I'm Right and You're An Evil Monster
June 7, 2022
Two weeks before D-Day in 1944, Judge Learned Hand — one of the most admired jurists in US history — addressed a vast audience assembled at New York’s Central Park for “I Am an American” Day. His topic was “The Spirit of Liberty” and his central message was that blind inflexible certitude is deadly to the preservation of democratic freedom. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” Hand told the crowd. It is “the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women” and “which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
There is virtually no hint of that spirit in our brutal political battles over abortion and guns and so many other hotly contested issues. We have all but forgotten how to reason together, how to compromise, how to keep disagreement from devolving into enmity. Our culture is fraying at the seams and it won’t knit itself back together. Far too many of today’s political arguments begin from the premise that those on the other side of a controversial issue are motivated by repugnant views or sick motives. Such is the quality of rhetoric you encounter if you spend any time scrolling through social media or watching cable news — resentment, mockery, rage, and the conviction that anyone who disagrees does so in bad faith.
This isn’t merely abrasive politics or overheated partisanship, which are to be expected in heterogeneous democratic societies. It is toxic polarization — the populist cancer that has metastasized on both the right and the left of American culture. It turns every disagreement into a binary war of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, enlightened vs. barbaric. It shreds the public sense of moral community — the presumption that, whatever our disagreements, we all operate within a shared tradition and are pursuing the common good. Countless Americans have lost an essential component of citizenship: the ability to grant that their opponents are sincere and that at least some of their claims are not easily dismissed.
It is not betraying your convictions or abandoning your allies to show a measure of grace to those with whom you profoundly disagree or to concede that your cause doesn’t have a monopoly on integrity. Self-government is not a zero-sum game — inevitably it requires compromise, and compromise is only possible when honest debate is possible. Yet when it comes to our thorniest, most divisive political controversies, leading politicians, activists, and opinion leaders act as if they are in a war to the death, in which the goal is not just for their side to win but to ensure that the other side is seen to fail.
In his 2020 book “Morality,” the late Lord Jonathan Sacks — a celebrated rabbi, philosopher, public intellectual, and British peer — lamented the death of civility that is corroding public dialogue and destroying Western society. “Civility is more than good manners,” wrote Sacks. “It is a recognition that violent speech leads to violent deeds; that listening respectfully to your opponents is a necessary part of the politics of a free society; and that liberal democracy . . . must keep the peace between contending groups by honoring us all equally, in both our diversity and our commonality.”
As a college freshman long ago, I took a year-long course called “Politics and Values.” I learned a lot in that course, which covered subjects as varied as economics, nuclear power, and European forms of government. Most memorable to me in retrospect, however, is a rule that was enforced by the professor during our animated classroom arguments: Before you could challenge another student’s opinion, you had to first summarize what he or she had said. When you have to fairly restate arguments you don’t agree with, it makes it hard to treat an honest difference of opinion with the sort of contempt and bile that are now so common.
If we don’t find a way to rein them in, hardline populism and toxic polarization will, I am convinced, shatter what is left of our democracy. And the only effective way of reining them in is by hearing out those with whom you disagree.
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