You hate me! I know, because you tell me so, over and over again. I’m infuriatingly arrogant, comprehensively mistaken, and blithely unconscious of my good luck. I’m a citizen of Anywhere, but reside Somewhere with you, and share none of your affections and loyalties. I don’t understand the difficulties of ordinary life. Most of all, you resent my sneering contempt. You suspect I think you’re a racist rube, the worst thing a person can be in our society.
I’m not wild about you either, though not because you’re a hick who won’t do as I say. I concede your right to pursue your own good in your own way, but I dispute that your negative liberty to make choices for yourself constitutes a positive liberty to determine who may marry whom or deny preventive health care, including contraceptives, to women (to give two examples). I have my own resentments, too: There are big problems I want to help solve, such as replacing fossil fuels, curing intractable diseases, and creating meaningful work that pays real wages, and you insist on voting for leaders whose policies make solutions less likely.
Jason Pontin (@jason_pontin) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He was formerly the editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review; before that he was the editor of Red Herring. Now he is a senior partner at Flagship Pioneering, a firm in Boston that funds companies that solve problems in health, food, and sustainability. Pontin does not write about Flagship’s portfolio companies nor about their competitors.
It’s no way to form a more perfect union. The great political question of the day is “How can we all get along?” All democratic nations want an answer, but the need feels pressing in the United States, where the citizens of a large and historically divided nation have been further alienated by social media, cable news, and modern political strategies. What social scientists call “affective polarization,” the measure of how much political tribes dislike one another, is as heated as it’s been since polling began: A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found “that sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.” Almost half of Republicans complained that Democrats were lazier than other Americans, more dishonest, closed-minded, and immoral. Democrats disparaged Republicans similarly, but in larger numbers. We’d even prefer not to shop or work in the same places, although it costs us.
Within the great red and blue tribes, there are yet more genera. We are lonely gamers and radical vegans, men’s rights advocates angry at the pussification of the culture, and women who have a hashtag to describe their harassment. But we no longer communicate. Every controversy has become part of America’s endless culture wars. When politics is so contested, and the two parties that represent reactionary and progressive attitudes are more or less evenly matched, inertia becomes normal. But the time is short, and our common challenges are urgent. Complete triumph is impossible in our constitutional republic; we are not going to fight another bloody civil war; no one is going anywhere. Somehow, we have to find a way to compromise.
Recently, I’ve been asking myself how I should speak and act at work, in my writing, on social media, and in my private life to make mutual understanding possible and compromises more likely. What can I do to be less irritating and provocative, more aware of my biases and the limits of my own reason? I could act with more humility, and clearly distinguish between statements for which I have evidence and pronouncements that merely express my preferences and rancors. I don’t pretend that I will always or often achieve this standard, but I should try, and I might be a good example to others, and especially to my own tribe.
Here’s how to speak in a polity where we loathe each other. Let this be the Law of Parsimonious Claims:
1. Say nothing you know to be untrue, whether to deceive, confuse, or, worst of all, encourage a wearied cynicism.
2. Make mostly falsifiable assertions or offer prescriptions whose outcomes could be measured, always explaining how your assertion or prescription could be tested.
3. Whereof you have no evidence but possess only moral intuitions, say so candidly, and accept you must coexist with people who have different intuitions.1
4. When evidence proves you wrong, admit it cheerfully, pleased that your mistake has contributed to the general progress.
Finally, as you listen, assume the good faith of your opponents, unless you have proof otherwise. Judge their assertions and prescriptions based on the plain meaning of their words, rather on than what you guess to be their motives. Often, people will tell you about experiences they found significant. If they are earnest, hear them sympathetically.
Taken together, the rules suggest a narrow, demilitarized zone for future conduct. All of life is problem-solving, but most problems have no current solution, because we do not know enough about the problem, or they have no conclusive solution, because the problem is not amenable to evidence. The first category of problems, which include all scientific and technological questions, can be provisionally answered. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, first published in German in 1934, the philosopher Karl Popper suggested a plausible demarcation between scientific and other statements: “It must be possible for an empirical system to be refuted by experience.”
However, many of the problems we care about most, including a very large number political and metaphysical questions, are meaningful yet fall into the second, more resistant category. They must be renegotiated by every generation. In democratic societies no one gets everything they want, but they can compromise about anything except personal rights, which are enjoyed by everyone. In practical life, the two sorts of problems are related: If we can negotiate a compromise for a political problem, we can pose the outcome as a technical problem whose solution can be falsified. Inevitably, the solution is never entirely satisfactory to anyone, because a perfectly happy wolf requires a mob of dead sheep, but a good outcome makes it possible for us to coexist.
In a letter written in 1650, in an era more contentious than our own, the English parliamentary general Oliver Cromwell begged the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland to reconsider its alliance with Charles II: “You have censured others, and established yourselves ‘upon the Word of God.’ Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The only escape from the prison of our mutual disregard is to welcome mistakes as useful. It’s not much, but it’s a start upon which to build a truce. We have to find a way to begin to forgive each other.
1In fact, most of this column falls under this rule.