The secondary virtue of unity
I really struggle with calls to replace division with compassion and unity. Of course almost everyone wants this. We know it is better for most everyone. Anger and division hurt people. But sometimes division is already there — hidden, ignored, justified, or unvalued. Sometimes calls for unity, generosity, patience, and grace are weaponized by oppressors to silence the other. We have seen it done for decades or centuries by powerful groups—sometimes fairly benevolently, and too often disastrously, for the oppressed. Clearly, fostering division and anger for the sake of destruction or power is wrong. But bringing division and anger into public view, when they have been caused by oppression, is better than keeping them repressed. Oppression and superficial unity are greater ills than disunity or anger.
I have many times in the last year heard calls from politically moderate (and conservative) friends and acquaintances for greater dialogue and understanding. I have seen influential thinkers call for more balance and openness in our academic discourse. I have watched them call out angry people on the left, often correctly, for saying inflammatory things that even hurt allies and potential allies. I have watched many call out cancel culture on the left. I have shared some of their distress, and chosen not to participate in cancel culture attacks on individuals. Too often such attacks are the bullying critics say they are. I have seen call out culture do personal harm, and I think it's clear that calling out is the opposite of a good way to help people change. Shame does not foster reconciliation or compromise.
I can understand how people are offended, rightly. I can understand how people see self-seeking in leaders who are using the anger of the oppressed for their own gain. I also see how people are offended because they want their selfish actions to be righteous, or because they want their flawed ideology to be the way of truth. I see how so many of us call repentance from the rooftops, but condemn anyone calling us to repentance as false prophets. I realize the danger that I am making exactly that error, yet I persist.
Dangers of Intolerance
I find convincing Karl Popper's argument that the one thing a liberal democracy cannot tolerate is intolerance. As should be a surprise to almost no one, people of different political perspectives are about equally prejudiced toward those they perceive as having opposing moral values. There is really interesting research into this, and a well constructed article about the findings:
I definitely fall into the camp of believing that the intolerance of liberals is less damaging than the intolerance of conservatives. In fact, I think the liberal intolerance is essential to removing institutionalized intolerance and oppression from our society. But I recognize the value of conservatives putting the brakes on changes that could simply result in different kinds of oppression. I fortunately have friends willing to instruct me in things I overlook in my zeal for change—whether we ultimately agree or not.
Circumstance, Consequence, and Intent
That said, at this moment in time, American conservatives have elected politicians who have systematically refused to cooperate and seek common ground with the American left for 25 years. The refusal to compromise reached an extreme intensity after the election of President Obama. Republicans haven't even been subtle about it since Mitch McConnell became head of the Republican party in the Senate. Whatever I may think about individual Republican voters or others with more conservative ideologies than my own, at this moment in history they have tied themselves to Trump, McConnell, and the racism of the Southern Strategy. They have elected representatives who have nearly universally supported—with their votes if not with their hearts—every racist, anti-science, and anti-truth act that Trump's Republican administration has worked for. These elected officials have downplayed the seriousness of Russian interference in our elections through efforts to sew greater division among us. And they have blamed liberals for divisions that Republicans have actively and intentionally fostered for two decades.
At this level, it is simple truth to say that large numbers of White, feminist women were influential in electing our current, Republican administration, to the detriment of most people of color, and leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths from COVID. It's simply true that the majority of Latter-day Saints have given their support to these lies, divisions, oppressions, and deaths. It is simply true that most of my Georgian neighbors have done the same. It's even more true to say that White men, certainly including many of us who believe we support equality and justice for all, elected the current administration. I am aware that many in these groups did not vote for the Republicans currently in power. I am aware that many White women and Latter-day Saints plan to change their votes in the 2020 election, although I don't know predicted percentages. I am aware that even most White men under about age 50 did not vote for the current President or his enablers, and even many White men over 50 did not vote for these people. But I see how large groups of good people have effectively lent their support to maintaining divisions, and a lopsidedly divisive Republican strategy.
