It’s easy and fun to call people names. Slotting them into categories lets us guess what they think without them telling us. We can shut down intolerant babble before it begins. In promoting tolerance, why should we listen to perspectives that do the opposite?
Okay. Imagine refusing to hear people out because their opinions promote intolerance and even oppression. In so doing, we are gleefully engaging in the very behaviours we claim to condemn: silencing, excluding, and imposing our own subjective position as a morally objective standpoint.
Name-calling happens across any divide. At its core, the very notion of the divide lays the foundation for separation, even segregation. Can we build a world with no divide?
I think that world already exists, if we would just help it emerge. We construct and reproduce the divide ourselves. We talk and behave as if seven billion individual views can effectively be split into two or three camps: you’re either this or that or the other thing. Anyone who resents being pigeonholed knows that such a division hardly represents reality.
Collectively, we like to reinforce the notion of the divide. New Atheists talk about the “regressive left” as harmful because they promote cultural tolerance. Those who advocate cultural relativism point fingers at “evangelical” atheists who steamroll diversity in their push for rational solutions to social problems.
In the US, Republicans say Democrats are living in “la la land,” while Democrats call Republicans “racist” and “uninformed.” The same dynamic happens elsewhere, and not just in politics. We seem to think people who don’t agree with us are stupid or unaware. If only they knew what we know, they would inevitably come to the same conclusions we do.
In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to Kenyon College’s liberal arts graduates. He argued that the benefit of a liberal arts education lies in its ability to teach us to choose how we think and what we pay attention to. It pushes us beyond our default stance, the self-centered positionality we all grapple with.
Of course it’s hard to get out of our own heads when that’s where we live. Doing so requires coaching and effort. Sometimes, we’ll fail and that’s okay too.
The goal is to try and try again. Recognize our fallibility. Embrace uncertainty.
Hannah Arendt famously said, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” Once we establish a new way of doing things, we can get stuck in our ability to receive new ideas.
In sticking to our guns, we might even restrict the liberties of others. Yes, we have good intentions. We believe we are fighting to create or conserve a “better” society. But better for who?
The only good society is one that allows all members to speak and be heard, regardless of how much power they have or how little they toe the line. This applies to small groups as much as entire nations.
So whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, progressive or radical, anarchist or socialist, religious or humanist, or none of the above – whatever we call ourselves, we need to strive not to reduce others to something less than human. As if we’ve read their hearts and minds and distilled the contents down to tidy, facile labels.
Anyone can have a good idea. Find the common ground. Listen and learn. If we engage life assuming we don’t have all the answers, we’ll end up wiser in the long run. And nobody has to get hurt along the way.