Not so long ago, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, a woman by the name of Madeline Janis spent 751 words of precious editorial-page real estate bemoaning the fact that she didn’t like her dying father’s politics. Miss Janis, a progressive lioness, wrote that her dad routinely refused to engage her in arguments. Instead, he preferred enjoying her company and talking about less contentious topics. Yet while moving him into an assisted-living facility, she came across his dark secret. The villain owned a collection of Rush Limbaugh hats. Janis told her father he should throw them out.
"Rush Limbaugh is nasty and mean-spirited," she hectored. "Can’t you at least stop wearing these caps?" When he said no—after all, why should his daughter care which ball cap he wore?—the two went to their separate corners. Some time later, Janis’s father came to her and said that his love for her eclipsed even his partiality for Limbaugh. Since the hats were causing her so much distress, he tossed them. The truly odd part of the story is that to Janis, her badgering of an old man represented, somehow, a lesson in tolerance.
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"Our love for each other and our family helped my father and me transcend the enormous ideological divide between us," she wrote, without apparent irony. By "transcend" she probably meant "traverse," with all of the movement coming from her father; "tolerance" really meaning the capitulation of the other side.
The left doesn’t have a monopoly on political monomania, of course. The libertarian writer and activist Eric Dondero ostentatiously promised to cleave all Democrats from his life following the reelection of Barack Obama in 2012. He envisioned his cri de coeur not as a protest but as a plan of action: If everyone cut the Democratic cancers out of their lives, he argued, then we might save this once-great nation.
"I strongly urge all other libertarians to do the same," he wrote. "Are you married to someone who voted for Obama, have a girlfriend who voted ‘O’. [sic] Divorce them. Break up with them without haste. Vow not to attend family functions, Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas for example, if there will be any family members in attendance who are Democrats."
Dondero’s Lysistrata act went further—much further—than just crossing his ankles until the Democrats were out of the White House. "Everybody I know that voted for Obama is dead to me," Dondero told the Washington Times. "I don’t want to talk to them again. I don’t want to see them again. I won’t even attend their funeral. The nation committed suicide November 6." On the one hand, at least Dondero didn’t pretend that his righteous fury was an act of reconciliation and understanding. On the other, it was disturbing to hear such pure rage vented in the public square. Would Dondero really refuse to visit a dying Democratic relative in the hospital, as he told New York magazine? Is that what the world is really coming to?
As the kids say: Well, duh. Just take a look around.
The antidote to this poisonous view of the world is forbearance. Forbearance allows us to ignore perceived slights and to carry on about our business. I say "perceived" because most such slights are just that. Janis’s father, for instance, probably wasn’t holding on to his Rush Limbaugh hats just to tweak his daughter. And Dondero’s Democratic friends and relatives probably weren’t voting for Barack Obama just to cheese him off.
But in a world without forbearance, a perceived slight is just as bad as a real one. And as we have ushered in the age of the politicized life, forbearance has been pushed hastily to the side.
What’s the politicized life? It’s the growing, pernicious trend in American society where politics are injected into every moment of one’s existence. Stories of the politicized life bubble up almost daily. When it became public that Chick-fil-A’s executives oppose gay marriage, there emerged, overnight, a mass movement to boycott the restaurant. When the man who founded Whole Foods dared to posit that Obamacare might have suboptimal outcomes, people huffily responded by declaring they would get their kale and quinoa elsewhere. Thirty years ago, Orson Scott Card wrote a classic science-fiction novel called Ender’s Game. Just recently, the book was made into a movie. But in the intervening years, Card had the temerity to say that he thought gay marriage might create problems for society. So our high-minded elites instituted a boycott on the filmed adaptation of his book—and this only after having him blacklisted from other writing projects.
The Internet exacerbates the politicized life to an almost cartoonish degree. There are people—and even big-money-backed corporate websites—who dedicate themselves to finding grievances. These malcontents spread their angst like a plague: Every disagreement and every microaggression offers an opportunity to display their righteousness.
