The Value of Humility
America’s public discourse is in a deplorable state. A politics of conversation, in which each side makes its arguments to the other until some form of mutually agreeable consensus has been reached, has been replaced by a politics of rage, in which each side does not make arguments, but rather demonizes the other side to promote its own cause. Many Americans exist in political echo chambers, impenetrable structures through which no opposing opinion can enter. The result of this state of affairs is that the fabric of our political discourse is tearing at the seams. Americans hardly seem to agree about anything anymore, and our disagreements are proving more destructive with each passing day (the recent “anti-fascist” riot at UC Berkeley is a salient example).
Rarely, if ever, do we pause to reflect on how we allowed our discourse to decay to such a disgraceful extent, or, more importantly, how we can repair it. This article will address the latter. In the interest of purifying our discourse, I propose that we remind ourselves of the radical notion that our political opponents are human beings just like us.
Human beings, by their very nature, seek meaning. We do not want to drift through life putting one foot in front of the other day in and day out for no reason—we want our lives to have purpose. Though we derive this purpose from different sources (religion, vocation, and family to name a few), one thing is certain: politics does not contain the resources to imbue human life with meaning. Politics is simply the means by which we get along with one another. It alone will never help us uncover the purpose of human life.
In fact, much of the rancor infusing our political discourse can be attributed to a view of human life as primarily political. We tend to draw hard, even Manichean distinctions between people of opposing viewpoints. We divide ourselves into diametrically opposed and mutually odious camps. We call each other “neocon fascists” or “leftist snowflakes,” “murderous pro-choicers” or “religious fanatic pro-lifers,” “racist Trump supporters” or “crooked Hillary supporters.” In doing so, we erroneously reduce the human person to a purely political being.
This is a flawed line of thinking for the simple reason that the human person is more robust than political beliefs. Each of us is a vastly complex web of beliefs, emotions, and roles. Through a political lens, I am a right-leaning centrist; through a familial lens, I am a son and a brother; through a religious lens, I am a Catholic. My identity is not monochromatic, but variegated. To disregard any one element of my identity is to fundamentally misunderstand who I am.
Once we understand that the self draws upon multiple sources for its identity, we can see why it is so harmful to our discourse to treat each other as primarily political beings. In separating political beliefs from the other constitutive elements of our identities, we try to separate the self from itself, rendering the entire person unintelligible. Once we have committed this fatal error, our political opponents become impossible to understand and therefore objects of hatred. It is no longer possible to see them as the complex beings they truly are, but instead as incomprehensibly irrational beings worthy only of disdain.
Clearly, the issue at stake here is grave. The next logical question is how do we address it? The answer is, in a word, humility.
As I have already argued, human beings draw upon a wide variety of sources for their identity and are therefore extremely complicated. We are, in fact, so complicated that we are even somewhat mysterious to ourselves. To give a wholly satisfactory account of one’s own identity is a Sisyphean task. When we struggle to choose our vocation, our major, or even what clothes we will put on in the morning, we run right up against the mystery of ourselves. We are, every day, searching for who we are.
If we are, in a certain sense, unfathomable to ourselves, then how can we expect to fully understand another equally complex being to whose mind we have only the imperfect access language provides us? In thinking that we could ever fully understand another person, we arrogate to ourselves a divine level of omniscience. In other words, we play God. The only way to cure this arrogance is to counter it with humility. We must constantly remind ourselves that we cannot ever completely know, and therefore cannot judge, other human beings. This is not to say that we should not engage in political debate; on the contrary, robust political discourse is the lifeblood of any democratic society. But it is to say that our judgements should be limited to beliefs and not people. In this way, humility kills hatred. To hate is to assume total knowledge of the content of another person’s inner life, and furthermore to deem it categorically bad. To be humble is to remember that such knowledge is not possible for mere human beings, and therefore we cannot pass such harsh moral judgements on others.
Public discourse is poor already and ever worsening. Humility presents us with an escape from the politics of rage that reduces the infinitely complex human being to a set of political beliefs, but it is an open question as to how long we will allow our discourse to languish before it is resuscitated. God willing, it will not be much longer, because if this is what the beginning looks like, then I do not want to see the end.
(Overhead picture: Brawl erupts on floor of the Ukranian Parliament. Vladimir Strumkovsky/AP Photo)