Thursday, July 24, 2014

If Carville and Matalin can get along ...

I just finished reading a nonfiction book by an author who's at the opposite end of the political spectrum from me. Actually, over the course of his career, he moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I was curious about what precipitated the journey. I admit I was also hesitant, not sure whether I would encounter the sort of shallow, venomous rhetoric that one often finds in anonymous comments on news blogs.

I was relieved to find the book perfectly readable, even fun at times. There were large parts of this person's life I could identify with or admire, and several points I even agreed with. There were weaknesses, certainly: sometimes a major shift in philosophical position was explained only by a single anecdote, and anecdotes were used more often than facts to support some generalizations. There were some straw-man arguments, some examples held up as irrefutable where I could easily think of counter-examples, and a few snide remarks to which I took offense. But I kept reading, and largely understanding and enjoying the author's story, even when I didn't always agree with his conclusions.

I mentioned the anecdotal nature of his rationalizations as a weakness in some of his arguments, and yet I think people often do base their general politics on their specific, individual experiences. A good or bad encounter with police, being the victim of a crime, having difficulty getting medical care or health insurance, having a child, starting a business, encountering racism, being laid off from a job, etc., are all examples of personal life experiences that can affect people's politics one way or another. One thing that made me laugh was whenever he characterized people from my end of the political spectrum with traits that I think of as more associated with his end of the spectrum: smugness, a tendency to be unrealistic, and bitterness being three examples. It reminded me of just how much is in the eye of the beholder, just how many labels and assumptions we use about one another, and how easy it can be to see an opponent's flaws while overlooking our own.

I often read books by and about people who are very different from me, but it's rare that I deliberately choose to read books that make cases for politics 180 degrees from my own. One of the book-jacket blurbs (from a person who agrees with the author politically) said something about the book being likely to persuade people to migrate to his end of the spectrum. I thought that quote actually showed a misunderstanding of what such books are for. By and large, they're not really to convert people who disagree with the author; they are to reassure those who already agree with the author that they are making smart choices, that they have good arguments on their side. And certainly I didn't read the book to be converted.

But near the end of my reading, I finally grasped the main reason I challenged myself with this book: I want to humanize my opponent. I am really tired of polarization, knee-jerk insults, and the situations where everyone shouts and nobody listens. The other day, on a very thoughtful blog whose comment stream seems to be populated by similarly thoughtful people, I saw commenters disagreeing on an extremely inflammatory, controversial subject, but they were arguing with logic and respect for one another's positions, and I nearly wept to see it. Those are the kinds of discussions I wish I could see more of.

I have strong political opinions based on deep convictions. If you know me, you know what they are, but I'm deliberately not identifying them on this blog post because I think it would undermine the whole point; my hope is that this post would be equally true if the other author and I were to switch political poles. I don't discuss politics on this blog, which I like to keep for writing and such. I advocate for my political views elsewhere, and I do so because I sincerely believe in what I'm advocating for. But I don't need to demonize the people who disagree with me, and I don't want them to demonize me.


  1. I like to find people who write what I can argue and disagree with. It expands my view of the world each time I do. I loved this post.

    1. Thanks, Lee! And yes, it does expand our worlds to explore different views, and not just live in an echo chamber.