One of the downsides of being in a culture war is the number of times you wish people you agree with would just stop talking. You learn to avoid reading them because you know what you’ll find if you do, which is good for you (in time saved, blood pressure not raised, head not banged on desk). But unfortunately, their writing is actually destructive: they turn off people open to being convinced and leave your side complacent and unchallenged and therefore not as right as it could be. They haven’t listened to the people they oppose. They’ve simply used them as material for a pre-set polemic. Effective culture-warring requires empathy.
Driving around one day I heard Ta-Nahesi Coates speaking to NPR about his new book Between the World and Me. He told the host about the time he talked back to a teacher and the principal called his parents. When they got home, his father beat him for it. Afterward, Coates heard his mother protest and his father say, “Better me than the cops.” This was only one story from a life lived in a dangerous world, where the representatives of the law had to be feared.
He had grown up in a very different world than mine. In my world the police were your friends, sometimes literally your friends. It was a fascinating interview and one that should leave anyone blessed to grow as I had—which includes most people who write on these subjects—thinking about the lives of people who weren’t so blessed.
Conservative reviewers predictably jumped on his book. They used the standard techniques, among them analyzing the writer’s appeal in a way that diminishes it (he just appeals to guilty white liberals, for example) and pulling out lines that sound, or can be made to sound, foolish. That he speaks from an experience we need to know about and take seriously they deny, or don’t care even to notice. He’s on the wrong side; take him down.
We don’t like it when people on our side get treated unfairly. I just wrote something on Garry Wills, having been peeved by his high-handed attempt at taking down Evangelicals who oppose abortion. We think less of such writers for the way they treat our allies and friends. Culture warriors need to remember that this works in reverse.
You might not change your views on any issue after listening to Coates speak about his life, but an empathetic engagement with him and his story, and all the other stories of the same sort that people have been telling for a long time, in which you listen to them as stories from which you can learn and not as material for a polemic, ought to leave you holding your views with more nuance and more charity, and speaking about them differently.
The empathetic reading has some chance to change minds among those on-the-one-hand-on-the-other people in the middle of the culture war debates. It’s also a more honorable way of taking up these matters, and one that will refine and deepen your own understanding. In polemics and culture warring, love wins.