Of the many ideological debates we have, what we do least often and least well is to dig beneath the surface of conflicting ideologies and clearly identify the underlying values and attitudes informing them. Even those who adhere to a particular ideology are often unaware of what is at its core when you peal back enough layers of the onion. And that is how the rise of vicious and inhumane ideologies is possible, how it circumvents the cognitive dissonance imposed by countervailing moralities. Those who participate in that rise are either convinced that they are participating in something just and right, or have simply managed not to measure their beliefs by any moral standard.
There is nothing historically exceptional about viciousness and inhumanity. It is not the occasional violation of a norm of rational goodwill dominating our lives, but rather at least as potent a force, erupting into orgies of mass violence at frequent intervals around the world, but also ever-present in every society, percolating below the surface, sometimes bubbling upward and gaining force. America today is in such a moment of its history, allowing a vicious and inhumane attitude to gain prominence, to dominate public discourse and public policy formation.
Nor is it only those “others” who are to blame. It is not the fault of just one ideology. There are few who have not contributed to it. Regrettably, I cannot name myself among those few, for my own defects as a human being have too often and too greatly led me to serve my own emotional gratification at the expense of this ideal of a more rational and humane society to which we all should strive.
I don’t admit that gratuitously, but rather to make two sets of points: 1) One does not have to be perfect to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to encourage us all to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to identify the most robust ways in which we as a society are failing to strive to be better; and 2) we do not most successfully strive, as a society, to be better, to do better, by laying all blame on others and exonerating ourselves, but rather by recognizing that we ourselves are all implicated in our failings as a society, and that the ideology across the aisle we respectively blame for all public sins may have its own virtues and we our own vices.
Most importantly, like Batman and the Joker, we create each other, and if we perceive in “them” something hostile to humanity, then we also must perceive in ourselves what we do to produce and maintain that hostile force.
Having said that, and recognizing that the hostility and anger and blind ideological rage on the Left is a contributing force to our growing inhumanity (rather than, as those who engage in these follies desperately wish to believe, a bulwark against it), the inhumanity itself is funnelled through and given voice by their counterparts on the Right. While we all need to strive harder to exemplify and exude a sincere commitment to reason and compassion and universal goodwill (which is not synonymous with complete pacifism or non-confrontationalism, but which does temper the degree to which our emotional inclinations too readily embrace hostile expressions of our ideological convictions and various interests), we also all need to recognize the growing inhumanity of our nation’s most prominent and vocal contemporary ideological phenomenon.
It is not wise to reduce this to individual substantive policy positions because, to be honest, it is not automatically the case that such positions, that on the surface appear inhumane, actually are: There is sufficient nonlinearity in our social institutional ecology, and a sufficient number of counterintuitive truths, that such assumptions aren’t warranted. But beneath those policy positions, informing those policy positions, is an attitude in which this inhumanity can clearly be discerned, an attitude of extreme individualism, of indifference to the realities of social injustice and unnecessary human suffering, an attitude stripped of real compassion or concern for those less fortunate than the holder of that value, an attitude which blindly blames all those who have not fared well on the basis of an arbitrary and more-frequently-than-not erroneous assumption that people get what they deserve, that we live in a meritocracy and those who do not succeed do not succeed as a result of their own failings. It is within that attitude, rather than within any particular substantive policy positions, that our growing inhumanity as a nation, as a people, resides.
I have written extensively on the irrationality of many of the substantive positions and ideological certainties that have grown in the soil of this essentially inhumane attitude (see, e.g., “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V)). And I have alluded to the parallel between the sense of personal well-being and joy associated with striving to be compassionate, socially responsible, generous human beings on the individual level, and the similar benefits to our health as a society when we strive to institutionalize those attitudes through our pre-eminent agent of collective will and action (see, e.g., A Political Christmas Carol). Certainly, I have not been bashful about identifying our current right-wing ideological movement as one which is analogous in too many ways to that which we revile most as one of history’s worst eruptions of inhumanity (see, e.g., The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy and Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding). But we need to be explicit and urgent about what it is we are talking about: The rise of an ideology of inhumanity.
It seems to me that there was a time, not long ago, when virtually no American would argue against the proposition that we have a shared social responsibility to reduce poverty to the best of our ability. Yet today we are in the throes of an ideological passion that says that poverty is not our shared responsibility, but rather a matter of individual choice (which, as those who have any knowledge of history or economics realize, means not addressing the issue to any significant degree at all, since it involves a collective action problem which is surrendered to by eliminating the notion that we have to address it through public institutions).
Despite the abundant statistical evidence that the legacies of historical injustice are reproduced in current distributions of wealth and opportunity, this ideology simply disregards any commitment to fairness, to trying to maximize equality of opportunity by facing the simple reality that it is not currently maximized, by insisting that any use of government is an act of violence against their individual liberties. It is an ideology informed by the obscenity that those who benefit most from our current political economy have no enforceable responsibility to those who benefit least, despite the fact that the disparity between the two is many times larger than it is in any other developed nation. It is a socially disintegrative, callous, and inhumane ideology. And it is has a significant and possibly still growing hold on us as a nation.
Those of us who recognize this, and recognize how imperative it is to confront it effectively, need to divert a little of our time and energy and resources away from arguing on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, and toward arguing on a fundamental, underlying moral basis. We need to make clear in every word and gesture and deed and effort that what we perceive as wrong is not, for instance, the suggestion that we may have to reduce our long-term accumulation of public debt through some combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but rather the underlying attitude that while we are doing so our commitment to those who are most vulnerable and who are benefiting least from our social institutional arrangements still merit our collective attention and our collective commitment. We need to argue not only that this or that specific immigration reform is right or wrong, but far more emphatically that vilifying other human beings who are merely migrating toward opportunity in the only way they can is wrong, period. We need to argue not only that this law or that regrading marriage is just and right, but that burdening people with any inferior status on the basis of their sexual orientation is just one more form of bigotry, just one more way in which some human beings justify hating other human beings, and that that’s not who and what we are or who and what we want to be.
We need to define our political battles as a fight for our humanity as a nation and as a people, because it is our humanity that is very much in jeopardy. Let us be committed to respecting the dignity and rights of all human beings. Let us form our identities more inclusively rather than more exclusively. Let us always strive to do better as individuals, recognizing that that is part of what it takes to do better as a nation and a people. And let us be humble about substantive policies on complex issues (e.g., economics, energy/environmental, foreign relations), admitting that it’s a complex and subtle world, many aspects of which require in-depth analyses to arrive at well-informed conclusions. But let us never let up in our insistence that those analyses, that that humility, be directed toward the end of benefitting humanity, because to stand for anything less is an act of violence and a cause for eternal shame.