When Is the Politicized Life Okay?

I participated in a Bloggingheads earlier this week with Kevin Glass; our topic of discussion was something I've been scribbling about for the last 18 months or so. If you watch, you'll note that there's a picture of one Adam Kredo over my left shoulder informing everyone that my office is a "den of borderline anti-Semitism."

I want to drill down a bit deeper into a point Kevin and I touched on briefly near the end, about when it's "okay"* to live the politicized life. When is an opinion so outré that we should shun the opinion holder? When should we seek to impoverish those with whom we disagree?

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One thing to take off the table from the get-go: pretty much anything a political operative or a politician says and does is fair game. My exhortations against "the politicized life" doesn't apply to politics because politics is already politicized. Appealing to voters' political opinions is kind of the whole point of politics. So going after Van Jones for signing a 9/11 Truth petition or exposing Jack Hunter for toasting the assassin of Abraham Lincoln and supporting secession aren't really examples of the phenomenon I've spent so much time decrying. Roughly 90 percent of the job of the president is to pick capable people to fill roles in the bureaucracy; when a president or a presidential candidate associates with loons it's an obvious political problem.

What about the non-political sphere, the "real world"? Are there opinions so vile that they require us to refuse to associate with an individual and to form Internet Rage Mobs to torment them on Twitter and try to get them fired? Well … as with much in life, it's complicated, right? We need to make some distinctions. For instance:

  • The Powerful vs. The Peons: I have a pretty hard time envisioning supporting rage mobs going after low-level functionaries or middle managers for something they do while they're not at work. If the guy who sells stereos at Best Buy blogs (unironically) under the pseudonym White Hating Coon, I can't imagine I'd support a movement to get him fired. Why bother? If the CEO of Best Buy was doing the same, well, that's a horse of a different color. There's a reason Donald Sterling is facing the guillotine while Riley Cooper got a pass: one actually has the power to impose his vision on the world, while the other simply needs good hands.
  • Thoughts vs. Actions: Still, even with the powerful, I have a hard time supporting firing someone (or stripping them of their property) for their beliefs if those beliefs are unacted upon. It's why I go back and forth on the whole Sterling mess. On the one hand, he's clearly a racist who has gotten into trouble with the feds before for discriminatory rental policies. On the other, there's no real proof that he's brought that mindset into his NBA dealings and the words that got him into trouble were ostensibly private and possibly illicitly released.**
  • Insult/Disgust vs. Actual Harm: This segues into my next distinction. I'm pretty okay with giving a pass to people who have suffered actual harm from a group and are thus organizing a boycott rather than those who are simply angry because someone doesn't like them. For instance, if someone who lost a child to Scientology said "I'm not going to support Tom Cruise's next film," I'd be pretty sympathetic. However, if someone said "I won't watch Orange Is the New Black because Jason Biggs made a mean joke with lightly homophobic undertones," I'd probably tell them to grow the f—k up.

I'm not trying to dodge the central question—"Are there some opinions so outrageous that they demand all decent people call for the summary banishment of the person who holds them even if they don't act on those opinions?"—I swear. Just trying to lay out where I'm coming from and to note that my answer is, generally speaking, "no."*** But I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy who thinks we're better off as a society not waging political warfare on every single cultural and commercial front. If you're easily offended or go out of your way to interact with people whose views you find offensive, you may disagree.

*I put okay in scare quotes because, frankly, I'm not your dad and I'm not your priest. You can live your life however you choose, and if the way you choose to live involves closing yourself off from your fellow Americans because you disagree with them about politics or religion or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, have at it. I think it's a pretty crappy way to go through life and is damaging to the spirit of the polity, but, well, you know, that's just, like, my opinion, man.

**Another thing to consider is the distinction between "opinions" and "belief in false things." So, for instance, "Christians are morons" and "gay marriage is gross" are a statements of opinion, while "the Holocaust didn't happen" and "9/11 was organized by Cheney to profit Halliburton" are falsehoods. I don't think I'm alone in being more offended by someone peddling an obvious falsehood with racist and/or political undertones than someone stating their opinion, even one I disagree with.

***For instance: I think 9/11 Truthers are pretty much the worst people out there. Last week I wrote an entire blog post about how Robert Orci, the director of the next Star Trek flick, is a 9/11 Truther. It never even occurred to me to call for his firing because of his beliefs. (I mean, I think he should be fired. But I think that because he's a terrible screenwriter, not because he believes something stupid.) Now, if Orci were, say, a high school history teacher who was informing his students that Osama bin Laden couldn't possibly have organized the 9/11 attacks from a cave, I might feel differently.

"But doesn't that contradict your point about low-level functionaries?!?" you may be furiously typing. I guess it does, kinda! As I said, these things are complicated.