Advice columns, which used to be full of common sense, are now more likely to resemble a visit to an insane asylum, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a sensible and beautifully written advice column in the New York Times. The writer seeking advice is, as so often in this medium, a bristling progressive who appears to have exactly one conservative in her social circle and wonders whether she (I assume it’s a she) should make a thing of avoiding all contact with this man, which would be inconvenient because he happens to be married to a friend of the writer’s. Apparently, politics seldom if ever comes up in conversation, but she knows he’s a bad person because of his social-media posts, in which he is revealed to possess an “’anti-Black Lives Matter, anti-abortion, Democrats are all idiots and socialists are taking over the country’ mind-set.”
The complainant, by the way, writes that she lives in a “blue city in a red state.” Yet she has only this one conservative in her life. Here we pause to marvel at how skillful progressives are at constructing ideological bubbles around themselves. (Conservatives don’t really have the ability to cut ourselves off from all contact with left-of-center types and I don’t know anyone who even attempts to do so.) The writer frets that she is being a hypocrite for not taking steps to excise the only conservative person she knows from her life. Because being a good progressive person means taking every opportunity to insult, denounce or marginalize right-wingers? I guess that’s the logic. Again, this kind of thinking doesn’t occur to anyone I know on the right.
The advice columnist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, doesn’t indulge this person, explaining that it’s not only good for people of differing views to get together, it’s good for them to discuss politics. He further upbraids the complainant by noting that, in many if not most cases, political identity is more a tribal signifier than it is a set of carefully thought-out positions: “You have the liberal tribal beliefs and commitments,” Appiah writes, nothing that social-science research indicates “you probably did not acquire them by deep and thoughtful analysis, because you are like most of us. Identity precedes ideology: Who you are determines what you believe.”
That somewhat takes the mojo out of the position that you’re automatically a good person if you’re progressive; political affiliation might be no more principled than backing a local sports team. And Appiah says that as someone who is the complainant’s political ally. This paragraph is wonderful:
I’m happy to stipulate that your views are enlightened and his benighted. Still, it’s possible that you and this fellow are in one respect allied — that you are both committed, as citizens, to participating together in the governance of this battered republic of ours. Despite the forces that would keep us socially and even geographically isolated from one another, you each have a reason to try to understand the other tribe; to figure out what its members believe and (to the extent that there are arguments involved) why they believe it. Democracy falters not when we disagree about things but when we lose interest in trying to make sense of the other person’s point of view and in trying to persuade that person of the merits of our own.
He goes on to tell his correspondent to defend her politics: “When we stop talking even to people we know and like because of political disagreements, we’ve abandoned the deliberative-democratic project of governing the republic together.” Nicely said.