I think I really value peace. So is it best for me to spend my energy calling for grace and an end to division? We need that, in the long run, if we hope to ever make eternal peace.
Or is it better for me to call attention to the wrongs with more grace and less anger than the other, angry, ungenerous people?
I have chosen to do the latter, as best I can. I am of the opinion that the former is a form of political correctness that supports the repressive Republican regime currently in power, however much the people calling for more grace intend otherwise. I actually think calls for grace and understanding are good. We should all make them, at times, and we should all seek to be gracious and generous. But this kind of generosity does practical harm when it is not accompanied by louder calls and actions to end the causes of the division and oppression.
I also think my perspectives are influenced by my geography and culture. My older sister tells me of the excuses for violence that agitated people in her liberal city make. I hope if I lived there that I would stand up to my people and not join in their violence, or their acceptance of violence from others. I hear my niece has done just that. But I live in rural Georgia, and in Mormon culture, and liberals are not in power here. They are not violent. They are more often silent. I only hear of the tensions from my few Black friends who sometimes talk politics with me. I never see them talk politics on social media. For me the world seems like business as usual, with very little crime and almost no violent crime. For some of my friends it is tense. Where I exist, the liberal violence is miles away, but the fear that causes silence about racism continues to be the dominant position of our community.
I am certain my circumstances shape my experience of right and left wing violence and vilification, and my judgment of violence against people and property elsewhere in the nation. Taking the side of disunity is a troubling decision for me, but I think those of us who live amongst right wing power benefit from the messy work of activism in liberal communities and need to weigh carefully the consequences in our own community of how we judge the actions—even violent ones—of people in distant communities. Condemnation of the relatively small acts of violence by agitators for greater justice is too often heard as justification for continued support of large, institutional violence. Both must come to and end, but perhaps the volume of our calls to repentance should be proportioned to the degree of the violence being done. Perhaps the calls should do more to recognize that not all vilification is spoken aloud, and not all violence happens at riots. The most effective vilification is that internalized by individuals and unspoken to themselves and their neighbors. The most effective vilification is fed to the oppressed and the oppressor in the water we drink and the food we eat. The most extensive violence is that lived continually by oppressed people.
The Hard Problem of Peace and Judgment
I have a very difficult problem. I have intimately been part of and relied on the LDS Church for a lifetime. I feel that the LDS Church's decisions to not take unambiguous stands on current political issues—issues that have surfaced in the US, but also in most of Europe, in Brazil, and in many other countries around the world—effectively sustain authoritarian politics. I judge the messages as ambiguous because of their effects. I see votes little changed by messages in support of refugees or against racism, and I find rhetoric among my acquaintance little changed in justifying support for anti-immigrant and other racist policies. Instead of experiencing chastisement with these messages, I see people unmoved, or even vindicated by the messages. They are able to interpret them in their own ways, and have consciences unpricked on these subjects by the messages they hear in church each week and each year. I hear messages of unity and peace for the majority at the continued expense of the minority. I see work so institutionally focused on the small, and so ruled by the ideal of unity, that my priorities have taken a different path than the church's. I ask myself, why is there not more agitation over the calls to repentance, and why do the calls not lead to clearer cultural change? Why instead do I hear more from the moderates I encounter about unity, and more about how agitators for change are doing it wrong, than I hear about recognizing and changing broken structures in our communities? I hear more about how individuals need to change than acknowledgement of the ills of our institutions. I hear too little about how we can change our institutions—including ideological ones—to foster good over ill in individuals.
I do not blame voters for the actions of their elected officials. I do not blame those who send ambiguous messages for the direct violence committed in the names of their ideologies. Each person bears responsibility for their own actions, as far as their own choices lead to those actions. I do hold myself responsible for giving continued support to people doing harm, and I expect others to do the same. It is difficult, because we all do harm, and all institutions do harm (or they don't do anything worth mentioning). But each of us, and every institution I've ever been part of, also does good, and I hold myself and others responsible for doing and supporting good, as well. Each decision carries weight we can't fully comprehend, so it is an ongoing moral task to judge what our actions should be and where our support should be given.
