MONDAY, MARCH 6, 2023
Taking the David French Challenge: "I've looked at life from both sides now?"
It's a well-known historical claim.
Joni Mitchell was the first to report this accomplishment. She did so in this famous song from 1966 or 1967, which Judy Collins quickly recorded.
In fairness, Mitchell admitted that looking at life from both sides hadn't been fully successful.
"It's life's illusions I recall," she admitted at the end of her song. "I really don't know life at all."
Even given that admission, it may be that the time has come to emulate Mitchell's conduct. That brings us to a task we'll describe as The David French Challenge.
We'll base our reading on material found in French's March 2 column for the New York Times. Like others before him, French described a world of poisonous political conflict—a nation in which our "unrelenting mutual political hatred informs our judgment."
Unrelenting mutual hatred informs our judgment—and not in a good way, French says. Here's the part of the hymn within which we've spotted a challenge:
FRENCH (3/2/23): [O]ur nation’s unrelenting mutual political hatred informs our judgment. The group More in Common recently attempted to measure partisan animosity in connection with our cultural conflicts over teaching American history. Its findings were disturbing. America’s most partisan citizens view their political opponents as deeply reprehensible. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats view the other side as “hateful,” “racist,” “brainwashed” and “arrogant.”...They see no value in the speech of people they despise. Instead, they see only bad people expressing bad ideas in bad faith.
We’re losing the capacity for empathy. We simply can’t place ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Yet it takes a certain degree of arrogance to presume that we’re so obviously correct that disagreement isn’t just a sign of error but of moral defect.
Even worse, we’re wrong. Our presumptions of our opponents’ views are often simply false. Even as More in Common found unrelenting political hostility between red and blue, it also found that Democrats and Republicans have a “deeply distorted understanding of each other.” In fact, Democrats and Republicans believe that 55 percent of their opponents hold extreme views. In reality, the number is only 30 percent.
"Democrats and Republicans believe that 55 percent of their opponents hold extreme views"—but "in reality, the number is only 30 percent?"
We don't know of any objective way to generate that second statistic. That said, French's portrait of our political culture seems to be on the mark.
It's true! When large numbers of Republicans and Democrats discuss those in the other party, it frequently seems that they "see only bad people expressing bad ideas in bad faith."
Beyond that, people do frequently seem to presume that their tribe's view on some matter is obviously correct—so much so that disagreement on the part of others can only be "a sign of moral defect."
One's own side is plainly correct; the Others are simply "bad people." In French's view, that isn't the way we Americans, red or blue, should let ourselves picture the world.
As a general matter, we think French is right on that general point—but what solution to this problem does French suggest? Continuing, he offers this:
FRENCH (continuing directly): How can we end this cancel culture? Switch the presumptions. Rather than beginning with the idea that our opponents are evil people who express evil ideas, operate with a rebuttable presumption that our political foes are decent people expressing heartfelt thoughts in good faith.
In French's view, we shouldn't "begin with the idea that our opponents are evil people who express evil ideas." Instead, we should "operate with a rebuttable presumption"—with the presumption that "our political foes are decent people expressing heartfelt thoughts in good faith."
A key word there is "rebuttable." French isn't saying that we'll end up thinking that all our foes are decent people. We'll still be allowed to have people we hate, but we'll train ourselves to avoid hating tens of millions of unknown people live and direct from the jump!
Does French's presentation make sense? Should we operate with a (rebuttable) presumption that our political foes are decent people expressing heartfelt thoughts in good faith?
For ourselves, we tend to agree with French's view. In effect, he has issued a challenge:
He has challenged Americans, red and blue, to consider the possibility that people who disagree with them may have a reasonable motive for the ideas they express.
Meanwhile, who knows? It could turn out that some of those others even have the occasional germ of a valid point!
At this juncture, full disclosure! In a political realm of blue and red tribes, we ourselves always vote with the blues. In that sense, French is issuing this challenge to us:
He's challenging us to imagine the possibility that people who belong to the red tribe may in fact be "decent people expressing heartfelt thoughts in good faith."
Imaginably, such people may even be reacting to some shortcoming in the general views of our own blue tribe! To some tiny extent, it could turn out that their complaints about our tribe are reasonable, sensible, valid!
So goes The David French Challenge. For those of us who vote with blue America, we're being challenged to consider the possibility that members of red American may have some valid observations or concerns.
Starting tomorrow, we're going to take that challenge! In fact, we're going to start a lengthy attempt to find the possible merits in various red points of view.
We're going to try to see the world as the red tribe sometimes does. In effect, we'll be trying to look at life From Their Side Now.
Is it possible that red voters have some valid perceptions or complaints? Is it possible that Our Side has even been a tiny bit wrong on occasion?
For many years, it has seemed to us that our own blue tribe is much too self-impressed. We can easily spot the evil in Others, but we can't see the flaws in ourselves.
It also seems to us that this behavior may tend to harm blue interests. When we can't see the flaws in our own behaviors and points of view, this tends to harden the tribal division which makes national progress impossible.
At this difficult juncture, French has issued a challenge. We've decided to take the challenge—even to heighten its terms:
With apologies for our language, we're going to start with the dumbest public figure who's currently part of red tribe politics. Also, with the way one of our own Pulitzer winners recently chose to characterize that public figure's most recent dumb remark.
The dumbest person among the Others made a dumb remark. Is it possible that her dumb remark, however dumb, stemmed from a valid set of concerns?
Is it possible that our own tribe's reaction to her remark was dumb, and possibly ugly too? Is it possible that we actually harm progressive interests when we react in such ways?
Starting tomorrow, we'll be looking at life From Their Side Now. Is it possible that "life's illusions" have somehow managed to worm their way inside our own tents too?
Tomorrow: Just like Lester Maddox!