The fever pitch of the recent election season brought me back to another election season – 2004, the time of John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid to topple Bush 43 (it seems so long ago now, doesn’t it?). Because I live and work in Manhattan, you can well imagine that the conversations leading up to the election were extremely monotonous – everyone here backed Kerry so strongly that they could not imagine anyone voting for Bush. By the end of October, all political discussions had the flavor of religious or tribal ceremonies. We would all repeat the same shared opinions to each other ad nauseum, until the very words began to lose any meaning.
Clearly there were other parts of the country where political conversations were monotonous for precisely the opposite reason – right-leaning places where everyone so thoroughly agreed that Bush was the better candidate, that there was nothing much left for anyone to say.
This contrast was nicely illustrated by Troy’s recent comment on my “Broken Glass” post, when he said: “I do believe that the majority of people out there that are fighting non-traditional marriage are not raising a family of their own.” On the contrary, I know many people around here who are raising families, and every single one of those parents was appalled and horrified by the passage of Proposition 8, and made a point of saying so. I suspect that where Troy lives things are quite different. Here in Manhattan (as well as in all the University towns I visit) one uniformly finds sense of outrage on the part of parents that their friends and colleagues, people they like and respect, are denied the right and responsibility of raising children. I’m not arguing right or wrong here, I’m just pointing out the vast difference between our respective subcultures.
When people from two such opposing subcultures begin a conversation, things can get weird. Each side knows the other is wrong. The kindest thing we each tend to think about the other is that they are well-meaning but deluded, the victim of some cleverly pitched self-serving lies or spin that have clouded their better judgement.
In some sense, you can say that in such situations we have all – both left and right – gone over the edge from rational discourse to religious thinking and tribal warfare. We are all so used to the general lockstep agreement in our respective enclaves, that when we meet someone from “the other side” it feels like an encounter with an apostate. Our reaction is no longer intellectual, but rather is dominated by a irrational sense of emotional discomfort at encountering the otherness of an enemy tribe.
In October 2004, at height of the Kerry/Bush mania, my colleague Robert Dewar made what I think is the most perceptive observation I have ever heard on the subject. He proposed a simple test to determine whether your own views on a subject were in the realm of reasoned argument or in the realm of religious indoctrination. The test is simple: Attempt to seriously argue the other point of view. If you can do that effectively (even if you don’t ultimately agree with your own arguments) then you are still in the realm of the rational. If not, then your thinking has gone over into religious/tribal territory.
Go ahead, try it.