Ethics & Public Policy Center

Why We Dehumanize Political Opponents

Published in Commentary Magazine on August 18, 2014



The Village Voice publishes a weekly blog in which the musician and entertainer Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier – better known by his stage name Andrew W.K. – takes questions from readers. A recent exchange caught my attention, starting with a letter in which the correspondent complained that the author’s father is a “super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total assho*e intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.”

The reader, a self-described liberal Democrat with very progressive values, writes, “I know that people like my dad are going to destroy us all. I don’t have any good times with him anymore. All we do is argue…. I love him no matter what, but how do I explain to him that his politics are turning him into a monster, destroying the environment, and pushing away the people who care about him?”

Andrew W.K. responded this way: “Try to find a single instance where you referred to your dad as a human being, a person, or a man. There isn’t one. You’ve reduced your father — the person who created you — to a set of beliefs and political views and how it relates to you.” He adds

You’ve also reduced yourself to a set of opposing views, and reduced your relationship with him to a fight between the two. The humanity has been reduced to nothingness and all that’s left in its place is an argument that can never really be won. And even if one side did win, it probably wouldn’t satisfy the deeper desire to be in a state of inflamed passionate conflict…. The world is being hurt and damaged by one group of people believing they’re truly better people than the others who think differently.

I should say here that I dissent from some of what Andrew W.K. says, including this statement: “No matter how bad someone may appear, they are truly no worse than us. Our beliefs and behavior don’t make us fundamentally better than others, no matter how satisfying it is to believe otherwise.”

This assertion cannot be true. Some people who appear bad actually are bad. It is precisely the beliefs and behavior of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jon-Il, Bashar al-Assad, Idi Amin, Khaled Mashaal, Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Timothy McVeigh and countless others — that make them fundamentally worse than you or I. Some individuals really and truly are monsters.

But where I think he is on to something important is how many of us allow reasonable but pronounced political differences to dissolve human bonds. How politics and life are fairly complicated matters that we’re tempted to reduce to simplistic formulas. And how we often assume our vantage point is the only valid one and make very little effort to see things from the point of view of those with whom we most disagree. Andrew W.K. writes, “We cling to the hope that some day, if we really refine our world view and beliefs, we can actually find the fully correct way to think — the absolute truth and final side to stand on.”

This called to mind a recent conversation I had in which I found myself observing that there’s a crucial distinction that’s sometimes lost on me and among people whom I know, including those within my faith community.

It’s the distinction between believing in objective truth and believing we can fully apprehend and access it. As my friend put it, “I believe in objective truth, but I hold more lightly to our ability to perceive truth.” His wife added that she’s found we need to learn to live with greater humility, to live with open hands, faithfully seeking truth without constantly demanding certitude.

I’m fully aware of the danger this can introduce: relativism. The perspective I’m offering, if over-interpreted, can drain us of our convictions, making us less willing to fight for things that are worth fighting for. It can lead us into a world of existential confusion and ultimately, despair.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule that will help us find just the right setting between unwarranted assurance and unwarranted uncertainty. We can all come up with scenarios in which each one, at the wrong time, can lead to disaster. What we need depends in large part on where we stand and what our predisposition, our default position, is.

I will say that most people who inhabit the worlds in which I travel in – the worlds of politics, political philosophy and theology — lean too much in the direction of assuming we know the full truth as against leaning too much in the direction of having little confidence we can ascertain any of the truth. We therefore tend to ignore evidence that challenges our assumptions and resist honest self-examination. We spend all of our time defending what we deem to be the truth; as a result, we have almost no time to actually reflect on it and refine our views of it.

“What I want in our students,” my good and wise friend told me, “and what I admire are people who are teachable, who are open to arguments, who make room for other perspectives.”

People of a certain cast of mind will roll their eyes at such words. They are the ones who most need to hear them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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