Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Modest Proposal for Liberals and Conservatives

Surely, it's too easy to say that our public discourse is simply a war between "the left" and "the right." It's not that simple. Myriad philosophical and practical commitments come into play in concrete situations. And how many individuals fit into the categories of "liberal" or "conservative," with no remainder?

And yet. This framework powerfully shapes conversation in the U.S. (and elsewhere?). It's reinforced, moreover, by a two-party political system, in which candidates bow down at the altar of party platform, and voters forget there are other ways to think. In the world I inhabit of Christian (and particularly Catholic) theology, a standoff between "left" and "right" certainly does seem to describe much of what we say, and how we say it.

So, assuming for a moment that an ongoing battle between liberals and conservatives does in some way structure the way we think and interact, it's worth it for us to ask: how could we do this better? Both in moving toward greater understanding and in moving toward concrete action, what very small steps might allow us to begin to envision working together?

Charles Camosy, fellow theologian, has recently offered his own eminently sensible list of suggestions for avoiding polarization and moving forward in fruitful ways. Here, I'd like to fine-tune a little further, with two very concrete suggestions that assume asymetry in the way liberals and conservatives see each other. My guess is that they may apply not only in my little theological world, but also more broadly. For some people, they will seem like too much to ask. For others, they will seem like much too little. But for what it's worth to those in the middle, here they are.   

Conservatives should not assume that liberals are libertine pleasure-seekers. Now, let the record show: it turns out there are, in fact, some liberals who are libertine pleasure-seekers. (Or, at least, they give every evidence that this is the case.) This, however, is a caricature of liberal commitments, and it does not describe at all the lives of many, many convinced liberals (not to mention the fact that it does pretty neatly describe some conservatives). Think of the work of so many who give their lives in dangerous and uncomfortable places, providing food and medicine and life-giving education, putting themselves at risk for the good of others, precisely because of their liberal commitments. If any individual conservative thinker would begin by assuming that there are liberals living lives of self-discipline and self-sacrifice that would put her to shame, she would stand the best chance of being right.

Liberals should not assume that conservatives are stupid (or, at best, ignorant). Again, friends, we must admit: there are conservatives for whom intellect is not their greatest gift. There are, furthermore, conservatives who hold to their positions simply because it's never occurred to them to think otherwise. And, both of these are true of some liberals, as well. The fact is, on the other hand, that there are staunch conservatives who are brilliant, who study and teach at the most outstanding universities in the world, and whose conservative positions are based precisely on a lifetime of careful, consistent thinking. If any individual progressive thinker would begin by assuming that there are conservatives vastly more intelligent and better educated than herself, she would stand the best chance of being right.

Again, I suspect that many people will see these as hopelessly minimal suggestions. Others may find them too much to take on. (How, after all, can you tell yourself not to believe something that simply is true?) Still othersyes, I hear those whispers through the Internetwill only want to note that I haven't gotten it quite right. (Liberals aren't libertine; they're just hopelessly naive. Conservatives aren't dumb; they're just mean.) In any case, though, it seems to me worth it to clear away some brush here--with the hope of burning it. There are serious issues and questions to be addressed. Let's get on to those, rather than wasting our time with these.