Parenting in an Age of ‘Politics-as-Destruction’

Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but for some reason, I always wonder what people mean when they admonish other people to ‘stop the hate’.  Presumably these admonishments would mean that we are not to hate other people.  If that is the meaning, then I agree 100%.  But there often seems to be an underlying assertion here, which goes something like this:  if we are fighting against hate, the one thing we can and must hate, is hate itself.  But hate itself can only exist in people – whom we can call haters.  So, if you are a hater, you must be hated. 

So we aren’t stopping the hate, after all.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I have found the past 6 months or so to be permeated with the idea of hate.  After all, it was an election season.  I think I have some kind of post-traumatic stress from it all.  And the first weeks of 2021, characterized as they have been by the amping up of partisan vitriol to new heights, only cemented in place my views regarding the urgent problem of political divisiveness in this country. 

So, I am worried – like, sleepless night worried.  I am worried about the intertwining of politics and intense hatred that is destroying so many good things that are fundamentally important to me. 

It’s taking everything I have to protect my family from the toxic political culture in which we find ourselves.  Hence this post: how do you raise children in a democratic society – where they will soon need to be responsible citizens – when the discussion of every political issue puts you in a siege mentality of ‘us vs. them’?  Indeed, where everything depends on your side winning the argument, where you take no prisoners?  We have all but lost the skills of deliberation and negotiation and, in their absence, turning to the practice of ignoring, silencing, full-on censoring – and, if those things don’t work – downright persecuting each other.  And political violence – which is what happens when discussions break down – is fast becoming normalized.  Lately, I’ve just been praying that God will deliver us from ourselves

But, until that deliverance takes place, we have to live with each other, no matter how much our hyper-angry political culture wants to deny that.  So, in that spirit, let me offer a few observations about our current situation, and what we as parents might do to help our children as future citizens.

Let us go back to the idea of hate.  ‘Hate’ evokes notions such as ostracization – and even banishment – from a community.  For, if someone is hateful, we must not listen to them.  They must not be given a ‘platform’.  We must shut them out.  And the reason for this is because, surely, if we let them speak, they would do the same thing to us – that is, they would silence and banish others from the community, because that’s what haters do.  So, we have to get there first

And with the phrase ‘we have to get there first’, we may have articulated something:  to hate the haters is to do to the haters what they are doing to others.  This is, I would have thought, one of the oldest themes in human history:  how does one not become – at least in some sense – what one is fighting against?

Perhaps closer to home is not only the idea of ‘politics as destruction’, but ‘politics as contempt’.  Politics as destruction is based on an impersonal notion of ‘the other side out there somewhere’ – the ‘other’ political party, for instance, or political leaders whom one has never met.  But politics as contempt, I think, is very personal.  It is about feeling contempt (a form of hatred) toward someone you know because you view their way of thinking about things as wholly inferior to your own way of thinking.  But it’s not just inferiority that is the problem.  It is that this particular kind of inferiority also makes that person wholly immoral.  And we can’t be friends with immoral people.  That is, we can’t be friends with the haters. 

And so, we ignore, we isolate, and we ostracize people that we know personally.  Depending on how far we let our contempt extend, we might agitate for their censorship, or even their loss of employment or community position.  In this sense, the political becomes personal.  We are fast losing the ability to make a distinction between the two.

I am not exaggerating.  Indeed, here in the first few weeks of 2021, it is obvious I am not exaggerating.  I know so many people who no longer speak to extended family, old and once very dear friends, and even siblings because of political and philosophical differences.  Perhaps, whoever you are, you can identify with this situation.  But I am not only writing to describe a problem, I am also writing to think about how to help our children in the future.  So, there is a sense in which I am writing, not only about relationships which have broken down (sadly, I know a lot about those), but also about relationships which will never get off the ground because political differences make that relationship impossible.  It is our children who must learn how to navigate this situation in which we find ourselves.  And we must help them.

There is much that is stacked against them.  The social media culture in which they are so immersed demands that they signal their virtue by parroting adamant opinions, by engaging in fierce (online) activism, and by communicating with a polarizing rhetoric.  In this way, social media trains them to become soldiers in ideological warfare, rather than insightful, thoughtful human beings.

Now, if it really is true, as I have just asserted, that social media trains our children to become soldiers, perhaps we could ask:  so, what do soldiers do?  Well, they fight. They fight by defending their own side, and by scouting out and attacking the other side.  And in this war, allies and enemies are identified by their views.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘holding a view’ on a particular matter.  Indeed, as rational, thinking creatures, that is what we as human beings do.  But, in our current political culture, the problem is that ‘holding a view’ has come to define us – that is, our identity has come to be bound up with our views.  And so, our ‘views’ put us into camps, namely the ‘good people camp’ and the ‘haters camp’.  And now, we are back where we started:  more of the siege mentality, more of the ‘us vs. them’, more of the ever-escalating ‘Oh … you think that?  I didn’t know you were one of those people ….’, until human connection becomes the lowest of our priorities.  Indeed, we break our connections – that is, we break our human relationships based on our ‘views’ and what we perceive other people’s ‘views’ to be.  Identify, break, identify, break.  We are continuing to sow for our children the very thing we are now reaping for ourselves.  And it will not end well for them.

