Understanding our Enemies

UNDERSTANDING OUR ENEMIES….Brad DeLong, who admits to extreme crankiness today, had this to say earlier this morning:

There is a certain kind of Berkeley professor who I am losing my tolerance for…

You know (or maybe you don’t): the kind who believes that your first duty is to sympathetically understand where people are coming from. Unless they’re Republicans. You have a duty to enter into the thought processes and sympathetically entertain the understanding of the world of a guy in Nigeria who has a picture of Osama bin Laden in his car, or a bureaucratic functionary working for Fidel Castro, or somebody who thinks that Bangladeshis should not be allowed to work in the textile industry. But Republicans? They are Blue Meanies. They are one dimensional. They are baaaaad.

And, of course, they appear to have no ironic consciousness of the huge disconnect in their intellectual stance at all. To say in one breath that we must not succumb to the temptation to turn those who express sympathy for Osama bin Laden into alien, hated, one-dimensional OTHERS; and then say in the next that those who express sympathy for Paul Wolfowitz are alien, hated, one-dimensional OTHERS…

Brad’s post prompted a response from Mark Kleiman, who is none too taken with the “MultiCulti/PoMo/Diversity” crowd himself, which in turn prompted this question from Matt Yglesias:

Is it okay if I’m universally intolerant of people who don’t share my point-of-view, or am I supposed to be nice to everyone? I agree that the stance he (and Brad Delong) target is untenable, but what’s the preferred solution here?

Mark has an answer of his own (see link above), but I’d propose a different (and simpler) one:

  • Moderation

The fact is that pretty much any intellectual principle becomes absurd and unusable when taken to extremes ? as the academic left seems to have done with the initially useful ideas of postmodernism. Academic lefties are hardly alone in this, of course: history is littered with the corpses of movements that had a single overarching vision that metastasized over time and eventually led them to their doom.

The reason for this is simple: ideas have to reflect reality to have any power, and the actual human world doesn’t run according to a single overarching principle. At a certain point, even if an idea continues to make some kind of logical sense, it no longer makes human sense as it starts coming into conflict with other human principles and desires that are equally strong. If you insist on taking your ideas past that point, you have essentially become a fanatic.

If you want to get things done in the real world, you have to understand how humans react to things and how far an idea can go before it becomes mere looniness and loses its power to persuade. So the answer to Matt’s question, I think, is that you should seek to understand alternative views up to a point and you should also be intolerant of alternative views up to a point. What point? Good judgment and trial and error are about the only ways to figure it out.

This isn’t a very satisfactory answer, but I think it’s the correct one.

POSTSCRIPT: And just to add a political tint to this post, I’d argue that modern conservatism is an example of an idea that has been taken to unreasonable extremes and thereby lost touch with reality. In the same way that liberalism arguably overreached in the 60s and 70s and suffered the backlash of Reaganism, I think that Reaganism has overreached under Bush and is due for a liberal backlash sometime soon.

How soon? I wish I knew….

POSTSCRIPT THE SECOND: Taken generally, this also demonstrates one of the primary strengths of liberal democracy as a political system: it’s very hard for extremism to take hold. Various viewpoints ebb and flow, but they very rarely get to the catastrophic point that is sadly common under authoritarian systems. This institutional moderation allows societies to grow steadily over long periods, rather than crashing and burning periodically and having to start over nearly from scratch.