Talking about politics with my friends never ceases to amaze me. Not necessarily because of the process of sharing different views, even though exchanging passionate arguments with people I disagree with has always been, shall we say, stimulating – at least intellectually. However, one thing has come up in the discussions a lot. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but then I noticed a strange pattern. Whenever I started sharing my views on some issue, particularly since I became a libertarian, I have generally been accused of being a morally questionable human being for the simple reason of taking a side in an issue. And don’t get me wrong – this did not just come from people I barely knew, but often from my very good friends, who have known me for a while and had no negative judgements of that sort until that debate.
You might say: “Oh, it surely couldn’t have been that bad.” Well, then I should give you just a few examples. When I was having a class dinner with a course-mate in Paris and mentioned that I was a “right-winger”, his reply was: “So you have no values?”- just based on that statement of mine. When I called myself a “conservative” to a friend of mine, later, after I talked with her friend, who was a lesbian, she bluntly asked me: “Are you a homophobe?” When I said: “Of course not, why?” she replied: “Well, you called yourself a conservative.” Another friend of mine, who has known me for a while, called me a sexist misogynist based on my apparently sexist joke I posted on facebook and later, after I dared to disagree with his statement on a particular gender issue, he deleted me from his friends on facebook. (I admit that the joke carries certain gender stereotypes that some women fight strongly against, but laughing at it or not and going as far as calling someone a sexist misogynist is beyond me and that was my point).
And the list could go on, particularly on the economic issues (“You just want to make the poor poorer, and the rich richer” or “You just want the poor to die on the street” – practically both direct quotes I heard from a friend after my saying the state should not tax people to pay for some parts of the welfare system) or social matters (“These people want to destroy the family” – a quote in the gay rights debate or “Abortions are genocide” – again both direct quotes). Lastly, when I dared not to be cheerful about Obama’s re-election (I was not cheerful even after his first victory, but that’s another story), I got booed off by my friends, some of whom deleted me from facebook after that (actually, I wanted to write the term “friends” in inverted commas, but they were in fact my friends. It’s just that I seemed not to be their friend after they discovered my deeply rooted evil side – that I am a free-market libertarian).
It seems to be quite fashionable to use the argument that if someone disagrees with you, this person must be worse than you. Not that they are misinformed, uneducated on the issue, having a different perception or a moral optic, or even that this person is outright stupid. No. This is not enough for some people. Their opponents are worse than stupid; they are morally inferior, rotten and evil. It sounds much more appealing – appealing to the emotions, to human mind that wants to perceive one’s own self as the purest, the best and justified, and the other side as the opposite. Stupid is not enough – that would require a debate, and a debate requires an argument, and that requires information and effort, and these would often pay off very little in an actual argument with that person or a debate in front of strangers.
Over the number of conversations I faced this stuff, I wondered why people, and in particular my friends, resorted to this in the personal discussions and tried to look for their motivation in using this rhetoric. I could only come up with three arguments that could explain this approach. The first one is a desire for a personal financial or material security. For many people, resorting to this argument is often a way for them to shy away from admitting that they have a personal interest in the issue as potential beneficiaries. I am always reminded of a phrase by my friend who, in a debate on social housing, asked me: “Is it too much to ask for the state to provide me with a house?” Well, obviously, that sounds like an innocent question. Just like a very good friend of mine who admitted that she would like to have some sense of material security guaranteed from the state so that she could feel she had something to fall back on if things went wrong. Again, I actually understand this feeling. Most people fear poverty and feel a lot better if they have someone to care for them. But it is often these people who feel threatened by the proposals to do away with some forms of support that resort to charges that I do want to have poor people impoverished, because I take what may be for them a source of comfort. That may be the reason why they use the moral appeal.
The second aspect highly present in these debates was the appeal of the authority of state and a link to a basic moral ladder. The logic goes like this (I originally heard this from Milton Friedman – I absolutely recommend this video). Something goes wrong in a society, people say they lose money, or find themselves unemployed. What to do with the situation? Well, the state should pass a law – it has a mandate from the people, the authority through force and it can coerce everyone, so it is the best institute to deal with the problem at hand. By this logic, if I oppose the government action, I’m not just against the particular solution to the problem, I am against the people who suffer and, supposedly, against the best solution at hand. Regardless of the fact that the solution can make the problem worse, I may actually expect the voluntary activity to have a more beneficiary effect. Nah, that’s clearly just me being a jerk and not being willing to give up a tiny bit of my wealth to give it to people who would appreciate it hugely. People feel that they care and I know that most of them actually do, but they link the support for a particular policy with the emotional appeal of the suffering of the people. This is not in any way done in an intent to belittle others. They just feel armoured by the self-righteousness and superiority, and a moral high-ground is a thing we all enjoy, don’t we?
And there is a third reason that I understood as a result of the book by Andrew Breitbart, one of the most inspiring personalities in forming my love for the conservative libertarian political ideas with his book Righteous Indignation: Excuse me While I Save the World (I cannot recommend this book highly enough). He outlined a very appealing argument about the tactic that has been adopted by the left-wing intellectuals, hand in hand with the media and academic establishment. The tactic is designed to frame the people who stand on the libertarian (conservative/liberal, right-wing, free-market, etc.) ground to be evil – again, not stupid, but rather evil and ill-willing. If they are: against welfare, they hate the poor; against affirmative action, they must be racist; against quotas and anti-discrimination laws, they hate women and want to chain them to the kitchen sink; against the state health care, they hate the poor and want them to die; against Kyoto or other Global Warming agenda, they are mouthpieces for the corporation. It is a way for them to justify the demonization of the right-wing points ad-hoc without debating the merit. The debate is set between the good and the bad, between people who are angels and those who are the opposite.
Based on my personal experience (that I described in my last blog), this way of treating people is for me very distasteful. It always pushed me away from the argument proposed by my “opponents” and with a bitter personal stamp on the friendship. I know that despite this, I have sometimes sunk this low, particularly when instigated by the heat of the debate. I have sometimes remarked it to my friends that they have the intention equalled with the actual results that the policy was going to cause. I’ve never assumed that the individual standing on the opposite side of the argument is evil or ill-willing just because we disagree. Most of my friends from the universities in UK and France were left-wingers of some sort (progressive, socialist, social-democrat, etc.).
I do not have evil friends. Some of the closest people in my life I disagree with on a regular basis on almost anything are not my enemies for that, they are not worse. They are not even stupid, they are not dumb, instead they feel strongly about a certain issue (for better or worse) and consider the problem to be so big that the state solution is necessary. Or they personally feel the need to have that sort of support from the state because they can’t get by. This does not make them in any way inferior to me. I’ve relied on help a number of times and there’s no shame in that either. All I am ever trying to achieve in the debates is to get my point of view across and explain my views; why I consider the state’s activity to be a problem in some areas and why freedom would help the very people that my opponents seek to help. It is nothing short of astounding for me that some people take this as a matter of personal human qualities.
Whatever you do in a political debate, you should never resort to emotional appeal demeaning other people, besides the fact that it is incredibly painful (hearing these things over and over and just wondering what makes these people make such comments), it is a sign of inner need to humiliate people that stand in your way in order to win an argument. No matter how strongly you feel about something, never strip other people of their respect and dignity. It is a thing that can come back to you in a debate and it certainly does not help you maintain good friendship. If you are a friend to someone only until you hear their political beliefs, there is not much actual friendship there to begin with.