Brainless White Guys
There is a saying—often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill—that if a person is a conservative in his twenties, he has no heart; but if he is a liberal in his forties, he has no brain. Well, I wish there were more brainless middle-aged white men in America. Only 31% of white men voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. I am a member of this 40+ brainless club, but there are fewer and fewer middle-aged white guys willing to join, especially in traditional communities, corporate environments, and suburbs outside the coasts. My issue is not that the Democrats have lost an important base. Democrats have been losing white men for quite some time. Their “white flight” from the Democratic party bothers me, but my concerns are larger. Much larger. My concern is that many middle-aged white guys are becoming less politically tolerant.
I don’t want to malign the over 63% of white men who voted for Trump, but it is evidence of a serious problem. These white males voted for a man who said things about women, Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims, and other minorities that were deeply intolerant by any presidential standard. I’m sure many of these men voted for Trump in spite of his intolerant views, but many people I know were either indifferent to his intolerant views or even shamelessly supportive of them. This degree of apathy towards a core American value—tolerance—is deeply troubling.
A long time ago, when I was young and naïve and ran around attributing a certain aforementioned quote to Churchill, I wrote an article which argued that our legal and political system puts too much emphasis on individual autonomy. America has a rich base of philosophical traditions, but perhaps the most significant is the sanctity of individual freedom—individuals are free to choose the kind of life they wish so long as it doesn’t cause harm to another individual. This moral argument is best articulated by John Stuart Mill in his seminal political work On Liberty.
There are two basic reasons why I argued that individual autonomy is given too much weight. First, it overstates the idea that individuals are in fact autonomous. This is an empirical claim, but one that is very hard to untangle. Are individuals in fact autonomous entities? Without getting into the weeds of this complex debate, there is a lot of sociological, anthropological, and genetic research which should cause us to question the degree to which individuals are truly autonomous. We can say that individuals freely and autonomously “choose” to remain in abject poverty in a drought-ridden Somalian settlement rife with violence, but that’s a strange formulation of autonomy, especially when 99.99% of people in the same situation will never escape this kind of life. Second, I argued a normative position—that individual freedom is an important value, but in many situations, it is not nearly as important as empathy, compassion, or humility.
My article’s main argument was that we needed to rethink our liberal (libertarian) conception of tolerance—most easily summed up as the Live and Let Live theory. Under this theory, we tolerate other people not because we necessarily care about their wellbeing, but because we want them to tolerate us. We desire our autonomy, so we enter into a social contract in which everyone agrees to tolerate others’ contrary views. But there are considerable limits to this transactional model of tolerance, especially when it comes to complicated issues like building walls, deporting residents, global warming, world poverty, LGBT rights, hate speech, abortion, racial animosity, and many other consequential issues.
I argued then, and believe now more than ever, that tolerance would be better grounded in a “theory of understanding,” a moral imperative to practice empathy and appreciate the inherent value of others. We should not merely tolerate contrary views because we value our own individual freedoms. We should tolerate others because our society is at its best when it appreciates the intrinsic value of others, even when their beliefs and interests run contrary to our own. I know what some of you must be thinking … this is utopian nonsense, almost Christian love-thy-brother stuff, from some kind of limousine liberal, one who can’t even get a Churchill quote right. But my argument has more to do with recalibrating a zero-sum calculus—your interests versus mine—and less to do with utopianism. The liberal brand of tolerance—Live and Let Live—is merely a means for trying to protect autonomy in what’s essentially a zero-sum interest-based political system. Tolerance as understanding is an end in itself, a paramount virtue that requires individuals to view complex issues through the prism of empathy. Practicing empathy, compassion, and humility about one’s own beliefs benefits both sides of a complex issue because it compels us to transcend the very idea of difference—the very idea of my interest versus your interest. We have shared and transcendental interests: the intrinsic value of each other.
I realize that a brand of tolerance built around understanding is not a panacea for all the world’s problems. It can rightfully be criticized for its idealism. But I would point out that tolerance as understanding works in a number of common contexts—marriages, extended families, places of worship, tightknit communities, workplaces, and many others. The challenge we face is extending our tolerance for our spouses’ peccadillos, our kids’ disrespect, and our bosses’ arrogance to a larger scale. It’s not easy, but as Winston Churchill said, “It's not enough to do our best. Sometimes we have to do what is required."
He really did say this … I think.
Note: In many of my blog pieces I use the term “liberal” to mean two overlapping but very much distinct things. Liberalism is a political philosophy that promotes the values of freedom, liberty and autonomy. John Locke is often considered the father of this brand of liberalism. I will often refer to this type liberalism by saying “liberal (libertarian),” even though that’s not entirely accurate. The second meaning of liberal refers to progressivism or believing in a collective or government-based solutions. I will often refer to this kind of liberal by saying liberal (left-leaning) or liberal Democrat.