increasingly regard each other as malign fiends. Over 80 percent of Republicans say that the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, and almost 80 percent of Democrats say that the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. In today’s America, one study finds, “as many as half of the members of each party despise the other party.”

A healthy democracy requires that citizens regard one another with certain emotions. In her important book “Political Emotions,” the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues: “If distant people and abstract principles are to get a grip on our emotions . . . these emotions must somehow position them within our circle of concern, creating a sense of ‘our’ life in which these people . . . matter as parts of our ‘us.’” We need to cultivate respect for our fellow citizens, empathy and, when we disagree, the capacity to understand how they could have come to their views. Other emotions, such as disgust, fear, envy and shame, corrode democracy.

In a familiar joke, a stranger asks a local for directions and is told, “well, I wouldn’t start from here.” The gag is, of course, that there’s no place except here to start from. But the local has a point. Sometimes there are good reasons to wish you could start from somewhere else. And, given where we are, the path to our destination could turn out to be surprisingly circuitous.

Respect and empathy are hard to cultivate when we live in such different realities. As a moderate Democrat, I struggle with how to think and feel about people who believe that the bland, centrist Joe Biden wants to turn America into Venezuela.

Consider the scary tale of Mark Aguirre, a former Houston Police Department captain who was reportedly paid more than $250,000 by Republican megadonors to investigate election fraud. Aguirre convinced himself that an air conditioning repair truck was stuffed with fake ballots. He followed it, forced it off the road by ramming it and held the repairman at gunpoint. The driver later said, “when I saw him unlock the safety I thought, ‘He is going to shoot me.’” Aguirre’s associates then drove the truck away. Police found it nearby. It contained nothing but air conditioner parts and tools. Aguirre has been charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The district attorney said, “we are lucky no one was killed.”

Aguirre is hardly alone. One in three Americans believes what he believes, that Trump lost the election only because of fraudulent votes — a theory that even Trump’s own judicial appointees have said is supported by no evidence. If it were true, then direct action like Aguirre’s might be necessary to save democracy. Decent people would then reasonably be terrified of a dark Democratic Party conspiracy. But, in fact, these are lies that Trump has promoted.

The presence of such delusions creates a moral challenge. How are those of us who are not deluded to think and feel about those people?

When she calls for compassion, Nussbaum declares that she wants to avoid the term “pity,” because “in modern English it has acquired connotations of condescension and superiority that it did not have earlier, and I am focusing on an emotion that does not necessarily involve superiority.” 

But how does Nussbaum propose that we regard the likes of Aguirre? There are worse emotions than condescension and superiority. The alternative that is principally on offer nowadays is demonization — regarding our political adversaries as irretrievably malign beings. That is not only unfair; it forsakes any hope of reconciliation.

Aguirre isn’t a monster. He’s just a dangerous fool. You shouldn’t hate him. You should feel sorry for him, and hope that he can someday, somehow emerge from his delusions.  If we regard our fellow citizens that way, we can reasonably try to help them work their way out of their foolishness. It is possible for conversation to continue.

Demonization is, among other things, an intellectual error. It distorts our perceptions.  Samuel Fleischacker observes that these days “[t]he inhumanly cruel but clever profile once reserved for Jews is widely applied by people on the right to liberal intellectuals and journalists, and by people on the left to capitalists.”

But there is something intrinsically contradictory in the idea of a demon: a being with free will that is nonetheless so pervasively corrupt that it is incapable of being anything other than malevolent. The notion is incoherent. Fleischacker concludes: “Not even God could make a demon.” On the other hand, when we designate others as demons, we license whatever mistreatment is necessary to defend ourselves against them, and so “become ourselves as close as human beings can to being demons.”

The millions of Americans who are gullible enough to believe Trump’s lies are suckers.  That’s not a nice thing to say. But it’s an improvement on hatred. These people aren’t demons. They’re just ignorant and confused. That’s not a deep character flaw. We all share it to some extent. Ignorance and confusion are the human condition. They had better be forgivable. Pity and contempt can be paths to a better political community in 2021. 

Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of “Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty? The Unnecessary Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @AndrewKoppelman.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Anger Compassion Empathy Ethics Joe Biden political polarization political tribalism

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