For those who haven’t spent much time around racial studies departments on college campuses, a "microaggression" is something a "privileged" person accidentally does to a "marginalized" person to make them uncomfortable. ("Privileged" is normally just code for "white males," but it’s a sliding scale. Recently, even the feminist left has cried out about the thoughtless aggressions of privileged radical feminists against marginalized radical feminists. Go figure.) For some context: The politicized feel that asking a person of Asian descent whence he came—that is, where his ancestors came from—is a horribly offensive thing to do, a "microaggression." The reductio ad absurdum of the genre may have occurred in late 2013 when a group of minority doctoral candidates complained that a UCLA professor was a serial microaggressor for highlighting typos in doctoral dissertations. No, really. Evidently, pointing out improper semicolon usage is now the highest form of racism.
Anyway, once you’ve been aggrieved by some microaggression, the retweets and Facebook likes take care of the rest. The more outrage you generate, the more applause you earn. It is not a system conducive to contemplation or thoughtful discourse. It’s charming to recall that, once upon a time, people thought that the Internet was terrible because the only things people used it for were looking for at porn and posting pictures of their cats. Oh, to return to those golden days.
The Internet—along with its slow-witted progeny, social media—helps groups of like-minded individuals coalesce into little communities of the righteous, where they are constantly trying to outdo one another with displays of outrage. It’s a perpetual motion machine of anger. And these instant coalitions of fellow travelers render forbearance obsolete. In real life, you forbear those around you because you never know who thinks what, and forbearance makes it easier for the whole neighborhood to get along. There is diversity of thought, in part because no one really cares what the guy who lives next door thinks about marginal tax rates. But in virtual life, everyone in the self-selected group pretty much thinks the same thing, about everything. And the occasional deviations become opportunities to enforce the communal norms, to show how super serial we all are about the righteousness of whichever cause binds the community together. While tolerating (nay, embracing!) diversity of race is one of the few remaining secular virtues—one not to be questioned, at any time, by anyone—tolerating diversity of opinion has become a rare beast indeed.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the "Two Minutes Hate" is a regularly scheduled occurrence in the state of Oceania. During the Hate, all good party members are required to stand before a television screen and scream obscenities at a parade of ideological enemies. The book’s protagonist, Winston, is as ambivalent about the ritual as he is about the society in which he lives. However, even he is powerless to resist the crowd’s passions as the state-mandated shrieking reaches its crescendo. "The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to take part. On the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary."
The Two Minutes Hate is real today. Here’s how it works: An enemy is identified, a crime is announced, and vitriol spews forth. The specifics of the crime don’t really matter. It could be someone saying something nasty—or just unpleasant, or even suspiciously nice—about a protected group. It could be a business executive donating to an outré cause. All that matters is that we are presented with a face to hate. But our Two Minutes Hate is actually worse than Orwell’s, because (1) it’s not directed at constructs like "Eurasia" and (2) the government doesn’t orchestrate it. No, the modern Two Minutes Hate is directed at living, breathing people. And its targets are designated by a spontaneously created mob—one that, due to its hive-mind nature, is virtually impossible to call off.
Consider the case of literary agent Sharlene Martin. Martin represented a juror from the George Zimmerman trial who was shopping a book about her experience. Tensions were high following the case, which had ended with the acquittal of Zimmerman in the shooting death of the black teenager Trayvon Martin. The mob fixed, for no discernable reason, on Sharlene Martin.
"You are a [sic] bottom-feeding scum, which is perhaps tautological for agents," read one aggrieved tweet.
"Bitch u better not publish that book," read another.
"You are a total waste of life."
"YOU ARE CLEARLY RACIST."
You get the idea. One enterprising member of the mob discovered Martin’s office address and phone number and published them. Her place of business was flooded with harassing phone calls and emails. Threats were made against her and her workplace. She was berated for hours on Twitter before deactivating her account and retreating from the world of social media entirely.
Or consider the case of Justine Sacco, a flack for Barry Diller’s IAC who, before boarding a flight bound for Africa, tweeted, "Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!" While the merits of her joke are debatable, the response was swift and vicious. After a website highlighted her missive it was picked up by the mob at large. White-hot anger spewed forth. "An apology can not fix what you have said ma’am. The kill yourself section is to the left. Have a good day," said one aggrieved party. "I hope you trip on a flat surface, fall, have a ride over you, die, go to hell and get analy rape! [sic] Racist bitch!" wrote one well-wisher. Within hours the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was born. You could practically see a Twitter mob, larded up with digital pitchforks and torches, waiting for her to land in South Africa. She was promptly fired, which sated the mob’s bloodlust. For a few hours, anyway.