I find the trajectory of politics in this moment to be authoritarian. I find right wing actions and policies to be much more authoritarian and exclusive than left wing actions and policies. I have found groups on the left—mostly labeled as far left, although I deem them otherwise—making inroads toward more inclusive, fair, and democratic government and economic systems. I don't see these groups on the right. I don't see groups making progress in changing the Republican party towards these ends. I don't see my church or community setting clear, public priorities for the reforms I value most. So the fact that many of my priorities are making the news—even in condemnation—gives me hope and courage, after years of discouragement. I experience messages that there are places where many others share my priorities. But I don't live in one of those places. I don't attend one of those churches. I live in spaces that sustain with their votes an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regime.
It's difficult, because the LDS Church and my friends and acquaintances each condemn authoritarian politics in other ways. They unequivocally condemn corruption, in principle, but judge its extent and seriousness differently than I do. For me, these commonalities aren't enough. They are outweighed by the commitment to repressive systems, which they show by their majority support of unreformed Republicanism, and by rhetoric and structure that will not condemn authoritarian rule within the church and community. So I am left searching for groups of people I can make common cause with on issues I consider most pressing. And I find myself distanced from community that I have intensely relied on.
These are not simple matters. Our choices label people with whom we share much in common as doing wrong. I label my friends as misguided, uninformed, unnuanced in their thought, racist and sexist in their actions (although not their hearts). I label them anti-science. I label them enablers of corruption. I label them not smart. I label them fanatical about single issues. I think no friend gets all of these labels, but they are all labels I place. I haven't figured out a way to be ok with the lopsided political divisiveness of the last 25 years. I haven't figured out a way to be ok with acceptance (and too often justification) of the blatant, publicly documented corruption of the Trump administration and Mitch McConnell. I haven't figured out a way to be ok with the both-sides-ism that, while I acknowledge truth to it, is decidedly lopsided on political measures of corruption and willingness to work with the other side. I haven't found a way to be ok with supporting the President's selfish response to COVID that has caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in our country, millions of unnecessary illnesses, and unknown numbers of lasting injuries. So I label even my friends as good or bad in this divisive time. These labels cannot continue if we are to have peace. I can't hang onto these labels and make peace.
The Cost of Seeking Peace
Almost everyone must seek peace if we are going to have it, but at what cost do I condemn division in the name of peace? At what cost do I amplify division?
I am willing to let that cost be in lost community and friendships, for me, if it must be. My Mormon ancestors paid that price to find a community that better matched their search for truth and goodness, and their hopes for the future. I hope I'm not making huge mistakes, and I hope that I won't lose too much. I hope I will see the promised land, but there are no guarantees. There is no home in the Rocky Mountains for me to arrive at. And more than one of my ancestors died on the journey.
I am willing to let the cost be offending friends and family, although I hope we will do the work to find reconciliation in important relationships.
I am not willing to let that cost be letting my friends think I am ok with the consequences, or the justifications, when they decide to support the current Republican administration or the Republican Senators who are enabling the President. Votes for any of these people are, in effect if not intent, votes to continue great harms to people of color, women, working families, people susceptible to COVID, people with preexisting conditions, and many others. They are effectively votes to sustain a man willing to call on White supremacist militias to stand by, and to give them what they perceive as license to prepare for violence, and justification for their overtly racist, fanatical, and anti-democratic desires.
I would love to feel peace, safety, and support around the communities and people that fostered me throughout my life. I am fortunate that I do have that with my family and with many of my friends—even ones who disagree with me politically. I have also lost much that was precious to me. But I can't go back, seeking what for me would be a false peace and unity. I feel the pull of the Indigo Girls' lyric, “I won't stop short at common ground that vilifies the trodden down.”
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