However, I think we are getting closer to the heart of the matter:  in our current political culture, human connection has become the lowest of our priorities.  Ideology comes first.  And yet, surely this is completely backwards.  Our ideologies should serve our close and meaningful relationships, not the other way around.  This is because as human beings, we need connections – we need relationships – in order to flourish. 

Now, presumably, we also need political arrangements in order to flourish.  This idea is as old as the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, who argued that without political institutions, human beings would never fulfill their rational potential.  Political activity stems from the human ability to conceptualize notions of justice, which is connected to our rational ability of speech, by which we can articulate notions of good and evil, right and wrong.  In this way, political activity is a natural extension of our human capacities, as well as a fulfillment of them.  And political activity is meant to create and sustain communities, providing order, safety and justice so that we can pursue our relationships with one another, learn from one another, and thus flourish. 

But if politics is destroying our relationships, then it is necessarily destroying our flourishing.  And it is therefore not fulfilling one of its most fundamental purposes.

So far, I have gone from talking about ‘politics as destruction’, where we are intent on destroying the ‘other side’ (that is, ‘the haters’), to ‘politics as destroying us’, in the sense that putting political ideology before relationships will destroy what is basic for our happiness, flourishing, and spiritual survival.  I’ve tried to tease out how these two notions are really two sides of the same coin, but, either way, politics is now intricately tied to destruction.  And our children are being trained by social media to participate in the destruction, whether we as parents like it or not.

Is there anything we can do?  Seriously, at this point, is there anything we can do?  Can we somehow re-train our children to be thinkers and lovers, rather than fighters?  I think a key to the answer has been with us all along.  There is a sense in which this post is definitely a lament – a lament of human goods being lost in the service of politics.  To put it in a more general way, however, would be to say I have been lamenting that something extremely important has been lost in the service of something less important.   The key, I think, is the notion of order, the notion of priorities.

‘Priorities’ might seem like a mundane, overused word.  But the underlying idea here is that we need to understand the concept of ordering our commitments – that is, of placing in a hierarchy the various things to which we are committed.  In order to keep political destruction at bay, something else has to be above politics in that hierarchy.  In other words, something needs to transcend politics.

The word transcendence is defined as ‘to go beyond, or be beyond’.  In the philosophy of religion, it is often used to describe the notion of God as ‘beyond’ this world.  What could be ‘beyond’ politics then?  Although that is an ancient and daunting question, let me take a stab and say that it would have to be something fundamental to the human condition, something which we do not want politics to destroy.  It would have to be something like the dignity of the individual human person, which is made manifest in thinking, deliberating, and building relationships with other human beings.

And how would a ‘culture of dignity’ counteract the current ‘politics-as-destruction’ culture?  Instead of helplessly watching our children come to view those in the ‘other tribe’ as nameless, faceless ‘haters’, we can teach them that there is a name, a face, a mind, a life, a soul – indeed, a dignity of each person they encounter, which transcends that person’s political views.  This does not necessarily mean that we will always be able to ‘see the good’ in someone who we think has very wrong and immoral views (although I think we should try as much as possible to understand where people are coming from).  But it does mean that we need to model to our children the idea that people are not to be wholly identified with their views on a particular matter.  There is something more fundamental about a person that remains separate from what they think about whatever hot-button political issue that is trending at any given moment.

When we allow the dignity of the human person to transcend politics, there is a sense in which we are limiting politics.  Specifically, we are limiting the ways in which we can pursue political warfare on one another.  We can take inspiration here from what is called a deontological position on ethics, which is also known as an ‘agent-relative’ ethics.  Agent-relativity, in its simplest form, holds that it matters what actions a person does, and it also matters what actions are done to a person.  Taking its cue from the notion of human dignity, agent-relativity can help us think about just what sorts of limits we should put on ourselves in our interactions with a person whom we deem to be some kind of enemy.

The basic thought is that in a situation of warfare, you attack what is hostile about your enemy, but you do not attack what is not hostile.  So, you may disagree with someone regarding their political views, and argue with them on this matter.  But you must not then attack, say, their integrity, their intelligence, their character, their religious views, their family, their friends, their performance in their career, and so forth.  In limiting yourself in this way, you have argued the point, but left the dignity of the person intact.  Perhaps you are intent on winning the argument, but in doing so, you do not also try to ghettoize your opponent – by threatening to destroy their employment, their position in the community, their reputation, or their means of communicating with other people.  And if it someone who is important to you, you do not threaten to destroy your relationship.

