A recent opinion article by Roger Cohen about a book and polling data demonstrating a gulf in transatlantic public opinion struck me as a windy but representative example of the unnecessary polarization in our political debate. We find more visceral examples of this bifurcated outrage over varying reactions among different communities to a crime or horror. I’m thinking particularly of the challenges and charges involving the Black Lives Matter campaign. On one side its advocates express shock that others appear to demonstrate more concern for the death of an animal than young black men killed by law enforcement in this country. On another side are detractors (and there are many) complaining that a white son slain by police doesn’t receive the same level of outrage as those spotlighted by the movement.
It is a common trope to accuse others of bias or indifference to attract supporters. But snark aside, these critiques pose the very reasonable question why these different communities of concern and interest exist, why they do care more about some issues than others. The carpers cited above illuminate an aspect of politics we don’t consider that much: why do we believe different things? Why don’t we all think the same way?
This is a substantial issue. I first really confronted it after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and other targets in Paris. I was profoundly unsettled and upset by that attack, as were many people. But after the initial wave of revulsion, I asked myself why this particular act of terrorism should move me so much when compared to the almost daily acts of terrorism that plague other countries.
This was not a matter of self-justification. When I thought about Charlie Hebdo, I realized that the attack on a beacon of free expression affected me and those I care about deeply. I write and many of my friends write or contribute to the creative arts. The idea that they could die violently because of something they wrote, thought, or created horrifies me. More specifically, if Charlie Hebdo could be targeted, so could they and so could I. This is Voltaire in small writ: the attack killed people who do what I do.
My initial query stands: why do we feel differently about these things? Why are some more concerned about attacks on Christians, say, or Shias, or Mexicans, or women, or children? Why should my concern about Charlie Hebdo deny others similar feelings about different issues? When we array the various concerns and issues that face modern society, it really does seem petty to criticize those who are focused on HIV/AIDS, gay rights, the unborn, exploited children, Palestinians, antisemitism, trafficking, puppy mills, asylees and refugees, drug abuse, detainees, economic inequality and so on.
But that is the essence of the subjective political experience and the moral plurality of a diverse, democratic society. There are more than enough problems we face to go around. It is the measure of a strong civil society that we have enough people and resources and passion to focus on all of them at the same time. While political activists want everyone to agree with them, imagine a country that believed all the same things at the same time. That’s both hard to conjure yet manifest in political reality. Nevertheless, legitimate debate in the arena arbitrates among different interests to determine, collectively, our political priorities and their solutions. Selective choice and moral judgments are fundamental to politics and political progress. Together, we have to determine what is more important than another.
What the partisans in some of the arguments I noted above may miss in their pain or outrage is that they need each other to be effective. It is hard for me to imagine a family of a slain son begrudging the attention afforded other families in similar circumstances. But in attacking that attention they unnecessarily divide two communities with the same interest and same goal: ending police violence. It’s the same with the snark over animal rights activists. That denies the profound and limitless human ability for empathy which all political campaigns must harness to succeed. Imagine if they worked together.
More broadly, these differences in opinion and concern are minor when cast in relief against the sea of public opinion and the plurality of political society that gird our public life. We are big enough, we are strong enough, we are rich enough, we are resourceful and creative enough, and we are different enough to solve all the rending problems that face us.