It is a curious fact that what we take to be the most evident differences between groups often reveal, upon closer examination, a fundamental agreement.
Take, for example, the notion of being “awake.”
The political left uses the term “woke” to refer to awareness of social and racial justice. Most often the term is employed descriptively, as when the Washington Post asks, “Is the new Democratic Party too woke to nominate Joe Biden?”
The political right frequently employs the phrase “wake up” directed toward the opposition. It betrays exasperation at the left’s inability to acknowledge plain facts. This sentence from a recent Wall Street Journal editorial is typical: “Time to wake up from the Barack Obama economy, folks, and admit how many more Americans are prospering from the faster economic growth and tighter labor market after the policy changes of 2017.”
Despite differing on what we are to wake up from, or to, both the left and the right share a deep sense that what is wrong with society of right in front of us. We just need to pay attention. Once we acknowledge the problems, the solutions will speak for themselves.
This perhaps explains why neither side is interested in debating policies.
Sincere debate makes sense only within the context of certain shared facts and values. If we are divided over basic things — the causes of severe weather, the economic impact of immigrants, the extent of racism, the importance of education, the effectiveness of vaccines — it is fruitless to rely upon persuasive speech to achieve political ends.
On the left, political cynicism takes the form of protesting, boycotting and social shaming.
On the right, political cynicism is revealed in gerrymandering, restricting voting and ridiculing opponents.
Both sides feel entirely justified in the tactics they employ. What else are we to do in the face of the other sides’ obstinate refusal to open their eyes to the real world?
But waking up to reality is not as easy as the most outspoken voices of our political divide would have us believe. Indeed, the habit of paying attention is a lifetime struggle. The wisest thinkers throughout history have considered it the chief responsibility of democratic citizenship.
Socrates warned his fellow citizens of the dangers of self-deception, of believing one knows what one does not know. He described his role as that of a gadfly, sent by the gods to awaken the “sluggish but noble horse” that was Athens. He persisted in asking difficult questions nobody wanted to hear.
Emerson, in “Experience,” his most political essay, published during the tensions leading up to the Civil War, wrote: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception.”
And Simone Weil, the French philosopher living in exile in London during WWII, wrote in 1942: “The spirit of justice and truth is nothing else but a certain kind of attention, which is pure love.”
What all three thinkers attest to is the immense importance and the immense difficulty of thinking clearly. To think clearly, we must have the freedom to hear and say a great deal of things we do not necessarily believe.
Yet we are obsessed today with figuring out what people believe based on a single utterance, and then moving on to judgments about their character. The result is that we do not allow anyone to think in public.
“So-and-so said what? She must be . . . a socialist . . . a liberal . . . a conservative . . . a homophobe . . . a racist . . . a tree hugger.” How quickly we move from a single utterance to a character trait to the embodiment of an entire system of beliefs.
We know that in sports, music, business, in any skilled activity, learning only comes through struggle. That is even more true of thinking.
The only way to learn to think clearly is to struggle with expression. That has to be done through speaking and writing. Which means that for most of one’s life, one is going to say things with which others disagree — and often for good reason — because one’s words are confused, incoherent, inconsistent, offensive or misguided.
The way to avoid this is to say nothing worthwhile, nothing that might offend.
And that is the surest way to destroy a democracy.
The other day I ran into an old acquaintance in the grocery store. “I like reading your columns,” he said, “but I don’t agree with everything you write.”
“Thank you,” I replied, “I don’t agree with everything I write either.”
Maybe he thought I was joking.