More to the point, however, let me return to this phrase: ‘it matters what action a person does, and it also matters what actions are done to a person.’  It matters how we treat other people, and it matters how we are treated.  These things matter because it is through our agency, and the agency of others, that we build or destroy relationships.  And, as I argued above, relationships are essential for our flourishing.  So, it matters how we treat each other, irrespective of our political views, or our larger political goals.  In that way, it is our dignity, our relationships, and our flourishing which must put a limit on politics, because they transcend politics.

In this post, I have talked in terms of the ‘less important’ and the ‘more important’, arguing that we must not let the less important overwhelm and destroy what is more important.  I have argued that politics be deemed ‘less important’ and our dignity, relationships and flourishing be deemed ‘more important’.  But I still have the online warrior in my head, arguing with me that there is nothing more important than the political fight – that it is only through politics that we will redeem and save ourselves from our past and present injustices, and that it is a good thing that our children are being taught to ‘hate the haters’. 

In conclusion, let me respond with this:  it is only through letting something transcend politics that we will, paradoxically, save politics.  Politics will fail us if it becomes our highest love.  If there is nothing to limit it, we will, in the end, destroy the very communities – the very bonds – which politics is meant to protect.  Thus, politics will succeed only if we mark out places where it cannot come.  I suggest that the first place we mark out is our relationship with our children.  When they understand that unconditional, transcendent place which we have set for them, no matter their political views, they can carry that understanding into other parts of their lives.  This will allow them to turn their battles into thoughtful discussions, and their wars into communal searches for truth.  Thus, we can help them become thinkers and lovers. Only then can we begin to ‘stop the hate’.

4 comments on “Parenting in an Age of ‘Politics-as-Destruction’

  1. Justina Koerper says:

    “In that way, it is our dignity, our relationships, and our flourishing which must put a limit on politics, because they transcend politics”

    This was a great read. Although my babies have not yet left their toddler years I also lay awake with worry on how to raise them in this chaotic world. How can I teach them to stand up for their views and beliefs while also respecting and seeing others as God sees them no matter their differences? The first thing that comes to mind is I MUST practice what I preach. I cannot teach them this transcendence while I in the background mumble and murmur the opposite. I find myself asking, “How did we get here?” I think you have answered that question in part! What can I do? I’m just a mother, can I really make a difference? Yes, I can. In my own home. I can raise strong and loving children. The change might not be immediate but if we all commit to do better as parents in teaching the concept you have writen about so well it WILL come!

  2. B. Kilmer says:

    You’ve caused me to review Arthur Brooks’ address from almost a year ago at the National Prayer breakfast, entitled “America’s Crisis of Contempt.” Similar to your thoughts he invites us to transcend politics of hate by loving our enemies. He suggests that we “make a commitment to another person to reject contempt. Of course you will disagree with others — that’s part of democracy. It is right and good, and part of the competition of ideas. But commit to doing it without contempt and ask someonesz to hold you accountable to love your enemies.” Doing so requires us to get up close, to make connections as you say, to engage with one another and find what’s common among us. It’s easy to hate from a distance, under the cover of social media—it’s harder to hate up close and in person. Personal connections do not come naturally to our children born to a virtual culture. Now more than ever it must be modeled. More than just the “agree to disagree,” which has become code for canceling one another, it’s time we revisit those Covey principles of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Thank you, Holly, for calling us to rise above the weight of enmity.

  3. […] Holly Hamilton-Bleakley teaches philosophy at the University of San Diego. Although she hasn’t posted recently, there is a wealth of thought-provoking material on her site. The most recent addresses the challenge of “Parenting in an Age of ‘Politics-as-Destruction.’” […]

  4. This is a very interesting post, especially as it ties to training our children to become soldiers. it seems personal identification with an ideology (or, we can be more blunt here and call a spade a spade, we are talking about political parties) is the dream of every political candidate and high school civics teacher come true. Who doesn’t want ardent crusaders out on the field spitting vitriol and refusing to compromise with the other side? Is willing to ostracize his/her family and friends depending on how stringently they hold to the ‘party platform’? Voter participation is up and people have never been so enraged and passionate about tax policy since the early 1900s.

    The ethos of the 90s was to decry the apathy of adults and teenagers with respect to politics. The cold war had been won, the West was dominant, why get fired up over a sure thing? We’ve gamified our society and this appears to be the result, everyone has an opinion and to not have one is to side with the oppressor. It’s a fragile peace we find ourselves in when, if the other side wins (which seems to happen 50% of the time these days) that must mean my side is destined for the gulag. Because otherwise, why would I have been saying all these hateful things about my political ‘enemies’? was I lieing? no, i’d never lie, that’s what -they- do, not me.

    It seems we’ve come full circle with this, maybe the apathy was better after all & the solution for our kids is to teach them to disengage and don’t allow them to use political platforms as metrics for personal identification. Seems like a challenging swamp we’ve walked into here

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