Understanding is not Excusing

I am one of those weak liberals – one of those spineless centrists – who still believes in the value of having conversations with people.  Even those with whom I disagree.  Especially those with whom I disagree.

Part of that is the shred of humility that hasn’t been smothered under my – um – confidence (read: arrogance).  But more than that, is its practical value.  Modern politics revolves around a sort of turnout arms race.  Each party cajoles and shouts and pounds their fists to bring out as many of their loyal voters as possible and kill the enthusiasm of their opponent’s.  But in a political landscape in which one party is becoming increasingly beholden to truly dangerous elements, at some point we need to roll up our sleeves and start stripping away its support.  There is no way to do that short of having conversations; ugly, uncomfortable, and often disappointing.

More than the practicality, however, is the basic morality of listening.  Of assuming that another person should to hear my opinion in full and hear it supported and delivered clearly.  That there is something worth listening to in just about everyone.  That people are complex and capable of measure, explosion, thought, impulse, arrogance, intolerance, compassion, bigotry, kindness, fear, ignorance, understanding, sadness, and anger.

I often – for lack of a different phrase – catch a storm of bullshit from some of my more righteous progressive brethren for these attempts to understand a group of people who I think are making profoundly destructive choices.  I usually direct those pristine progressives to the practical applications of asking questions and listening to the answers.  If I’m being honest, however, I think I’m more often drawn into such conversations because I believe in that morality.  But that impulse to listen and try to understand comes with pitfalls.

The first is that we confuse understanding with excusing or rationalizing far too often.  They are not the same thing.  The aftermath of the 2016 election has birthed an entire cottage industry for reporters and pundits at elite media institutions who want to bend over backwards to elicit sympathy for Trump voters.  These pundits repeatedly insist upon explaining support of Donald Trump and now Roy Moore and all of its complexity and nuance (because there is complexity and nuance) utterly divorced from any assessment of the magnitude of the consequences for that support.

Nicholas Kristof, for example, in a February column for the New York Times, draws a parallel between Trump “otherizing” of refugees, muslims, and minorities; and liberals’ lashing out at Trump supporters with condescension and insult.  He offers an impassioned defense of Trump voters and lays out a litany of hardships those voters sometimes experience.  He neglects, however, the parallel hardships of the groups Trump “otherizes” and overlooks the absurd imbalance in consequences of both transgressions.  

Liberals are often patronizing.  Trump voters cast their ballots for a man who did not insult and demean muslims, but was overtly aggressive and threatening toward them and repeatedly employed others who are overtly aggressive and threatening as well.  They repeatedly propose policies that threaten the civil liberties and legal equality of and have massive tangible negative consequences for real people.  No amount of hardship or condescension can justify that making that choice.  Attempting to understand – and even sympathize with – people who made a destructive decision can never bleed into excusing that decision.

The second pitfall into which the compassionate columnist is prone to fall, is the assumption that everyone is entitled to all these considerations, regardless of their choices and decisions.  I don’t believe that they are.  

In the same column, Kristof speaks to a liberal monolith that must offer compassion and understanding to Trump voters.  But that monolith does not exist, it is composed of millions of people.  Many of those people were, at various times or quite consistently, threatened and demeaned by the President, his campaign, his surrogates, and his supporters.  

I can speak to people about their decisions from a protected place.  Others – women, ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants – cannot.  They may choose to offer these considerations anyway, but patience is a finite resource and those demeaned and berated and concretely threatened by a person’s political choices are not bound to spend it.

I believe in the value of conversation.  Its ethical value and its practical value.  Those of us with the ability to do so with relative ease owe it to others to begin the ugly work of having those conversations.  In doing so, however, we can never forget the profound implications of the decision that we seek to understand.  The goal is never to forgive or excuse that decision but to hold accountable those that made it, learn what decision they may make in the future, and prevent them from making one so destructive ever again.  But patience is a finite resource and those demeaned and berated and concretely threatened by a person’s political choices are not bound to spend it.  In service of that, I think that perhaps I am.