An Open Letter to Progressives
I just wanted to send this note along to ask you a question, namely why you need me to agree with you so badly that you are prepared to hate me, shun me, perhaps even condemn and imprison me, if I don’t agree with you.
Let me frame the question a little differently: Why are you so afraid of being left alone with your point of view? Could it be that for all your full-throated bluster, you don’t really have the courage of your convictions in the end, and therefore seek intellectual safety in numbers — or, alternatively, the coercive silencing of all dissent? For it is neither inevitable nor, in my view, natural that a person should need so badly for others to accept his position that he feels himself unable and unwilling to live in a world in which there is serious disagreement about first principles or practical methods, or even the possibility of such disagreement.
Allow me to use my own case as a point of reference. I think a lot of strange things by today’s standards, or indeed perhaps by the standards of any time or place. I hold a lot of strong opinions, and often express them equally strongly — just ask anyone who knows me. I tend to argue pretty vociferously for my view of human nature, my preferred course of life, and my idea of a reasonable societal order.
I also know, however, that I am unlikely to persuade more than a handful of people to turn their minds in the direction of my point of view in my lifetime. (For what it’s worth, I sometimes like to imagine that I’ll fare slightly better in the generations and centuries to come — but I digress.) And while I might wish my reasoned arguments could achieve more in the short term, I have nevertheless learned to accept the reality that I will almost certainly live my entire life in a world that is very far (and farther all the time) from conforming to my understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful, as these notions apply in the arenas of psychology, metaphysics, education, and of course politics.
And yet, for all my lifelong effort to develop the most consistent and well-reasoned view of the best life, both for individuals and societies, it has never crossed my mind — not even once, not even in the most free-wheeling late-night musing — to wish that I could forcibly impose my vision on others, establish means of punishing them for refusing to submit to my vision, or create a universal program of compulsory state re-education to tether their and their children’s souls to my perspective against their wills.
So I guess what I am asking you today is: Why does such a universal compulsion fantasy so easily and frequently cross your mind — let alone evolve so consistently into a system of concrete political strategies?
To return to my own case, given the unlikelihood of realizing my vision of life within the broader society, I have learned, by necessity and also by moral reasoning, to resign myself to the less ambitious practical hope of finding a few relatively likeminded individuals with whom to share my thoughts and my way of life, for the mutual benefit of each. Granting that our way of thinking and our preferences for living will not be found in the wider world, we intuitively build a smaller and, if you will, more figurative community of friends who understand, appreciate, and encourage one another’s interests and aspirations, even while respecting one another’s privacy and the imperatives of self-development that are essential to the framework of our little community — such respect being, in my view, a necessary condition of any healthy community.
I believe it is of the nature of courage to be prepared to stand alone when general assent is not possible. Hence, it is cowardly to need the assent of the collective so urgently that one is willing to compel it by force of law.
I believe it is of the nature of liberality to do for others by one’s own means, and of one’s own free will. However, it is oddly both mean and prodigal to seek to compel other men to provide for those you wish to help, as though those other men’s goods were yours to commandeer and redistribute.
I believe it is of the nature of the sense of justice to feel righteous indignation at the perceived mistreatment of the worthy or the unnatural elevation of the unworthy. However, when such indignation becomes irrational bitterness toward all who enjoy good fortune in life, then one has fallen prey to envy; alternatively, when one is inclined to enjoy seeing all successful men punished for their good fortune, as though success itself were proof of evil, then one is guilty of malice.
In sum, I believe it is of the essence of sound thinking and adult dignity to be disturbed by perceived injustice, but never to be led astray by that perception into committing injustice oneself. I believe that the desire to improve the lives of others must be limited in practice to what I can actually achieve by my own efforts, including my intellectual efforts to persuade others to join my cause, but excluding coercive efforts to deprive others of their freedom of choice in the name of my preferred outcomes. I believe that I must be prepared, in principle, to adhere to my notions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, even if and when this means standing (or falling) completely alone, should I be unable to convince anyone of the righteousness and truth of my vision — for such a principle is, in my view, the minimum requirement of being a mature and responsible adult human being.
To force others to agree with me, or rather to compel them to behave as though they agree, is both criminal in its intent and self-defeating in its method. And I say that not at all as one inclined to regard all views as morally or intellectually equal. I believe I am right, or at least that my way of thinking is more conducive to the proper search for what is right. But nothing in this belief of mine, however firmly held, gives me license to deprive others of their self-determination, or of their simple right to refuse to take my beliefs seriously, however disagreeable this may be to me.
Perhaps the simplest way to express this last point is the following: With regard to the prospect of applying the coercive mechanisms of the state to impose a point of view or behavioral preference on others, reason invariably forces me to ask, “Who am I?”
If reason does not similarly force you to ask yourself that question, dear progressives, then I wonder if you can explain why it doesn’t?
P.S. I believe I already know the answer to my questions, since I see that answer as a logical implication of your progressive attitude. But I ask primarily because I am curious as to whether you see the answer.