In Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza writes, “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.” This attitude is hard to maintain in the heat of the moment, in a world where everything clamors for immediate reaction, and the temptation to mock—or weep—is nearly irresistible. What’s more, Spinoza suggests a false dichotomy between moral judgment and understanding: true understanding requires moral engagement.
But as much as possible, we must evade cheap moralizing in politics. The preference for being correct over being persuasive is pervasive. Many leftists indulge in sanctimony’s questionable pleasures, congratulating themselves on their superior ability to unmask ideology, bemoaning the credulousness of lesser intellects yet to achieve such peaks of enlightenment. Many liberals lament the ignorance of rural yokels who consistently vote against their self-interest and Fox News-consuming racists who wallow in the politics of ressentiment.
But postures of intellectual superiority and contempt thinly veiled as concern are as politically unconstructive as it comes. They essentialize people, locking them into preconceived identities—the gullible liberal, the bigoted boondocks denizen—without allowing the possibility of redemption. Identities can be self-fulfilling prophecies: pinning a label on someone and endlessly repeating it is a recipe for getting that person to double down. Labels essentialize people in condescending ways, making them defensive and resentful. A defensive crouch limits people’s receptivity to new ideas, prematurely dooming attempts to change minds. Lecturing people or talking down to them rarely wins them over. And an overemphasis on the tribalism of identity politics can seem absurd to the overwhelming majority of people who don’t live on liberal Twitter.
Consider, for example, the recent furor over the identity of the Dutch translator of Amanda Gorman’s poems. The selection of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a Booker prize winner, as Gorman’s translator met with intense backlash because Rijneveld isn’t a black woman. One can sympathize with the desire to uplift black women—representation is an eminently worthy consideration. But questions of representation were taken to an extreme in this particular instance. For one thing, Rijneveld identifies as nonbinary, and nonbinary people are an underrepresented minority group. For another, a good translator would stay true to the spirit of the text regardless of whether they personally mirror the author’s life experiences. But the coup de grace in this case is that Amanda Gorman herself personally selected Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to translate her works. Critics spearheading the outcry against the Dutch publisher and Rijneveld did so in the name of Amanda Gorman. But, in an ironic twist, their concerns over identity politics led them to disregard the expressed intentions of the very person on whose behalf they were supposedly advocating.
It would be unfair to skewer all expressions of identity politics based on this cherry-picked example, which is undeniably a reductio ad absurdum. Many leftists—myself included—subscribe to a more nuanced understanding of identity politics which values both symbolic representation and concrete, structural changes. But I do think that this instance is suggestive, illustrating the ways that a narrow focus on identity can obscure other important considerations—artistic and literary independence, the agency of members of the minority group, an overall sense of proportion.
In a world full of offenses against racial equality, was the choice of Amanda Gorman’s Dutch translator—a translator whom Gorman herself had chosen—truly worth all the energy and attention? In a world where racism usually takes structural forms, causing enormous gaps in wealth, income, and political representation and monumental differences in the ways that the medical and criminal justice systems treat people of color versus white people, shouldn’t well-meaning liberal champions of identity politics focus most of their efforts on attacking the structural, economic, material manifestations of racism?
We face an existential crisis. Despite Trump’s profoundly bungled coronavirus response and innumerable instances of cruelty, 70+ million people thought voting for him served their interests. And even in the aftermath of the January 6 putsch, Trump remains the most popular politician within the Republican Party. Many centrists appear willing to ignore the urgency of the moment and disengage politically, believing a return to normalcy is enough to heal the country.
But a good political organizer asks why these beliefs arose and how can they be changed. What were the reasons people saw a vote for fascism as in their interest? What are the reasons that millions of people, despite the coup attempt on January 6, seem steadfast in their support for Trump and his fascism? What problems motivated them, and how did Trump’s conspiracy theories come to seem plausible to them? How can some of them be persuaded that their interest doesn’t lie in pseudo-populist authoritarianism? Why are some liberals wedded to analyses that regard Trump as every problem’s origin rather than simply a symptom of underlying rot? How can they be convinced that our problems are structural, fundamental, and that only mass grassroots mobilization will begin to fix them?
This process requires patience and the ability to listen carefully to people you want to convince. One must listen not just to the words somebody says, but what they mean. We’re reason-generating machines, but the emotions and psychological resonances behind our words are often what really matter. Naming and acknowledging people’s fears and doubts and sympathizing with these worries goes much further than logical argumentation.
Once an organizer identifies underlying rationales for people’s behavior, they can locate promising openings for change and craft arguments that respect their interlocutors. To former and current Trump supporters, such an argument may be: Racism and the culture wars are billionaires’ ploys: you’re too smart to fall for cheap tricks that split the working class. You’re justified in feeling angry that you’ve been mistreated for so long and frustrated at how hard your life is. That’s why we need to unite working people of all races to achieve policies that will make everyone’s lives happier and more secure.
To liberals who shy away from confronting the trouble we’re in and act as if the Biden administration is a panacea for all our ills, the argument might go like this: Given how unsavory he was, it’s understandably more pleasant to think Trump was an anomaly. I know the depth of our problems is terrifying and discouraging. We can fix them together, but first we have to acknowledge their full extent. These problems have been festering for decades—the solutions must be just as profound as the problems themselves.
Showing trust, seeking psychological common ground, and displaying patience and faith in people’s ability to change all encourage self-transformation and discourage retrenchment behind a tribal identity. When writing people off, we often call them “hopeless.” It’s a revealing choice of words: it shows that our decision is a surrender stemming from a sense of hopelessness. Genuine efforts to sway people may seem too time-consuming, but the alternative—giving up on convincing them altogether—could cost us everything.