On Forbearance: or, Why I Pity Jonathan Chait

By Flickr user Simon Cunningham

In lieu of a movie review this week, we've published my chapter from The Seven Deadly Virtues. (You can buy it here!) If you're a reader of this here blog, it may seem a bit familiar to you. Consider it a thesis statement on "The Politicized Life."

Consider it also a rebuttal to Jonathan Chait's sad statement of intolerance. In a much-discussed essay, Jonathan Chait celebrated the politicized life, implicitly called for political segregation, and announced that he would be saddened if his daughter came home with a Republican soulmate:

It is certainly true that partyism — or "partisanship," as we used to call it in the old days — can drive the human brain into all manner of prejudicial thinking. There is too much name-calling, knee-jerking side-taking, hypocrisy, and mindless tribalism in politics. We should all endeavor to be dispassionate and fair. It’s only fair to try to understand Republicans’ thinking, engage with their arguments on their own terms, and concede when they have a fair point. I know Republicans, and some of them are lovely human beings. That doesn’t mean I want one of them to move in next door and marry my daughter. …

There are millions of Americans who think it’s okay to deny legal citizens their voting rights or force them to go without health insurance. Those people live in a different moral universe than I do. They’re not necessarily bad people. (Lord knows the people who agree with me on those things are not all good.) But, yes, I believe their political views reflect something unflattering about their character.

Chait's piece is a handy reminder of the old maxim: "Conservatives think liberals are wrong; liberals think conservatives are evil." The smug invocation of moral superiority, the silly suggestion that conservatives revel in denying people health insurance, the tossed off notion that voter ID laws are secretly about disenfranchising poor minorities: it's a warped worldview, one created not by rational thinking but by blind hatred. The refusal to contemplate that maybe—just maybe!—people can honorably disagree is remarkably damaging to the polity. It's an ideal that invites a sort of Total Political War, the sort of ideological combat that can rip a nation asunder.

Forbearance, the virtue discussed in my essay, helps us get past all that. It aids us in understanding those with whom we disagree, urges us to avoid ideological conflict if we can help it. There's no reason disagreeing over tax policy should keep us from being friendly with those who think differently. There's no reason for us to refuse to love a person who embraces an idea we reject.

Obviously, you can always come up with exceptions to this general rule: "What about someone who loves Hitler, I bet you wouldn't embrace them!" But think what it means when this is what leaps to mind: You're suggesting that a difference over Obamacare (or the minimum wage, or voter ID laws, or whatever relatively petty thing we're arguing about on any given day) is tantamount to arguing in favor of genocide. That tells us much more about your psyche than it does about the virtue of forbearance.

This is why I feel pity more than anything else for Chait and those who think like him. His lack of empathy and inability to set aside his ideological prejudices must close him off to so many people and so many experiences. It seems like an extremely sad way to go through life.