By now, even the mainstream media publishes articles fretting about how false balance, “presenting both sides”, etc. typically benefits bullshit, often rightwing causes: racism, creationism, global warming denial, tobacco industry misinformation, anti-vaccination. It’s not true, a priori, that there are two reasonable sides to every controversy.
Less mainstream, but no less frequently repeated, is the point that demands for civility, respectability, educating your opponents that you’re a human being and so on, unfairly burden oppressed groups with emotional labor they shouldn’t have to perform in the first place.
For liberals, the test of commitment to liberalism is often how nice they can be to fascists, how much they’ll tolerate Klan rallies in their towns. The bullshit can be presented in such high-minded form that they can deny their latent racism even to themselves. For example, this piece by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, originally published in Aeon:
Many of my best friends think that some of my deeply held beliefs about important issues are obviously false or even nonsense. Sometimes, they tell me so to my face. How can we still be friends? Part of the answer is that these friends and I are philosophers, and philosophers learn how to deal with positions on the edge of sanity. In addition, I explain and give arguments for my claims, and they patiently listen and reply with arguments of their own against my — and for their — stances. By exchanging reasons in the form of arguments, we show each other respect and come to understand each other better. Philosophers are weird, so this kind of civil disagreement still might seem impossible among ordinary folk. However, some stories give hope and show how to overcome high barriers.
I think philosophy is a good thing. I was on the debate team in high school, where I learned how to have academic arguments and understand the arguments for and against something. It would be great if standards of argumentation like that became part of public discourse. Alas, those standards only work if both sides are trying in good faith to have good arguments. Conservatives aren’t making good faith arguments. They’re employing sophistry to accomplish goals they chose in advance.
One famous example involved Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis in my home town of Durham, North Carolina; it is described in Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies (1996) and a forthcoming movie. Atwater was a single, poor, black parent who led Operation Breakthrough, which tried to improve local black neighborhoods. Ellis was an equally poor but white parent who was proud to be Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. They could not have started further apart. At first, Ellis brought a gun and henchmen to town meetings in black neighborhoods. Atwater once lurched toward Ellis with a knife and had to be held back by her friends. Despite their mutual hatred, when courts ordered Durham to integrate their public schools, Atwater and Ellis were pressured into co-chairing a charrette — a series of public discussions that lasted eight hours per day for 10 days in July 1971 — about how to implement integration.
This passage relies on the reader to be a white person. We’re just supposed to accept that Atwater was a violent hater, equivalent to the Klan because of an incident presented without any context. The hatred is “mutual.” The poverty is “equal.”
To plan their ordeal, they met and began by asking questions, answering with reasons, and listening to each other. Atwater asked Ellis why he opposed integration. He replied that mainly he wanted his children to get a good education, but integration would ruin their schools. Atwater was probably tempted to scream at him, call him a racist, and walk off in a huff. But she didn’t. Instead, she listened and said that she also wanted his children — as well as hers — to get a good education. Then Ellis asked Atwater why she worked so hard to improve housing for blacks. She replied that she wanted her friends to have better homes and better lives. He wanted the same for his friends. When each listened to the other’s reasons, they realized that they shared the same basic values. Both loved their children and wanted decent lives for their communities. As Ellis later put it: “I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life … But, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.” After realizing their common ground, they were able to work together to integrate Durham schools peacefully. In large part, they succeeded.
He freely speculates about Atwater’s unexpressed internal states. She was tempted to “scream at him, call him a racist, and walk off in a huff?” In the early 1970s, what would be the point of calling a Klansman a racist, something they’re proud of in the first place? Nowadays, white liberals fear being called a racist more than they hate racism, and Sinnott-Armstrong is projecting that backwards in time.
Is it really true that Atwater had no idea white people also want the best for their children? Over time, Ellis stopped dehumanizing Atwater as much. He says that “they” realized they shared the same basic values, but it’s only the Klan people whose beliefs are based on dehumanizing the other side. The idea of racism is to keep white people dumb about the causes of their poverty, to prevent solidarity of the working class.
