"But I gotta tell you, I just think to look across this room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich and complicated and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not a good writer. Because that means I'm going to be performing for a faceless audience instead of trying to have a conversation with a person." -David Foster Wallace
Political and religious thinking have different incentive structures. I think this is one of the things that Jordan Peterson struggles with when people ask him if he believes in God. It is certainly one of the reasons my close friends and relatives don't think I actually believe in God. They think I have identified that the incentive structure of religious thinking is preferable for personal well-being, and so have adopted aspects of it, but that this is distinct from real faith. I am not sure if such a distinction is real, but in any case, I think I have both.
So what are the different incentive structures? I think that in a religious worldview, particularly a monotheistic one, the greatest peril in any given situation is peril to one's own soul. That is, in any interaction with another human being, the worst possible outcome is that I would transgress against the other person in a way that imperils my relationship with God. Non-Western monotheistic faiths share this quality: Jainism in particular seems obsessed (in a good way I think) with not transgressing against other living things.
Political thinking, as I'm going to define it, is when transcendent importance is projected onto decidedly earthbound ideas. In this setup, positions on history and political matters have the greatest moral import. For example, opposition to universal healthcare provided by the state may be seen as an immoral act. But the implications of projecting morality onto politics are profound, and require further corruptions in the line of reasoning. Understanding the provision of healthcare requires education, familiarity with various policy matters and a level of intellectual engagement that is rare. Because it is difficult to judge a person's worth based on their education or understanding of complex ideas, it is easier to perform a slight of hand: ''No one really opposes universal healthcare, they are simply protecting an economic interest they know to be against the public good," or "they don't want universal right's provided because they don't believe group ____ deserves access to such a right."
There is a lot of evidence that these two attitudes are held by some people, but to project it onto millions of voters relies on a knowledge of other people's minds that we do not have. But the risks of misjudging another person's character differ wildly depending on your view of the world. If the goal of your life is the maintenance of your soul, judging the morality of others with limited information is a profound risk. If, on the other hand, the only outcome worth investing in is a political outcome (say the passage of universal healthcare), judging other people is not only acceptable, but possibly a necessary prerequisite to political success. Political victory, in turn, is the locus of moral progress, and therefore justifies all the defamation that was required.
This logic circles the drain, and is how we arrived in a place where no one believes anyone who disagrees with them acts in good faith. Most voters (the ones I talk to anyway), will concede that there may be regular Americans who love their fellow-man, want the best for them and simply are wrong-headed about a particular issue. However, there is a nearly universal belief in America that the politicians and media representatives working for the other side are bad actors acting in bad faith. Here are just two examples of the universal bad faith presumption in print: left and right.
This assumption also animates conversations regarding the coarsening of discourse and culture more generally. In perhaps the most famous and well-written defense of internet douchebaggery, Tom Scocca wrote that snarkiness, the abrasive and insulting tone that characterized young writers on the internet, was in fact a reaction to a worse phenomenon, "smarm." In Scocca's view, rules of decorum and tone, which grow out of the idea that people should be treated as if they are acting in good faith, amount to a series of norms that are consistently abused by the worst actors to hide their real aim.
Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.
So appeals to decorum or civil discourse are not sincere defenses of respectful engagement. They are last ditch efforts by the obviously corrupt, deployed when intellectual defenses of a position are ridiculed by a majority or have actually been proven objectively false.
It's not that Scocca is wrong, he's surely correct that any universal commitment to decency protects the most fowl more than those who would act decently with or without the rule. However, he underestimates the cost to the rest of us of wading down into the shit. Scocca seems to imagine that if we accepted that our leaders and adversaries were the monsters the evidence shows they are, we could get down to the business of defeating and replacing them. As far as I can tell, disenchantment does not have this activating impact. In fact, it makes people depressed, disengaged and more likely to justify their own selfish behavior by believing it is no doubt minuscule in comparison to the moral depravity of those who really run the society.
Scocca and others have insisted that the corruption of the ruling class does not amount to an indictment of all humanity, but rather suggests that meritocratic capitalism selects for a brutality and aggression that correlates with moral turpitude. This may be true, but it is also true that when people stop believing that their leaders are capable of good, they internalize the same belief about themselves.
Scocca also accused the practitioners of smarm of "faux-maturity," but I think his position has the same characteristic. It is difficult and troubling to believe that George W. Bush might be a decent guy and a good family man, but also made a decision that got nearly a million people killed. Far easier to believe he knew about 9/11 in advance and killed Iraqis for oil. If our story is Star Wars, all we have to do is find Luke and fight the Empire.
The more complex and troubling reality, what I see as actual reality, implies that personal moral virtue and political efficacy have little or nothing to do with each other. If Scocca were saying that we need to abandon the idea that our leaders should be invested with remarkable morality, my interest would be piqued. He is not saying this. He is saying we've chosen the wrong heroes.
If you believe in God, you would never expect human beings to qualify for a word like "hero," in the first place. This is why religious conservatives are counter-intuatively (to secular liberals) permissive regarding the exposure of sexual indiscretions and other moral shortcomings on the part of public figures. To be a Christian is to already know that every person has a dark heart, and a sexuality that is possessed of violence and selfishness. In this framework, a person's moral rehabilitation is a private or family matter, and public humiliation hardly makes success more likely.
I think I have lived a life that makes it particularly easy for me to invest faith in other people, even people with whom I strongly disagree. First of all, despite my religious convictions, many of the most outstanding moral individuals I know are secular liberals. My definition of morality in this context is something like personal discipline, an ability to honor commitments, consideration towards others, self-sacrifice and a sublimation of personal needs and desires. Needless to say, people who embody these characteristics (in my experience) appear along all points of the political spectrum, making it difficult to draw moral conclusions about political coalitions.
This possible contradiction became even more complicated while living abroad. In Syria, before the war, I encountered the most profound examples of hospitality and openness I had ever encountered anywhere on earth. In most cases, this exemplary human behavior was coming from an individual who believed reprehensible things about homosexuals and Jews. So what do you do when someone who can and has given you the shirt off their back also thinks the Israelis should be driven into the sea? In my case, you hope such a person is never in a position to make foreign policy, but you don't damn their soul in your own heart. They are a person, placed in time and space, and in many important ways, they are succeeding at drawing decency out of a difficult situation.
I don't know what this experience implies about how we should engage with politics. I imagine those who disagree with me would say, our willingness to judge other people's motives should have some relationship to their power. In other words, a Syrian farmer can be let off the hook for being a homophobe, but Republican elected officials who sleep with rent boys and vote against gay rights should be named and shamed for the hypocrites they are. Again, as a religious person, I can't accept this framework. Money and political power to not make one's journey away from hypocrisy and towards morality any easier. Perhaps they make it harder. While I understand the particular outrage created by a morally indecent person who wants to preside over the personal behavior of others, aren't we guilty of the same thing when we focus on the sins of the powerful and famous instead of our own?
I must admit, when I read opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post, my instinct certainly is to accuse the authors of being crypto-communists or eugenicists, but I know that they are not these things. What I really mean is that the ideas they endorse may lead to those outcomes. Don't they know that? Aren't they responsible and modest enough to worry about encouraging those instincts? They are not responsible enough. None of us are. But what I also know, is that if real eugenics or communism come to America, many of the people who paved the way will change course and join me in fighting it. I believe the same thing in reverse. Can anyone doubt that if Trump refuses to leave office, at least some gun-wielding Tea party members will be the tip of the spear in re-establishing our democracy?
I would really like to spend my time passing judgement, and even more to delude myself that cultivating a sense of moral superiority was in itself a righteous act. The problem is, the only person I truly know to be a sinner is me.