Anger is a hot topic in politics these days. As a former therapist, I’ll admit that there is a lot of pop psychology out there that has been fueled by this idea that we all need to do a better job of expressing our feelings—especially anger. What my former profession hasn’t done a good job of, however, is teaching people that simply expressing anger isn’t enough.
I remember learning a real life lesson years ago when I worked in a group home that considered the expression of anger to be an important part of the healing process. One day during a staff meeting, two men got into a heated exchange over a disagreement. They were sitting at opposite ends of our conference table and eventually stood up and raised their voices in anger. As a young newbie to this kind of anger, it was pretty intimidating. But they also did something we don’t see very often. In the midst of their anger, they continued to listen to each other. In the end, they spontaneously reached out to shake hands across the table as a sign of respect, if not complete agreement.
I have never forgotten that moment because it was a rare glimpse into the possible. Actually listening to an opponent in the midst of anger doesn’t happen very often. What happens more often than not is that the actual disagreement gets lost as the arguments become more personal in an effort to shut the other side down.
That is precisely what I am seeing in the attempt by some pundits on the left these days who want Hillary Clinton to shut up and go away. As Paul Waldman recounts today, it has become a bit of a cottage industry. It is clear that some people are angry with Clinton. I don’t see any point in denying that anger. But almost none of them are engaged in discussing where the actual disagreements are rooted. It’s all pretty personal. And by suggesting that she needs to shut up and go away, it’s clear that these folks aren’t interested in listening to what she has to say.
There are some things Democrats need to talk about, like how to compete politically in a Citizens United era, how to move forward on universal health care, what good trade agreements should look like, what the role of government should be in combating income inequality, how best to combat the forces of xenophobia and what a 21st Century foreign policy should look like. In a party as diverse as Democrats, there are disagreements on a lot of those things. But when either side is defined in personal terms (i.e., corrupt), and therefore needs to be silenced, it simply means we don’t listen and the divide deepens.
A friend of mine recently shared an article with me that was written by Michael Patrick Lynch primarily for academics. He discusses the problem with arrogance and a lack of humility. I don’t necessarily like the words he chose to define the problem, perhaps because so much of what passes for humility these days feels false. But nevertheless, Lynch makes some great points. For example:
We need to incorporate intellectual humility — what John Dewey called the “scientific attitude” — as a cultural norm. “Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail,” Dewey noted, “if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred.”
Dewey knew that democracies can’t function if their citizens don’t have conviction — an apathetic electorate is no electorate at all. But our democracy also can’t function if we don’t seek, at least some of the time, to inhabit a common space where we can listen to each other and trade reasons back and forth.
That is precisely what Adam Gopnik was recommending.
What’s needed against Trump now is what has been found in France—not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.
While Democrats might not find a lot of what Gopnik called “honest opponents” on the right, it is critical to view people we disagree with on the left in those terms. That’s how liberals get our own house in order first. Being angry at people we disagree with on the left is only natural. But that can’t lead to an attempt to stifle and/or silence diverse voices. That’s why Democrats need to listen to Hillary Clinton, as well as those she represents.