We’ve already gone over some forms of black-and-white thinking that I think are common on, but unhelpful to, the Left. We need to distinguish and prioritize among degrees and urgency of harm, and accept an incremental approach to our goals; we need to take intentions into account and give people the benefit of the doubt sometimes; and we need to be able to show grace to people who’ve owned their mistakes and taken responsibility.
The final issue I want to talk about, like the issue I discussed in my previous post, is something of a problem. I’m finding it hard to name; “humility” and “self-reflection” both capture some of it. The basic idea is this: people learn things at different times and in different ways, and we should respect that.
Sounds easy enough, right? No. How many times have you seen someone dunking on Twitter with “Imagine thinking [awful thing],” followed by a chorus of jeering? How many times have you dunked on a person, with that phrase or one just like it? (I am not exempting myself here; I’m working on this in fits and starts too.) More than that, how many times have we mocked or insulted or gotten mad at someone for stating a view, or using an argument, that we ourselves sincerely used to hold? We may feel like having been there gives us more of a right to criticize—but does it? And whether it does or not, is behaving that way actually helpful to anybody?
Being a Dick Is Bad Actually
Jeering at people, judging them, excluding them, and venting our anger on them feels good. This is just as true for leftists as it is for anybody else. We don’t like to admit this, because it implies some rather ugly things about our character; but it’s important that we do admit it, if we want to grow and mature. This applies to ourselves as individuals, and to the Left as a political movement and to society as a whole.
I don’t mean that there’s no place for jokes, or even ridicule, in the political sphere. But there’s a real difference between mocking a position and mocking a person. I think the latter very easily becomes toxic, where the former is limited and specific. Not that I want to encourage tone policing, which is pretty obnoxious. The important thing here is that we apply standards like these to our own speech and conduct, not other people’s.
I also don’t mean that venting is never legitimate. But venting is the sort of thing we really need to do in controlled settings, where we aren’t going to hurt other people or get hurt by backlash. Venting anywhere and everywhere is not praxis. It’s a sign of poor emotional control.
Being willing to acknowledge our own flaws, weaknesses, and limitations is the first step to making space for those of others. And one of our most important limitations, which we all share, is that we don’t know everything. Most leftists would acknowledge this in principle, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from social media.
This limitation can show up in some surprising ways. Let me give an example. My mom and my sister once had something of a spat when she was a teenager.1 There had been some sort of planning mixup, and my sister suddenly needed a ride or something, which more or less wrecked my mother’s schedule that day. My sister said on the phone “I don’t know what to say.” What she meant was, “I’m sorry, I don’t even know what to say to apologize properly”; what my mom heard was “It doesn’t matter to me, so I don’t know what to tell you.” Both interpretations of what my sister said are, on the face of them, credible, but one is what she actually meant and the other one isn’t. And this was a misunderstanding that took place over the phone (so, with the benefit of tone and inflection) between two people who’d known each other for over a decade. How much more does the same thing apply to people we’ve never even interacted with in real life?
The Parable of the Mote and the Beam, Ottmar Elliger the Younger (fl. 1666-1735); see Matthew 7.1-5.
The Mote in My Eye vs. the Log in My Brother’s
This story plugs back into my “Do we have a right to judge people who believe things we used to believe?” thing above, obviously. It’s perfectly fair, and often necessary, to criticize a person’s views. It’s a lot more questionable to shame a person for the reasons why they hold their views. People can have really different reasons for believing the same thing, including reasons that have never occurred to us.
Taking an example from my own life, I once said something on social media about the Great Commission, and was promptly insulted by a total stranger for (as he assumed) thinking that benighted natives would go to hell for not believing my religion, or something like that. In fact, the Catholic religion forbids me to think any such thing; my interest in evangelism has nothing to do with that—it’s based simply and solely on the fact that Jesus told us to evangelize.2 To me, that’s a perfectly good reason to do it. But I’m guessing this person grew up in, or has primarily been exposed to, forms of Christianity that do think precisely that, and understand evangelism accordingly. It simply didn’t cross his mind that his incorrect guess about my motives was even a guess.
That aside, what about hypocrisy? If we’ve held a bigoted or problematic or incoherent belief, and have since broken away from it, it’s easy to feel superior to people who haven’t. But if we’re so great, why did we ever hold that belief? If there were reasonable causes, do we know that they don’t apply to this person? We changed our minds; was it because people sneered at us? I’m betting not. I’m not saying we can’t make jokes, but how we treat other people matters. That’s kind of the whole point of leftist ideals, isn’t it?
None of this means you take responsibility to change every person who crosses your path. You can’t do that anyway. What it means is taking responsibility for yourself.
1My sister was a teenager, not my mom. I mean, not at the time.
2Evangelize should not be confused with proselytize. Evangelism means trying to spread one’s beliefs; proselytizing specifically means going up to strangers and trying to get them to convert, typically on the spot. Evangelism can include proselytizing—that is, I’m not prepared to rule it out categorically. But I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind when he said to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” nor do I think it’s a general Christian duty like attending the liturgy or fasting.