Guest post: It’s not just a yard sign any more

Originally a comment by Screechy Monkey on About the emotional stunting.

I think part of the problem is that these pundits live in a different world than the rest of us. I don’t mean just “they’re the elite and we’re the common folk,” though that can be part of it. I just mean that the stakes are different for them, in both directions: they’re often insulated from the consequences of the other side’s policies, yet they feel conflict more sharply because of the work and social circles in which they live.

Example 1: Opinion columnists/pundits. I’m sure Ross Douthat is a swell guy and easy to get along with. He seems nice in the podcasts and dialogues I’ve heard him have with liberals over the years, and that’s quite a few since he used to be a semi-regular on Bloggingheads back when I followed it. I have no doubt that liberals like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias genuinely like the guy, and probably for good personal reasons. And if you’re Klein in particular, who is a NYT colleague, you kind of need to get along professionally. If I ever met him, I’d be polite and chances are we’d have a perfectly civil encounter. But that doesn’t change the fact that Douthat is (among other things) a theocrat who thinks The Handmaid’s Tale is an aspirational story. I don’t want to “unify” with someone like that, and as I’m unlikely to ever meet or work with Douthat, I couldn’t give a shit if he’s offended by people like me characterizing his views harshly.

Example 2: This has changed in recent years for reasons that are all too apparent, but it used to be the case that some people were surprised by how well some Supreme Court justices got along. I think Ginsburg and Scalia went to the opera together; some of the others were regular bridge partners. They all tended to speak highly of their colleagues and how well they got along personally. And I think that was a good thing for them, and did no harm to the causes they each supported. There’s no reason that, e.g., Ginsburg should have gone to work every day dreading seeing Scalia in the courtroom and avoiding him in the hallways and shooting nasty glances across the conference room table because they are ideologically opposed. It would have made the job really miserable, and wouldn’t have accomplished anything: Scalia wasn’t going to suddenly support women’s rights because of a scowl from a colleague. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us should mince words about what the conservative justices are doing. We don’t have to work with them, we don’t see them in the halls every day.

It reminds me of the old debates about Gnu Atheism. The anti-Gnus were always anxious to reduce everything to personal relationships: Richard Dawkins writing a book titled “The God Delusion” was supposedly the equivalent of telling grandma (it was always grandma for some reason) on her deathbed that her religious beliefs are silly, Christopher Hitchens being harsh in a public debate was the same as telling your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner that he’s evil for going to church, etc. etc.

I think this is another area where we’re still adjusting to social media. It used to be that if your neighbor had a yard sign for a political candidate you despised, that didn’t prevent you from having pleasant neighborly chats about how well their garden is growing this year, or inviting them to your BBQ, or whatever. If you were both the kind of people who liked the cut-and-thrust of political debate, you might engage them, but in most instances you just gracefully avoided the topic (and people who didn’t possess that skill/inclination, and would constantly inject politics into every discussion, you learned to avoid). That didn’t necessarily mean that you thought your neighbor was a swell person and that their political views didn’t affect your view of them, it just meant you exercised some discretion.

That’s all a little harder now when so many people are constantly broadcasting their views where their neighbors and colleagues and relatives can see them. It’s not just a yard sign any more. In some ways of course that is more “honest” — we aren’t engaging in so many polite fictions. But in other ways it feels like now most people have become that neighbor who injects politics into every discussion.

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