June 16, 2022


The War of Politics Destroys All

By: Matt Hampton

It’s old news that political arguments are often mindless mud-flinging. But it was only once I became immersed in the fight that I realized just how bad it can get. 

You don’t have to look far to see people who can see dishonesty among politicians and activists they hate, but who—with zero self-awareness—do the exact same thing. When was the last time you saw anything resembling constructive conversation on social media, rather than people roasting, strawmanning, and demeaning their opponents?

Author and psychologist Jonathan Haidt often says each of us lives in a “moral matrix;” that we each view reality through our own lens, which is alien to people who do not share our worldview. 

Politics is like a demon that possesses people. Ideologies contain memes that direct our thinking, pre-formed concepts we repeat automatically.

Why does this happen? 

“Politics” is an ambiguous word. As I’ve used the term here, and as other people casually use it, it can refer to any moral or social controversy, from taxes to corporate social responsibility to whether women should be stay-at-home mothers. Strictly speaking, “political” issues are at least tangentially related to government policies, and this is the core of the problem. The State operates based on compulsion, and so discussion over its operations becomes a battle for the use of force. (Where “political” arguments have nothing to do with the State, they are usually considered so important that they will be as fiery as if they did.) 

In either case, the goal is domination. Politics is war. Dirty tricks become justified, so long as they help (or are believed to help) the cause. Truth becomes secondary. There’s an inherent tradeoff between sincerity and good faith on the one hand and tactics and pragmatism on the other hand. The incentives are to inflame your tribe. This is true regardless of how “well-meaning” the people involved are. 

As Thucydides wrote, “The ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.”

This is how we end up with a hopeless political battlefield. People have given up on persuasion and figuring out reality and are focused on crushing their Enemy. In their rage, they know there can be no legitimate disagreement, so their opponents must be malicious.

Many people on the Right hate the Left for doing these things, but in reaction, some tend to act in the same way. 

I often post about how everyone has a right to speak and that we should persuade people instead of harassing or censoring them. The comments inevitably flood in: “But not MY enemies!! The Left really is evil and we need to crush them!” 

Those who think that the Right must embrace cancel culture to “fight harder” must remember all the reasons Leftist tactics are bad. That the Left does these things for the wrong ends is a reason to oppose them, but there are many others. If Leftists acting like antisocial clowns turns people off, it is unclear how doing the same will help the Right. What is cathartic is not always persuasive.

This tweet represents the toxic mentality: “liberals want to use birth control to prevent life from forming, if it miraculously does, they want to kill baby with abortion.  if they keep the baby they want to deform its sex organs into the opposite gender and also turn it homosexual.  you can’t explain this without Satan. [sic]”

You actually can—pretty easily: They want to maximize bodily autonomy, have a bad conception of personhood, and have taken tolerance for LGBT people to absurd conclusions. That will do it—no Satan required.

Though this tweet is fairly obscure and particularly stupid, this (literal) demonization permeates the Right. Beneath posts about how the current economic crisis shows that policies have unintended consequences, everyone responds: “It wasn’t unintentional! They want to destroy you!”

People are right to care deeply about these issues, but when it descends to assuming that people you disagree with are not just wrong, but sadistic and out to get you, it’s not just toxic, it’s simply irrational.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson has said: “The thing about activism is that it’s almost always predicated on the idea that you’re right, you’re morally superior, and you’ve identified the people who are wrong. And to me, that’s one step away from mob.”

This mentality tempts all of us. Leftists go into righteous insanity about racism or abortion or homophobia, but some on the Right act the same way about trans bathrooms or LGBT grooming or communism.

As long as this paradigm continues, our only future will be dolor, chaos, and an inability to reason about the things about which it is most important for us to be rational. I do not know how to get out of it. Though the Internet has probably worsened it, I don’t think the fundamental problem is new

The knee-jerk recommendation is something like “empathy.” But we can sit around and empathize all day and we will get nowhere if we do not think.

Maybe the answer is something my co-worker T. K. Coleman talks about: resist the pressure to have opinions on everything. How few of the things everyday people viciously debate are things we have first-hand knowledge of, or even have researched for ourselves, rather than just repeating partisan narratives? Maybe we must seek to understand issues before shouting about them. 

Maybe the problem is deeper: rooted in how our culture and authorities treat disagreement as conflict, not as conversation.