Beware Your Enemies, Lest You Become Like Them

Pleasure Garden with a Maze by Lodewijk Toeput, c. 1579-1584 [Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland]

It is a great challenge these days trying to keep friends on both sides of the ideological divide.  Sometimes, when your friends discover that you do not see things exactly the way they do – the way their side insists is the way to view current troubles – then you’re finished.  You might as well have the plague.

In other situations, the difficulty arises in trying to convince friends on one side of the partisan divide that those on the other side may actually be reasonable people who happen to see things differently.  Try convincing someone who despises Donald Trump, Josh Hawley, or Mitch McConnell that people on the other side view Joe Bi­den, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer the same way – as uniquely evil and the primary source of America’s ills.

Try asking people who call Nancy Pelosi a power-mad old hag who can’t stand to lose her choke-hold on power to consider how they feel about reporters repeatedly calling Donald Trump “sick” and “obese.”

I ask both sides to stop.

“Look, these people crossed a line!”

Yes. But which people?  Which group did you choose?  How do we specify?  Crossing the lines set forth by the Constitution is what politicians do these days and then get cheered on by their ideological allies.  Too many of us celebrate it when these un-Constitutional assaults serve our own ideological preferences and then find ourselves “shocked and outraged” when it doesn’t.

Did you like it when President Trump did things by executive order for which he should have gotten the approval of Congress?  Well, I suppose you must be delighted now that Joe Biden is passing out executive orders about things for which he should be getting the approval of Congress or leaving to the judgment of the states.

I thought we were electing a president, not a king.  You can’t be delighted by one constitutional overreach and scandalized by the other.  Why do some people seem to imagine the Constitution was written with an eye to empowering one ideological group over all others?  It wasn’t.  It was written precisely to prevent that.

If you think politics is about extending your will-to-power, then please don’t be shocked if you find this is the way those on the other side view it too.  What is worse is the presumption of many people that their side and their people are free from the sleaziness they see so clearly in their opponents.

I recall being assailed one afternoon with a long screed by a very decent young man explaining how evil he thought Mitch McConnell is and how the Republicans only play power games while the Democrats use reasoned arguments.  I told him that this was interesting – he was certainly “entitled to his opinion.” But I had one problem with this claim: I had heard a nearly identical disquisition with all the same complaints from my conservative friends, only with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats as the criminals rather than McConnell and the Republicans.

My young friend found this ludicrous.  “No,” he insisted, “there is no moral equivalency.  The Republicans do evil things and are in the pockets of the rich.”  “I imagine some of them do and are,” I replied; “all I am trying to point out is that I have friends on the other side who insist that it is the Democrats who ‘do evil things’ and ‘are in the pocket of the rich.’”

He said out loud what I suppose many readers are thinking about him.  “Anyone who thinks that is objectively wrong.”

“They may be,” I granted, “but how would you know?  How well do you know them?  How well do you know their arguments?  And how well do you know the things you’re talking about?  Are there complications that both sides might be blind to or avoiding because of their devotion to a particular set of ideological presuppositions and a defining metanarrative through which they view events?  They may have their blind spots, but then again, perhaps you and I do as well.  Isn’t this why we engage in discussions in which our arguments, presuppositions, and conclusions can be tested by the best arguments from the other side?”

Our arguments, presuppositions, and conclusions can be tested by the best arguments from the other side

When I talk to hard-core progressives or conservatives of a certain sort, both sides complain that those on the other side are “uninformed,” “ignorant,” and, more to the point, incapable of engaging in reasonable discussion.  “You can’t talk to those people!”  (You mean, people like us?)

Our problem is not merely that we are divided ideologically.  Our biggest problem is each side’s lack of self-awareness about themselves and how they are blinded by their own ideology so that they can no longer see their opponents with anything approaching objectivity, let alone charity.

Neither side has the ability to see that both sides presume that they are “smarter,” “more well-informed,” and have better intentions than their opponents, and as a result, they think they have every reason to treat the arguments of their opponents with contempt.  We (whoever “we” are) can dismiss them (whoever “they” are) because they are so ignorant, so brutish, and so infected by ill-will.

And so the hatred and contempt grow, with both sides assuming that the way to “Make America Great Again” or “Restore the Soul of America” (take your pick) is to silence their enemies.  Both sides remain oblivious to the obvious truth shown repeatedly throughout history that this sort of ideological blindness, mutual recrimination, and contempt is the surest road to ruin and desolation for the entire country.  No one is winning, and everyone will lose.

So when I see either my conservative or my liberal friends enjoying themselves dumping on some bête noire from the other party (oh, how we love to hate), I offer them the warning a friend used to give me: “Beware your enemies; you become like them.”  Or as Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip possum Pogo once said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Editorial comment

Professor Randall Smith’s feature Beware Your Enemies, Lest You Become Like Them is the first external article of Our Own Identity’s website, which is reproduced by kind permission of The Catholic Thing. It has been selected because it touches on a key issue that is blighting American and—indeed—all Western society, namely the gulf between ideologies and the lack of dialogue between them (see also here). Professor Smith mentions that engaging in discussions tests our arguments, presuppositions and conclusions against the other side. Debate is an elegant art, which, if executed well, has power to file down crude, inane and even subtle errors on both sides and avoid the worst consequences of blind division and hatred. To quote Winston Churchill: Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.   

Sources

Acknowledgement: This column first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing (here) Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. His latest book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary was published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press.

Image: In public domain here