With God on Our Side: Misguided Moral Certitude Has Destroyed Civic Discourse

“You never ask questions when God’s on your side.”
– Bob Dylan, “With God on Our Side,” The Times They Are A’Changin’ (1964)

Conventional wisdom offers many explanations as to why our politics has descended to its current pitiful state. It’s polarization in Congress. It’s confirmation bias reinforced by social media. It’s unprecedented political ignorance. It’s bigotry. It’s the end of days.

I think each of these is probably both part-cause and part-symptom of the breakdown.

SMOD 2016

Particularly that last thought

I think, however, that all of these (except that last suggestion) are rooted in a deeper issue. And as usual, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. The issue is that we are becoming – or have become, or have always been – cocksure, self-righteous assholes.

Glass Houses

*meta* Glass houses and stones do not mix well, I am aware *end meta*

Where has all the epistemological humility gone? It’s really easy to be self-assured as to the (up)rightness of one’s political and ideological beliefs. I dare say it is perfectly normal and perfectly healthy. Cognitive dissonance interferes with basic functionality, so we as humans tend to avoid it. The Twitterizing of our discourse has exacerbated the effect of this intellectual self-assuredness, resulting in the ubiquity of snark and rage and the comparative rarity of honest and thoughtful conversations. And virtue signaling within subcultures reinforces this us/them mentality afflicting the body politic, providing neat and simple ways of defining the in-group over against the out-group.

However, I would like to propose a radical thought, to myself and to others similarly predisposed: most of this is bullshit (I’m not cursing; this is a term of art).  You see, no human (not even Jesus Christ in the flesh) has an exhaustive take on the truth. Nor does anyone have a monopoly on good ideas. Just because we disagree does not mean I am moral and you are immoral, or I am smart and you are dumb.

Smarter than you

Because this is what that looks like….

What would this look like in practice, if we abandoned a bit of our moral pretensions and recognized that the other side might have opinions worth listening to? Maybe it might mean that one could oppose an interventionist foreign policy without being deemed a fifth column. Or one could feel abortion is morally opprobrious without being branded a misogynist. Or one could want to marry their same-sex partner without being considered the cause of the erosion of the moral fabric of society. Or one could believe that it is important to rein in excessive federal spending without being labeled a heartless miser. Or one could support the so-called “traditional” family structure without being called a bigot. Or one could want to reduce the number of guns in society without being found guilty of fascism. Or one could oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants without being dismissed as a xenophobe. The list is endless.

I don’t mean to suggest that we all just lay down our arms, surrender our principles, and dissolve into some shallow, Lennon-esque society. I don’t mean to say we should never call a spade a spade, or “tell it like it is” (i.e., call it like we see it). I am a big fan of principled disagreements and robust debates. Let’s just remember that we might be wrong, and thus let’s approach our reasoning from a posture of humility and openness rather than arrogance and defensiveness. Let’s open our ears after we shut our mouths. We might learn something, even if it ends up being simply that we were in fact right all along.

So please, for the love of God, can we stop injecting into our political discourse the moralizing certitudes of an evangelical preacher? I realize it makes for good politics, but it’s really screwing things up pretty royally. We can’t even converse anymore. And our political system needs the free and open exchange of ideas. So let’s just call it a truce.

If God’s got a side in these comparatively infinitesimal political squabbles, it is his own; and you probably are not on it, particularly if you think you are.

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