In a recent BuzzFeed News article about the difficulties that “school choice Democrats” will face in the near political future, one interviewee made a remark that disturbed me.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said:
In her heart, [Education Secretary Betsy DeVos] doesn’t care about children. ... She is an adversary. She demonizes us, she demagogues us, but she does it while smiling. That’s part of why I find her so dislikeable — don’t smile at somebody and then put a knife in their back. That’s what she’s doing.
Weingarten’s comment is, in a word, destructive. She attributed to DeVos, as if it were a simple fact, a negative internal characteristic she couldn’t possibly know to be true. DeVos "doesn’t care about children." That’s a serious accusation, yet Weingarten didn’t hesitate to make it.
If this were a one-off remark, perhaps it wouldn’t be so troubling. However, these types of statements have become the first response in nearly all political debates.
In a recent piece about the gun control town hall on CNN that nearly came apart at the seams when the audience wouldn’t stop jeering at Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and the NRA’s Dana Loesch, National Review’s David French wrote:
... in other circumstances [this could] have been easy to write off as an outlier, a result of the still-raw grief and pain left in the wake of the Parkland shooting. But it was no less vitriolic than the "discourse" online, where progressives who hadn’t lost anyone in the attack were using many of the same words as the angry crowd that confronted Rubio and Loesch. The NRA has blood on its hands, they said. It’s a terrorist organization. Gun-rights supporters — especially those who oppose an assault-weapons ban — are lunatics at best, evil at worst.
French is careful to note that this behavior isn’t native to Democrats; it can be seen on both sides of the aisle.
Two serious problems arise when we fool ourselves into believing that we can read hearts and minds — we dehumanize those who we believe are the enemy, and we disregard any ideas that come from these enemies, or anyone associated with them.
When you know without a shadow of a doubt that malice animates the heart of someone with whom you vehemently disagree, the barrier of humanity disappears, and it’s no longer so uncomfortable or difficult to call them liars, pigs, and murderers. Once we categorize someone as a villain, they cease to be like us. They become a different species, one which can be treated inhumanely.
Moreover, when our political thought processes are informed by a perception that those with whom we disagree are driven by malice, that they are indeed villains, we become inclined to believe that any solutions offered by those individuals or groups are either purposefully ineffective, or self-serving. This causes us to reject any and every idea that comes from the other side.
Here’s the obvious problem — we don’t know what’s in the hearts and minds of our opponents. We can make educated assumptions based on past behavior or statements, but we cannot know with any degree of certainty what motivates those with whom we disagree. We must assume that just as our political and social beliefs, as well as our understanding of the world around us, were formed with sincerity, so were theirs.
If we continue to see each other as inhuman, as some kind of species of villainous aliens, we will never bridge the gap between our worlds. We will pull further and further apart until we share no common ground. This isn’t to say that we must accept ideas that we believe are incorrect or immoral, rather, we must appreciate that the people from whom those ideas are coming are just as we are, and we should treat them accordingly.