November 28, 2004

Less Contempt

Kwame Anthony Appiah: November 28, 2004

Gerald Dworkin says that Garrison Keillor's joke wasn't funny. But it was. (I know he meant one shouldn't have laughed not that one didn't. But I don't think one shouldn't have.)  It’s a mistake, I know, to try to explain a joke, so I won't try; but part of the background to why we can laugh is that nobody, least of all Garrison K, really has any intention at all of trying to stop evangelical conservatives from voting. He was teasing them, as a moderately serious Lutheran from Lake Wobegon might tease anyone who said too much about their religious views in public.

Still the contempt issue is important and understanding it depends, I think, on recognizing an important asymmetry. Some of those right-wing evangelicals apparently care whether or not we have a good opinion of them. (If they didn't, the resentment they display toward the "liberal media," would make no sense.) Whereas I know no one among the liberal media elite or among liberal academics who cares very much that many right-wing evangelicals have contempt for us. We care how they vote--for instrumental reasons; we may even care that they are mistaken, for their sakes; but we don't feel diminished by their contempt. It doesn't threaten our self-respect. (The situation is analogous to the one that obtains with respect to social respect in class and status based hierarchies: a peasant can spit when milord walks by, but it won't damage his lordship’s self esteem. But when milord brings his handkerchief to his nose as the peasant approaches, the peasant is stung.)

Part of the truth here, I think, is that American anti-intellectualism contains a seam of intellectual insecurity. It's not that the no-nothings are sure we're wrong, it's that they're afraid we'll win the argument, because we're better at arguing. They feel about us the way many Greeks appear to have felt about the Sophists: sure they won the argument but that was not always because they were right. But they're also not sure that we're wrong. The discussion about what we ought to be doing about the cultural divide seems sometimes to presuppose that they'd want to talk to us if we showed up respectfully and offered, as we now say, to "dialogue." But they don't want to talk to us, a lot of them. And this, I think, is part of why.

Now all of us succumb sometimes to the temptation to look away from the evidence that might undermine beliefs we're happy with. So I'm not saying that "they" are doing something "we" don't do. But if I'm right, their resentment of what they perceive as our contempt reflects not a certainty that they are right but a worry that they may not be. And if I'm right, they may well continue to suspect we have contempt for them, however polite we are, and however carefully we police our humor. Because the reason they worry about our supposed contempt is that deep down they actually worry about truth and reason and whether it's on their side. Our attitudes worry them only to the extent that those attitudes reflect intellectual values they share. Deep down it's not our attitudes but attitudes of their own that they're struggling with or suppressing that make the issue painful. In sum: our contempt matters only as a projection of their doubts.

I realize that some will think this analysis is itself a sign of contempt or, at least, of condescension. So let me make two things clear. First, I know there are smart, savvy, right wing evangelicals who are not intellectually insecure. And, second, appraising someone as having succumbed to one of the many forms of human escape form reason is not eo ipso to contemn them.

But as it happens, I'm inclined just to deny that I have contempt for most right-wing evangelicals, especially the sort of people that I have in mind in offering this analysis. I have big disagreements with them, for sure. Even if I were still an evangelical myself--yes, I was one once--I would have a big disagreements with them, since I think that biblical fundamentalism demands serious attention to the texts, and many of them appeal to the texts in a way that strikes me as lacking in the requisite seriousness. So I would be happy to talk to them on their terms about issues like gay marriage, because I think a serious Christian position on this issue would entail a kind of loving acceptance that too much right-wing Christian talk (and here I include some Catholic and Episcopal bishops along with lay evangelicals) doesn't display.

In these circumstances I think it would be better to show up first with an offer to listen than with an offer to talk. And here I think what Gerald Dworkin says was absolutely right. Because once we listen we'll find lots of things that we agree about and that we can work together on.

What would not be helpful would be a new form of condescension that consisted in pretending to think that (what we regard as) bad arguments and false claims bolstered by them are in fact worthy of respect. But nobody loses the right to be respected as a human being just by succumbing to this most banal and regular of human failings.