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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 19, 2024

We need to stop equating people’s politics with their humanity

Viewing our political opposites as amoral is rendering political debate and progress impossible.

lgbt-flag-supreme-court-stock

The Supreme Court is pictured in 2015.

I am not a particularly huge fan of the new House Speaker Mike Johnson. He wouldn’t be much of a fan of me either: He has described certain queer people like me as “inherently unnatural” and living a “dangerous lifestyle.” In fact, he’s even cautioned that the legalization of gay marriage would be the end of democracy as we know it. If only the ‘gay agenda’ were so powerful, perhaps queer people couldn’t be legally denied housing based on their identity in 29 states right now.

Still, in 2015, after an anti-gay bill of his in the Louisiana state legislature was shot down, Johnson posed for a photo with the two gay rights activists who had just successfully campaigned against it. This gesture was more than picture-deep: Johnson had been having, by the activists’ accounts, candid phone calls about their work almost every day leading up to the vote. Essentially, Johnson is capable of treating people like humans, even when his politics are antithetical to their very identities. And while every fiber of my being wishes he was not Speaker (or in fact, in any decision-making role), his example in this respect is a lesson we could learn from.

In today’s polarized political environment, opinions have become markers of not just ideology, but morality and humanity. Online discourse attacks people for holding certain ideas, and people are compelled to speak on issues they know little about just to appear morally acceptable to their social circle. Instead of hearing bad opinions, we see bad people.

While the urge to perceive the world this way is understandable, it’s also wildly unproductive. Rendering moral judgments on other people based on their opinions encourages us to ideologically isolate ourselves, which is a recipe for extremism, and by virtue of that, political gridlock. Why would one look to find compromise or common ground with someone they believe is completely bigoted or inhuman? Instead of political discourse, people resort to personal attacks and feel validated in this, believing that they’re only shooting down haters from the height of their moral pedestal. Of course, this will only cause the other side to dig their heels in and further entrench themselves within their ideologies.

At a certain time in the past, this issue was less pervasive. Oftentimes social issues were morally divisive, but opinions on topics such as economics were a simple matter of differing political views. However, more modern discourse stresses the fact that almost every issue has consequences for different social groups. Unfortunately, this has linked virtually every issue to moral values and created an idea that a person’s viewpoint on issues, regardless of the motivation for that opinion, is what determines whether or not they are a good person.

The issue is that while motivation may not matter in outcome, it does matter in morality. In the past couple of years, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly on one issue: whether businesses should have the right to refuse service to LGBTQ+ people. This issue has played out in a longstanding battle between queer and Christian interests. As a member of both groups, I’ve had much exposure to the arguments on either side. And while I believe that under no circumstances should this country have codified discrimination against queer people as it has, I do understand that many members of the Christian opposition are more focused on their own religious rights than just carrying out a vicious agenda against queer people. It doesn’t make their opinion any less painful, but it helps humanize the opposition in a way that makes political debate more possible and effective.

A fair response, at this point, would be to say that some opinions are morally reprehensible and rightfully deserve condemnation. It would obviously be dangerous and unproductive to try and have real political debate with someone who openly supports, say, murder. But where to draw the line here can be a lot more difficult than it seems. Is murder okay in the context of war? What about in the context of self-defense, or in the context of liberation?

Hence, when we enter into political debates, it’s important that we start with the base assumption that whoever is on the other side is human and treat them as such. We need to understand that bad opinions don’t necessarily mean they’re made in bad faith by bad people, and that people often hold opinions not because of a vindictive vendetta, but because of their personal ideology. While it certainly wouldn’t guarantee productive conversation, it might allow us — like the activists who killed Mike Johnson’s bill in the Louisiana House — to more effectively fight for a better future.