Sound crazy? Well, that’s really how a lot of us feel.
If you are a liberal, are you willing to have a serious conversation with a conservative person? Say, someone who doesn’t believe in affirmative action, who wants to tighten the borders? Someone who believes that there is only sex and no gender? Who believes that people on the left are “woke”?
If you are a conservative, are you willing to have a serious conversation with someone who defines themselves as a progressive? With someone who believes in socialism? With someone who holds that gender is a social construction? With an advocate of racial reparations?
Let’s up the ante. Would you be willing to have a serious conversation with a racist? With someone who you regard as a misogynist? How about a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Would you have a serious political discussion with member of the Chinese communist party? The President of Cuba? An advocate for the Russian side of the Russian-Ukraine war?
I am not simply asking whether you would debate such folks. I am asking, “Would you be willing to really listen to such people to truly try to understand why they think and act the way they do?” Would you be willing to treat them seriously?
Would you be comfortable being seen by others having a conversation with such persons?
If you are not, chances are you may feel that merely talking with someone whose political beliefs you hate will make you feel contaminated, dirty, or stained. You may feel that taking your opponent seriously would pollute you in some way.
You may be afraid of what other people would think of you if you were to be seen talking with “people on the other side”. You may be worried that other people will think that you believe the same things as the “person on the other side” – or perhaps that you are soft, weak or lack the moral backbone to stand up to the other person.
Perhaps you feel as if having a conversation with someone who adopts a political position that you hate means that you condone the other person’s position. You might think that the other’s political position is so “beyond the pale” that even talking with the other person would be to give credit to their political position.
This is not true.
You can take another person seriously – really try to understand their point of view with an open mind – and still not agree with what they say. You can try to understand and even care about the person whose positions you hate – and still not agree with what they say. The other person’s words can’t hurt you. The other person’s beliefs cannot hurt you.
So, the fact is that many people feel contaminated by talking to people whose positions they find unpalatable. They feel disgusted by the other person. They may even say that they feel “sick”. When we do this, we treat the other person as if they were a disease, a toxin, a pathogen that can hurt or contaminate us.
Ah wait, you say: that’s not me! That’s primitive thinking! I am more enlightened than that! I don’t think or feel that way.
Hmmm… How about this. Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer and sex offender who was responsible for killing and dismembering 17 males. Would you be willing to wear his jacket? No, you might say – it might contain remnants of human flesh. But wait! Imagine that it’s been cleaned – even sterilized! Would you wear it then? If you even hesitate to answer this question out of some sense of “moral disgust”, then you are capable of the type of so-called “primitive” thinking that makes us recoil when we imagine talking to our political opponents.
The simple fact is that for many of us, we feel morally polluted by taking our political opponents seriously. We feel contaminated by merely talking to the other person about a political issue.
But words are not pathogens. The other person is not carrying a disease. The other person is not toxic. We simply imagine them to be. And when we do this, our imagination gets into the way of seeing the humanity in the person who adopts political beliefs that we find disagreeable.
That’s a lot like no wanting to touch a woman who is menstruating. People used to believe (and still do in many places) that touching a menstruating woman would contaminate the self.
Guess what! Talking with your political opponent IS much like touching a menstruating woman. It doesn’t pollute you at all.
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