It’s a natural human desire to seek power and then maintain a strong grasp on it once it has been attained. For rulers with absolute power, authoritarianism is often too strong of a temptation, resulting in the loss of personal freedoms, human rights, and often mass murder. Yet during the age of the Holy Roman Empire, German monarchies used rhetoric and argumentation as population control. They didn’t burn all of the books of their political opponents; instead, they placed them in “giftschranks.” Giftschrank, which translates to“poison cabinet,” was a library where banned books and other restricted publications were held. The idea was that to defeat your enemies, you had to know what their arguments were so you could properly argue against them.
However, times have changed. Nowadays, it’s much more common to see political adversaries shouting each other down. Vitriolic language is often gratifying in the short term, but the refusal to engage in any sort of empathy or common understanding is ultimately worthless. In a world where the Right appears increasingly more frustrating to deal with, building walls and shrieking opinions become easier and easier options. For a variety of reasons, the country has become more and more divided, due in no small part to news organizations providing more coverage of fringe and extremist political organizations.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. I believe that in order to effectively combat our political opponents (read, conservatives), whose policies would increase marginalization, inequity, and poverty in America, it is crucial to understand what they are exactly saying.
It is important to note that this thesis is premised on the idea that conservatives, just like liberals and progressives, are humans. If you are in a position to try and understand people on the Right of the political spectrum, then you should do so. However, members of historically marginalized groups often do not find themselves in such a position and therefore are not subject to the same standards.
In my personal interactions with self-identifying conservatives on campus, I have always had the most interesting and constructive arguments and conversations when I have prioritized listening and understanding over getting my own argument across. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten frustrated or upset upon hearing some patently ridiculous assertion about the nature of white privilege. But I have found that in understanding opposing arguments, I could get my own arguments across in a frame of reference that the person I was talking to could understand. And by doing it in a friendly and hospitable way, I was able to develop a relationship with that person where I could continue to have an open discourse about politics in spite of our difference in beliefs.
Perhaps the most important political issue today is global warming. To the near entirety of the scientific community, global warming is a human-caused, rather than a natural occurrence. Higher global temperatures each year make it more difficult to for humans to survive, not just from run of the mill air pollution, rising sea levels, but now also because of extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires.
Yet conservative narratives differ. In a fascinating interview, Tucker Carlson, who hosts the nightly Fox News commentary show Tucker Carlson Tonight, debated the merits of the scientific literature on climate change with science celebrity Bill Nye, who formerly hosted the educational science show Bill Nye the Science Guy. At the beginning of the interview, Carlson frames his conservative perspective as skepticism of the scientific community, immediately questioning the rate at which humans increasingly caused global warming. He presses Nye throughout, demanding a hard number, which Nye is unable to provide. (In fact, human actions have caused the climate to change 170 times faster than normal).
With his deliberate misunderstandings of Nye’s arguments, Carlson was ultimately challenging the concept of science and the scientific method. This is crucial to understand because although it seems redundant to explain why the scientific method works as a model for truth, this is exactly the doubt that Carlson instilled in his viewers.
Perhaps it feels inane to explain what many consider to be a basic foundation of modern knowledge, but it’s necessary for there to be any dialogue that leads to common understanding and meaningful change. It requires you to respect, to a certain extent, the people you disagree with.
However, there is not a need to respect everything that our political opponents say. Much of the highly publicized comments of conservatives come from deliberately inflammatory trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, who is difficult to engage with precisely because of his own absurd arguments and unwillingness to understand opposing perspectives. And there is no need to respect or attempt to engage, from any perspective of understanding or empathy, hate speech.
An important question into this discussion of discourse and understanding is why these shouting matches actually occur. There are certainly a variety of reasons that can be attributed to them, but I believe the one that should be prioritized is the notion of self-righteousness. Fundamentally, it comes from a place of narcissism, where a person believes above all else that they are right, and anyone who thinks differently is objectively wrong. It ignores the reality that humans are imperfect beings at best. In a recent visit back home, my high school physics teacher and college counselor told me that the point of discourse and discussion is to find out exactly where you are wrong, because surely you cannot be correct about everything you claim to be. And where you are wrong, you won’t know that you’re wrong, by virtue of your own ignorance.
Interacting with people, even outside of politics, is a tremendously complex and often difficult process. But if positive political change is to happen, then it is crucial that we treat our political opponents with respect when we are in positions to do so, so that we can better understand their perspectives. If there’s one thing I would encourage people to have, it’s their own, mental giftschrank.
Cormac Chester is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.