There Goes the Neighborhood

Los Angeles Times published two sad and probably accurate op-eds today detailing the political gulf in America. This is not about Congress’ inability to work across the aisle, but about average citizens not being able to, nor even wanting to be friends and neighbors with people who hold political views different than theirs. Diana Wagman writes about why as a liberal she can’t stand conservatives. Her neighbors whom she describes as generous and friendly become her enemies once she finds out their political leanings. Self-proclaimed conservative Charlotte Allen writes about her inability/unwillingness to converse with liberals about anything of substance. I wish these authors’ positions were exceptions to the rule, but I fear that is not the case. They are more likely reflecting what a lot of people in America think about people with different political views.

The complete lack of self-reflection in both pieces comes across as both striking and deluded. According to both authors, the reason they cannot speak with people who hold different political positions has nothing to do with the writers themselves, but with their opponents. It is their opponents who are dense, rude, and arrogant. The authors are paragons of reason. This is truly sad. Has the political impasse become so great that we cannot actually be neighbors anymore? Do we have to pass some ideological litmus test in order to borrow a cup of sugar from someone? A couple thousand years ago, Jesus had something to say to this kind of thinking and I think it is still true and radical today:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7.1-5)

Given I just criticized a couple of my neighbors for their uncharitable views, it is probably time for me to heed Jesus’ words and go make sure I do not do the same thing, or worse. I probably have a few logs in my eyes. I hope we can focus on what unites us rather than seeing only what separates us.

4 thoughts on “There Goes the Neighborhood

  1. Contemporary politics definitely needs an infusion of cheek-turning and log removal. Having said that, however, and fully aware of that I am speaking with a conservative plank in my own eye, I wonder whether the articles you linked to are equally illustrative of the problem. The liberal writer does not want to even associate with conservatives because conservatives are “not kind or empathetic.” The conservative refuses to talk to a liberal beacuse liberals “think conservatives are evil, while we think they’re silly.” In these cases, what are the respective logs? For the liberal, the log is the belief that conservatives are thoughtless, intolerant, and narcissistic. She has uncharitable beliefs about conservatives. For the conservative, the log isn’t as clear. Sure, thinking that liberals are silly would be a log. But is thinking that liberals view conservatives as thoughtless and intolerant and narcissistic a log? Is it uncharitable if a conservative takes a liberal at face value when she says that she doesn’t like conservatives for those reasons?

    • I think the conservative author has more to commend in her op-ed than the liberal one. The conservative author says she at least tried communicating with liberals whereas the liberal author wanted to cut of contact with her conservative neighbors once she discovered their political leanings. The conservative author still tries to remain in relationship with her family, which I think is a very good thing. If we are to cross this divide, we have to be committed to each other prior to our commitment to political views.

      The tone of the conservative piece retains a sense that liberals aren’t worth talking to: “There is no ‘how’ in talking to a liberal. You can’t talk to a liberal, period.” Her op-ed also reveals a defensiveness that makes her unwilling or incapable of seeing liberals as anything but judgmental, as seemingly incapable of grace. For example, as she details the defense of her dissertation, she recalls the disapproval of something she says and she thinks the committee will reject her doctorate. But they awarded her the degree and she says nothing about how she was wrong in her prejudicial assumptions that they would be unwilling to see the worth of work that comes from a person with different values. Yes, the panel did grimace at her word choice, but they were also able to look past their disagreement and confer upon her a doctorate. The ability to disagree but still see the worth in someone else or in their work is a good sign. I wish the author had commended the panel for their maturity rather than think she barely survived their liberal talons.

      It requires humility on all sides to take down our respective guards and say, “I respect that you are my neighbor and want what is best for the country, but I disagree strongly with your vision of what is best for the country.” As long as we continue calling each other evil or blame the other for being the only ones to take things personally, we do not allow ourselves to see the humanity of the other and we can easily retreat to defensiveness. The piece by the liberal author is heartbreaking because she shows glimmers of acknowledgement that her neighbors are good people, but her political ideology keeps getting in the way. I’m not saying that both sides are equally guilty of all sins, but both sides have damaged the relationship.

  2. I think this paragraph of Allen’s op-ed is key:

    “The problem is this: We conservatives think liberals are silly; they think we’re evil. Tell a liberal that you hope President Obama will be defeated in the upcoming election, and you’ll be branded a racist. Voice your opposition to same-sex marriage, and you’re a homophobe. Express outrage at the idea of building a mosque on the spot where one of the planes’ fuselages fell in the 9/11massacre, and you’re an Islamophobe. If you support the tea party, or Rick Santorum for president, or defunding Planned Parenthood, or setting up credible border enforcement, you could be all of the above plus more: anti-woman, anti-poor-people, anti-tolerance and a “fascist” to boot.”

    If Allen is saying that all liberals think this way, then you’re right to say that her tone is uncharitable. If Allen is saying that she would prefer not to talk with liberals because it is probable that sooner or later she will be branded one or all of these things, then what she is saying is true. I’ve experienced the same thing, and have grown cautious in talking with those to my left for this very reason. Why talk with people who are going to call you a fascist?

    • A short answer is we should talk to each other because we are neighbors. For better or worse, we are in this thing together. Not taking to each other isn’t going to solve the problems our country faces.

      When we talk with people of different political backgrounds, civility is necessary. We must be committed to extending it as well as committed to requesting it of others.

      I am all for ground rules in dialogue. I see nothing wrong with saying to someone after they level an insult, “Please don’t call my views fascist because you disagree with them. That rhetoric gets us nowhere. If you want to continue dialogue, please show me the respect you would want for yourself. If you won’t show me that respect and continue calling me and my ideas insulting terms, then I will remove myself from this dialogue until you will converse civilly.”

      Perhaps Allen tried something like that, but if she did, it does not come across in the piece. Instead, I see a defensive posture, one that assumes liberals will never be civil toward opposing views. Maintaining boundaries is one thing, being defensive to the point of assuming the worst in others is something else entirely.

      Besides, she does not help her case by praising Coulter, who labels liberals as far worse than silly.

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