Character Litmus Tests

Over the past few days, I have been struck by an intense experience of frustration. Being from Germany, and growing up in the 1980s, I remember the extent to which my education emphasized tolerance and acceptance of others as a fundamental principle of a functioning society. One of the reasons I felt so strongly about wanting to move to the United States was that—despite this sentiment being part of my education—I always felt Germany being comparatively small-minded in that regard: people who do not fit in are easily marginalized, and a provincial mindset easily carries the overall approach in most regions.

What led to my frustration is the growing realization that my new home country seems to be moving precisely in that direction. To some extent this is normal human behavior. We do enjoy affirmation of our views. And whenever we have the opportunity to exert influence over the people we associate with, most people would probably choose to be firmly with their in-group. I do see several areas in which this is taken to a place that, in all honesty, I find deeply concerning.

The first that comes to mind is public discourse. Rather than contending with what people say, it has become a kind of habit to ask, “and who are you to say that?” In other words, if the person speaking does not belong to a group of people with clout—which applies to some extent across contexts—arguments can be readily dismissed as being politically motivated.

Almost everything being expressed as part of the discussion about race relations in the US has that flavor for me at the moment. The same applies in the conversation around COVID, masks, and vaccines. Part of this dynamic probably has to do with the technology that enables this particular form of exchange. Twitter stands out in my mind. Whenever people engage with one another on a disputed topic that touches on a conceivable inter-group conflict, it seems to me like watching a battle of words, with ever less nuance, and ever more fervor.

Twitter is, however, by far not the only contributor. A much, much broader picture emerges, and this process is independent of the technology used. I guess the tendency to judge others based on how well our estimate of their character aligns with our value preferences has always been with us as a species. Tribal group-think is nothing new, and so why am I feeling this so keenly now?

A large part of my concern is the sense that—rather than making progress towards more integration of different value systems into a unifying human experience—we are regressing from what I felt the Civil Rights era of 50 years achieved, even if incompletely. The main issue I have is not that progressives express their desire for more inclusion or diversity. It is the means by which this desire is expressed.

I certainly want that everyone I share a country with works on their character and moral development. However, as the methods used to incentivize this development edge ever more closely towards the “it’s my way or the highway” approach, I feel less and less inclined to support progressive causes. In a way, I would argue that one of the gravest mistakes of the colonial mindset that is being criticized was precisely this relentless approach of some sort of cultural purity. The reason that white people did not feel sympathetic towards other races had—if my reading of history is correct—a lot to do with not wanting to engage with people of “poor moral character”, who might otherwise infect the pure.

And the approach I see being taken by progressives across many domains—from firing actors who don’t toe the party line, over academics who do not play along, to journalists who dare to criticize the current zeitgeist—is one of moral purification. Everything and everyone who expresses dissent must be labeled as oppressive and wrong.

True, the precise label applied is different than in the past. Whereas black people were said to be filthy, lazy, unintelligent, or even half-animals by whites not all that long ago, people who are criticizing the current progressive movement are labeled as racist, white supremacist, or simply morally evil. The effect, however, is the same. A new segregation is, as it seems to me, underway. And I cannot help but experience a great sadness and trepidation.

There are real underlying causes for being dissatisfied with many aspects of our modern life. Despite many technological advances, we still rely on inter-personal structures and institutions of forcing one person’s will onto another that are oppressive. For those who wish to do away with oppression, however, I would truly want to encourage people to ask themselves: are the methods of fighting oppression not using the same tactics that, if they were applied to me, would be experienced as despicable?

If we truly want people to change their stance on a topic we deeply care about, and we are willing to use force—even the force of threat of exclusion or silencing—can we then really claim the moral high ground? My hunch is that for people who apply those tactics, they might say that the time for decisive action has come. The ideas they support have been proposed peacefully for so long, and no or too little change has been affected. So, it is time to force people into compliance. The irony of it all. Wanting to do away with oppression by being oppressive.

At this time, all I can do is hope that sooner or later an awakening will take place. Enough people may still realize that by exerting coercive forces on others, even the most righteous cause can become a caricature of itself. Dialog is hard. Finding solutions that integrate across the ideological spectrum seem elusive if not impossible to find. I do, however, see little alternative other than trying just that: reaching out, again and again, not being discouraged by the repeated experience of “this was not appreciated.” The only other way goes through physically manifest conflict, some kind of open warfare. And I would rather not see that happen in my lifetime…

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