The Difference Between ‘You Are Wrong’ and ‘You Are Evil’

One of the things that makes politics exhausting these days is that these kinds of thing keeps happening:

* When NFL athletes take a knee to protest police abuse and injustice, they are called a “son of a b*tch” and told that they are disrespecting our country.

* When over 500 people are killed or injured in a mass shooting, those who want to talk about what we can do to prevent this kind of thing from happening are told that they are politicizing the tragedy. When they suggest that thoughts and prayers are not enough, they are told that they are godless.

* When a story breaks about a famous Hollywood producer’s history of sexual harassment and assault, we are told that this confirms that it is the liberal Hollywood elite that is to blame for ruining our country.

* When the president is asked why he hasn’t mentioned the killing of four U.S. soldiers, he responds by blaming his predecessor for how he handled communicating with the families of soldiers previously killed in conflicts.

In other words, everything—even how a Commander-in-Chief consoles Gold Star families—is funneled into the partisan divide. We can’t talk about ending police abuse, preventing mass shootings, dealing with sexual assault/harrassement or even comforting those who have lost a loved one without taking sides.

I recently read an interview Emma Green conducted with Alan Jacobs, author of the book How to Think. Regular readers will understand my interest in it because the title of Green’s piece is, “How American Politics Became So Exhausting.” She notes that Jacobs is a Baylor University professor who “describes himself as a conservative Christian with some ‘very liberal’ political views.” Here is his take:

In a pluralistic society, people struggle to deal with difference. One of the ways in which we typically deal with difference is by drawing really clear lines of belonging and not-belonging. To be able to signal “who is with me” and “who is not with me”—in-groups and out-groups—is extremely significant for human beings.

My view is that is the number-one impediment to thinking…

Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

One category that’s gone away in America is “wrong.” Nobody is just “wrong.” They’re wicked, they’re evil, they’re malicious, they’re the victims of these vast subterranean forces.

I know that people will accuse me of bothsiderism, but I have to note that this doesn’t just happen on the right. Throughout the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders didn’t just disagree with Hillary Clinton, he accused her of being beholden to big money interests. That cut off all conversation about the areas where they disagree about policy. I also remember when some on the left were absolutely livid because President Obama said that Sen. Elizabeth Warren was wrong about TPP. It was as if he had accused her of being evil. It is critical for us to make a distinction between the two.

I do, however, agree with Jacobs that the problem is much more pronounced on the right.

There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now.

I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.

I find it interesting that Jacobs relates this problem to the spread of conspiracy theories. That is exactly what Marilynn Robinson said during her interview with Barack Obama two years ago.

I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?…because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

The idea that other people don’t simply disagree with us, but are somehow sinister, is captured in all of the examples I listed above. NFL players don’t have different views about police brutality, they are unpatriotic. People who want to talk about policy responses to mass shootings are godless. Sexual assault/harassment isn’t a by-product of patriarchy, it is all about evil Hollywood liberals. The inference in Trump’s remarks about Obama not calling Gold Star families was that he didn’t care about them.

I suspect that I will affirm Jacobs’ assertion about liberal smugness when I say that this is an infantile way of dealing with differences. But that doesn’t make it an incorrect assessment. It needs to be said because, as Robinson suggested, it “is about as dangerous a development as there could be.” Our survival as a pluralistic democracy depends on whether or not we can grow up enough to say “You are wrong” instead of “You are evil.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.