There are little explosions like this every day on the Web. Sometimes the target is famous. Sometimes it’s just an ordinary person who happens to have attracted the notice of the pack by cruel chance. In an interconnected world, where more and more people are living the politicized life, there are always targets. Someone is always thinking the wrong thing or saying something disagreeable.
The question is why, when someone says something disagreeable, can’t people stop themselves from disagreeing? Part of the answer might be the rise of social media, which appears to be increasing impulsivity among its users. Research from Keith Wilcox of Columbia University and Andrew T. Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh suggests that increased use of social media can lead to a host of deleterious effects. "Findings showed that more time spent on Facebook was linked with a higher body mass index, increased binge eating, a lower credit score, and higher levels of credit card debt," as the New York Daily News summarized the findings. The commonality, of course, being diminished impulse control. Spend enough time on social media and, literally, you can’t help yourself.
Impulsivity is the mortal enemy of forbearance. Forbearance calls on us to sit back and reflect on our behavior, to consider our actions and those of others in context, and, in turn, to engage the world in a reasonable way—often by bearing disagreement with grace and good humor. The Internet, on the other hand, encourages the opposite. It asks us to act quickly and snarkily, with self-assurance and in a manner pleasing to our self-selected followers and friends.
One of the most unsettling aspects of the politicized life is that those who embrace it are not un-self-aware. They know what they’re doing and they believe it is right, just, and necessary.
Impulsivity is no vice for the self-righteous. And for the self-righteous, forbearance is no virtue. After all, these people are trying to fix the social order! And the sooner they can fix it the better. Patience? That’s for the privileged. "Be patient" is what the powerful tell the marginalized to keep them quiet. As the bumper sticker says, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." And bumper stickers are never wrong. (You might even think of them as the ancient progenitors of Twitter.)
In recent years we’ve been besieged by sociologists and political scientists claiming that polarization in America is on the rise. They’re no doubt correct. And there is some evidence to suggest that the Internet is, at least partially, to blame. The 2012 American National Election Study, for instance, found that the number of people who describe themselves as "liberal" or "conservative" had ticked up by three points from the previous cycle. But this study was conducted in two formats—one where it asked people questions face-to-face and another where it asked them online. And in the online version, polarization was far more pronounced.
What does this mean? Well, for starters, it means that we’re more likely to indulge in hyperpartisanship when staring at a computer screen than when we’re confronted with a real, live human being. But what does that mean? Are we simply being more honest with the screen? Or does the act of parking in front of a monitor prime us for hyperpartisanship? Or is the very nature of online interaction changing how we behave and how we think?
No one knows for sure, of course. I tend to suspect that selection biases—that is, choosing to read only things we agree with and choosing to interact only with those with whom we agree—combined with the immediacy with which we can consume news and deliver our opinions to the world, has fundamentally altered the way we behave. And not for the better.
There’s nothing wrong with talking politics, as Madeline Janis did with her father. In fact, we owe it to the Founders (and ourselves) to stay informed and aware of the world around us. By the same token, there’s nothing wrong with standing up for your beliefs and attempting to persuade those with whom you disagree. But there’s a difference between having polite, rational discussions and declaring those with opposing views to be the enemy and, therefore, worthy of destruction, infamy, and impoverishment. Consider, for example, how difficult it would be to tweet the Federalist Papers, which are the platonic ideal of political persuasion. (Or, if you really want to despair, ask yourself if the Federalist Papers could be written in the age of Twitter.)
All of that said, until our robot masters take over the world, the Internet isn’t going away. So what our polity needs is a bit more forbearance. A good bit of it. Accept that people who vote differently don’t want to destroy the republic. When someone you know says something wacky, don’t argue with them—try smiling, being pleasantly bemused, and moving on in the conversation. (This goes double when the wackiness comes from someone you don’t know. First of all, you’re not going to change their mind. And second, why do you care what they think?) But above all, the next time a Two Minutes Hate ramps up, step away from your computer and get a cup of coffee. You’ll be a better person. And you’ll feel better, too.
Forbearance is the rare virtue that provides its own rewards.
Excerpted with permission from The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life is Funny as Hell edited by Jonathan V. Last and published by the Templeton Press.