One of the first modes of critical thinking is knowing what others think and say. If we’re to be conscientious citizens in a free republic, we must follow the other side’s arguments and evidence, admitting those points that identify weaknesses in our own position.
Yes, J. S. Mill had it quite right to demand that people heed “the arguments of adversaries,” to “hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest,” and to “throw themselves into the mental position of those who think differently” (On Liberty).
But what if the mental position of the other side casts us as vicious, racist, sexist, vitriolic, backward, . . . ? What if the whole point of their argument is to demean and disempower us?
It certainly makes it hard to read to the end.
One case popped up in this week’s Washington Post, a column by Harold Myerson entitled “Today’s GOP is the party of Jefferson Davis, not of Lincoln.” After reading countless denunciations of the Party as racist, we scan that title and know everything that is going to follow. It is wearisomely predictable.
But I went on, if only to see if Myerson would say anything new.
He didn’t. Myerson goes back to the Civil War and emancipation, then notes how Jim Crow maintained white supremacy through an economic system based on prison labor. Lincoln realized the complicity of Northern interests in “race-based subjugation of labor,” and the old GOP stood nobly against it, Myerson states.
But then comes a standard liberal topos: The evils back then are active right now. Myerson declares, “the alliance between the current form of Southern labor and the current form of New York finance is with us still.”
Here is the basis for the equation. True, we don’t have slavery and chain gangs and peonage, but five southern states have no minimum wage laws. And “Southern-based corporations such as Wal-Mart are among the leading opponents of workers’ right to organize.” And those places are Republican heavy.
Hence, “today’s Republican Party is not just far from being the party of Lincoln: It’s really the party of Jefferson Davis.”
Responsible participation in an open society demands that we listen. But when someone accuses you of white supremacist leanings, when someone has no other aim except to disgrace you, when the opinion pages of the most influential newspapers devote space to character assassination, it’s awfully hard not to turn away and huddle in like-minded clusters, if only to enjoy for the moment the belief that we’re not as awful as they say we are.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.