Philosophy to the rescue!
Why can’t liberals and conservatives do the same today? Admittedly, extremists on both sides of the current political scene often hide in their echo chambers and homogeneous neighborhoods. They never listen to the other side. When they do venture out, the level of rhetoric on the internet is abysmal. Trolls resort to slogans, name-calling, and jokes. When they do bother to give arguments, their arguments often simply justify what suits their feelings and signal tribal alliances.
The spread of bad arguments is undeniable but not inevitable. Rare but valuable examples such as Atwater and Ellis show us how we can use philosophical tools to reduce political polarization.
The first step is to reach out. Philosophers go to conferences to find critics who can help them improve their theories. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis arranged meetings with each other in order to figure out how to work together in the charrette. All of us need to recognize the value of listening carefully and charitably to opponents. Then we need to go to the trouble of talking with those opponents, even if it means leaving our comfortable neighborhoods or favorite websites.
There is no philosophically coherent, interesting belief system underneath conservative trolling (or liberalism, the belief that you can have capitalism and human decency). I understand perfectly well that white guys are insecure about the size of their dick and need scapegoats, which must feel terrible, but I don’t need to spend energy engaging with racists to prove that to myself over and over again. That’s not a reasonable thing for a white guy to ask of me. They need to stop being racist, accept that other people are human, and stop oppressing us. They’re the ones actively (and passively) doing something wrong.
Second, we need to ask questions. Since Socrates, philosophers have been known as much for their questions as for their answers. And if Atwater and Ellis had not asked each other questions, they never would have learned that what they both cared about the most was their children and alleviating the frustrations of poverty. By asking the right questions in the right way, we can often discover shared values or at least avoid misunderstanding opponents.
Again, this offensively suggests that the dehumanization is working equally in both directions. It is not. Only one side is denying the basic personhood of the other.
Third, we need to be patient. Philosophers teach courses for months on a single issue. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis spent 10 days in a public charrette before they finally came to understand and appreciate each other. They also welcomed other members of the community to talk as long as they wanted, just as good teachers include conflicting perspectives and bring all students into the conversation. Today, we need to slow down and fight the tendency to exclude competing views or to interrupt and retort with quick quips and slogans that demean opponents.
After hundreds of years, white people telling us to be patient is no longer legitimate. Y’all need to start acting right, yesterday. In honor of yesterday being MLK day [this wasn’t posted immediately], I quote from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
More false equivalence BS:
Fourth, we need to give arguments. Philosophers typically recognize that they owe reasons for their claims. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis did not simply announce their positions. They referred to the concrete needs of their children and their communities in order to explain why they held their positions. On controversial issues, neither side is obvious enough to escape demands for evidence and reasons, which are presented in the form of arguments.
Here, philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong implies that “niggers will infect my kids with their dumb and their criminality if they go to school together” is an argument worth considering. To him, this is obviously on a par with “human rights for everybody.” He draws the wrong conclusions:
Two lessons emerge. First, we should not give up on trying to reach extremists, such as Atwater and Ellis, despite how hard it is. Second, it is easier to reach moderates, so it usually makes sense to try reasoning with them first. Practicing on more receptive audiences can help us improve our arguments as well as our skills in presenting arguments. These lessons will enable us to do our part to shrink the polarization that stunts our societies and our lives.
What about Atwater’s position was “extremist?”
I’d say that “moderates” are conservatives with a guilty conscience, who need sophistry to make their positions seem less gross. They’re committed to “moderation,” not to following the evidence where it might lead. Such a person loves the idea that there are “two sides,” because it makes it seem like everything is so complicated they can just throw up their hands. If one side is right and the other side is wrong, we might have to do something. Hence, moderation is conservative. Moderates are the Nazis who thought a liquidation of the Jews could not take place arbitrarily. Y’know, won’t somebody think about the economy? Balance in all things.