Voltaire was a badass. He was an unfettered forward-thinker, an enlightened activist, a satirical polemicist. In many ways he was a 21st century brain caught in the confines of an 18th century world. His views on freedom of religion, freedom of speech and slavery offered a foresight that overshadowed his contemporaries. If there were a banquet for progressive philosophers, surely he would be the elderly figurehead helped to the table by his 20th century counterparts.
When Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote the biography of Voltaire in 1903, she coined a phrase often attributed to Voltaire himself, but which sums up one of the deeply held conditions of his philosophy:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Now, I wish to preface this article with a personal statement. I style myself as a progressive. I believe whole-heartedly in the principles put forward by Voltaire. I agree on the social axioms put forward by the Left. I believe in same sex-marriage. I believe that sexism and homophobia exist. I believe that white nationalism remains a terrifying presence in America. I believe, as a white, male born into a stable financial environment I am the beneficiary of a tremendous amount of privilege. But we have no right to mollycoddle ourselves in the blankets of self-service; we have no right to cosset a moral superiority at the expense of those with whom we may disagree; we have no right to move the playing field because it may suit us so.
I attended a talk by Paola Mendoza and Darnell Moore at the BRIC in Brooklyn, New York for the opening of the Art festival exhibit on borders last week. In a powerfully delivered and personally driven speech, Mendoza stated, “it is not our job to move to the middle, it is our job to move the middle to us.” Interspersed with some commanding and effectual arguments borne out of her personal narrative, Mendoza incubated a perspective that has become dangerously pervasive on the American Left. There is a sentiment that I am right and you are wrong, that the pillars of my belief are impervious and immovable, that I reside in the keep of moral certainty and others must struggle to the mountaintop.
There is no disagreement from me on the principles of Mendoza’s beliefs, but to incubate one’s self in a chamber of perceived moral certainty is a dangerous mentality to proliferate. It is a service to moral self-righteousness. It does little to generate change or challenge the entrenched perspectives on either side of a political divide. Such radical language – an approach that Moore and Mendoza styled as “radical love” – is a call to the sympathetic but inactive rather than an attempt to entertain a dialogue with those who may disagree. It is an approach that vilifies and assails the other. It engenders an attitude that is only going to breed the same level of discontent from the other side. Ascribing derogatory terminology and broad stroke descriptions of “white nationalism” to the Trump supporter or conservative is a call to arms not a call to discussion. Yes, white nationalism exists. Yes there is hatred on the Right, but to attribute that description wholeheartedly to the swath of America that voted for Trump is frankly churlish and ill conceived.
There are many Americans who voted for Trump not because of racist tendencies or homophobic inclinations. Many voted for Trump because he spoke to their immediate needs. No matter how important these social issues are they are not high on the priority list for a large contingent of Americans who have more pressing personal requirements. Whether that is right or wrong is a discussion for naught if we do not engage in respectful conversations with one another about what is important to each of us. The needs and wants of a straight white farmer in Wisconsin are different to the needs and wants of a LGBT kid in the projects in New York. They are both entitled to vote on the decisions that most directly affect them.
So this is a challenge for the Democrats, the Left and their supporters. Do not compromise on your social principles but engage in differing perspectives, challenge and discuss alternative viewpoints that are vastly different. It is not because half of America is racist, xenophobic and prejudiced that they vote for Trump. Rather, the majority of those voters are willing to accept the fallout of such policies because there are more pressing policies that they believe affect them personally. So we have to do more, hold our principles but remain inclusive; reconcile how we can educate and listen to each other on priorities, needs and backgrounds that are vastly different to our own. Foster an environment where we have to compromise because that is what democracy is: an endless negotiation of contrasting beliefs that require a middle ground.
Winston Churchill argued, “many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect and all wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Democracy is the trusted and immovable system that we have in our country. It is so easy to shine a light on its positivity as giving voice to the people but that is precisely its strength and its flaw. We have to listen and contend and negotiate and maneuver on different positions. The principles of democracy force us to communicate and, in such a system, we absolutely need to listen to the people with whom we may vehemently disagree. It is the sum of all those disagreements and negotiations that dictates the middle ground. Life is not so easy that any one of us can draw a line in the sand and play kingmaker.