“Equality,” I Spoke The Word as if a Wedding Vow

Beyond health, family, and personal liberty, the most important thing in the world to me is the free exchange of ideas. It’s what I have built my life and my career on.

Shooting a congressman because he’s a Republican? That’s idiotic, counter-productive, and decidedly un-American, no matter what his politics are.

Let’s be clear. (I feel like I’m saying this a lot these days, and it is depressing me.) This guy isn’t a liberal, and he certainly isn’t a progressive. Liberals believe in egalitarianism and freedom of expression. Progressives trust in the power of truth and reason in driving society forward towards a better future. In shooting someone he disagreed with (and not with any specifics– rather, because the guy was part of a group of people he generally disagreed with), this asshole renounced both these things.

Not that we are exempt from blame, here. In the aftermath of the shooting, I’ve heard a lot of talk from conservatives that liberals need to own up to the vitriol they’ve engendered, and admit their responsibility in creating an environment in which something like this can happen. My initial reaction to this was to shake my head, roll my eyes, and invoke any number of platitudes– pots calling kettles derogatory color schemes, sinners heaving stones, etc.– never mind note that when a rich white man gets shot it’s like the world is ending, but when a poor black teenager takes the bullet the community that responds in protest is bordering on terrorist status by demanding change. But in thinking about things a bit more, I think they’re right, even if the criticism generally arrives from a myopic perspective.

You see, I don’t know that enough progressives believe sufficiently in the essential basis of their critical ethos. In truth, I think that almost all of them– myself included– are guilty of renouncing their trust in empiricism and reason for the sake of emotional reactionism.

This is, to some extent, understandable. We see the destructive paths of ignorance– the erosion of social equality, the wanton destruction of the environment, the abandonment of peace and tolerance, the undermining of science and logic– and we instinctively lash out at those who propagate such things.

But we need to do better. We need to trust in the power of our arguments, in the immutability of our rational processes. We need to stick to evidence and logic. We need to be stubborn in not bending from our positions for spurious reasons, but flexible enough that we’re willing to change those positions if the arguments presented against them are sound, logically built, and based in evidence. And we need to remember that our own biases warp our thought processes in the same way that those of conservatives skew theirs.

I have a respectful, and often friendly, relationship with many people who identify themselves as conservatives, and during my travels it was the rare day when the socio-political perspective of those I met shut me off from their stories. This is not because I bend to the opinions of others for the sake of inter-personal harmony. (My wife would get a kick out of that notion!) Precisely the opposite. It is because those I respect respect me. They know that if I argue for something, it will be because I have thought through my position and believe it to be worth arguing, and that even so I remain a free agent, willing to adopt their perspective if I find their argument to be better. It isn’t warfare. There’s no need for name-calling– and certainly not for hatred. It’s debate. It’s the free exchange of information and ideas. It’s the essence of progressivism, whether they realize it or not. And it only shuts down if they are unwilling to maintain the reciprocity.

There are always caveats, of course. One thing I can not abide, for instance, is the pejorative nomination of difference. Gender, race, sexuality, culture, religion– these are not obstacles, but opportunities. After all, our lives and our culture is made all the richer because of difference, not despite it. Why? Because of the free exchange of ideas. New ways of thinking about things. Fusion of thought and custom. The mere act of recognizing an alternative approach, whether we adopt its conclusions of not. (Not incidentally, shouldn’t conservative thought qualify– provided, of course, that it doesn’t engage in the very type of behavior I’m here decrying?)

And this is not to say I think it should all be kumbaya and let’s go roast marshmallows. There’s great injustice in some conservative policy. Cruelty and greed in motives. Corruption and fraud at the highest level of government. If you’re unwilling to recognize it for what it is, we’re going to have a problem. And the “Well,¬†He/She did it” argument is that of a child. I’m going to take the same issue with your defense of Dean Skelos as you would rightfully take should I defend Sheldon Silver. And in terms of cultural perspective, all you need to do is read my book to know how I feel about climate change deniers, congregations to plantation mythology, and those who would deny other Americans their rights or prevent them from receiving assistance in their hours of need.

But behind it all is a principled devotion to humanism, reason, and democracy. Will these things– the last of them in particular– be the downfall of American society and human civilization? It’s possible. By the time 2020 comes (or, heaven help us, 2024), pluralism might be on its death bed and Miami Beach and the Battery might be under several inches of water. But what other options do we have? Do you have a better idea? A revolution? Sure, but enacted how? Plato was as wrong as Lenin. A tyranny of the wise is still tyrannical. We’ll collectively bargain our fate, or we’ll succumb to one just as unpleasant.

And that means stopping the hate.

I beg of you. Define yourself by reason. Use ideas as your weapons. Hammer away with fact and principle. Be relentless, but don’t barricade off the disapproving– we hope to educate them, not exile them, after all. Maybe start by asking someone who disagrees with you why they disagree with you rather than calling them an evil, fascist moron (you sure don’t like being called a dirt commie, do you?). When they realize you’re willing to consider their position, perhaps then they’ll consider listening to yours. And in a test of the righteousness of principles, aren’t you comfortable enough to wager on the well-wrought reasoning behind your ideals?

And as a byproduct, maybe we’ll reduce by one or two the lunatics who think they can solve something with a God-damn rifle.

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