Talking Past Each Other

A few weeks ago, I was at a restaurant up near Porter Square with two other law students. The three of us were eating and talking about race issues in the United States. Besides one other table, the place was basically empty.

After the three of us had been talking for a while, a young Asian woman from the other table interrupted us, saying that she was extremely offended to have overheard what we had been saying (in particular, by what I had been saying), demanded that we respect her right to have dinner without having to be in the presence of such disagreeable talk, and finally, insisted that I had no understanding of race issues at all. She told me that she was a law student, that she suffers constantly from people thinking less of her because of her race, and that I could not possibly even imagine the racism and prejudice that she endures daily as an Asian law student. (As it happens, I actually am also an Asian law student.[1])

At her suggestion, we left, but it’s hard to see how she could have hoped to convince me of the correctness of her views. Where I thought I was knowledgeable, she told me that I was ignorant and that her experience was definitive. Where I was speaking in good faith, she told me that I neither understood nor cared about minorities. Where I would have valued an open discussion, she told me that my values were wrong and that she was in any case entitled to live in a bubble without my intrusion.

Dear reader, my fellow diner is far from alone. Race is but one place where people insist on the other side’s perfidy and largely side-step real objections.

For instance, pro-choicers aver that it’s impossible that we Americans could sensibly protect a fetus as a sentient life, never mind that modern societies have extended protections to life forms with far less cognitive capacity than a 23-week old fetus.[2] They claim that guarding reproductive freedom is obviously paramount, never mind that pro-lifers would find it no less logical to claim that guarding the potentiality of life is obviously paramount.[3]

Similarly, pro-lifers argue that all life must be absolutely protected, never mind that our society has always valued some lives over others (how else could we justify our foreign aid budget?[4]). They suggest that it’s wrong to kill the innocent, never mind that many pro-choicers do not view abortion as a killing at all.

Both sides ignore the reasonably held values and beliefs of the other, insisting that their side is impelled by sense and reason and that the other side is motivated by hatred or stupidity.

In a 1960 poll, just 5% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans reported that they’d be “displeased” if their child married someone of the other party. In 2010, the numbers had shot up to 33% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans feeling that they’d be upset if their child found a spouse of the other party.

I understand this division. Like many Americans these days, I feel that my political choices are compelled by my moral values. It can be hard to not feel aversion to those who have fundamentally different values from you.

Nevertheless, the political animosity that envelopes us today is poisonous to American society. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The difference between conservatives and liberals is not always even reducible to values, but rather to a gap between how people of different political leanings understand the facts of our world. Sometimes people draw different conclusions from the same set of facts. Sometimes people don’t know the facts. And sometimes people simply refuse to accept inconvenient facts.

For example, conservatives often refuse to accept anthropogenic climate change and that a government, not just private enterprise, can produce things of value. Liberals often deny that zoning restrictions and rent controls generally reduce the supply of affordable housing and that low-skill immigration depresses low-skill wages. Those are but a few examples.

In either case, we each have a duty to aim to understand one another. We have a duty to at least try to reconcile our facts, and maybe even our values. We have a duty to speak — and to listen — in good faith. Has any of us never been wrong? And if so, what’s to say that in any given disagreement, especially if it’s with another presumably intelligent and sensible Harvard Law student, that it isn’t “we” rather than “they” who are wrong?

Looking out at the American community, would not listening and then looking to address actually held concerns, rather than just calling people racists or telling people to “educate themselves” do infinitely more for whatever cause one espouses?

There are surely the intransigent out there who would not be convinced by any measure of reason, but this is a democracy where we need not unanimity, and 51% can suffice to effect policy change.[5] Are we so uncertain of the rationality of our views or so certain of the stupidity of others that we think that reason would not be accepted by even a simple majority? The fault, dear reader, is not in the obstinacy of others, but in ourselves.

This is not about the “politics of respectability.” This is about giving others the bare minimum of respect that one ought to accord to those whom one wishes to convince. To pretend that that’s the way things are now, to pretend that agitators on the left or the right are nearly universally intelligent and articulate is to be willfully blind.

Reader, you might feel that it is a bit unfair for me to write this to Harvard Law students but not, say, climate change deniers (not that the two are mutually exclusive, unfortunately). But alas, this is where I have a forum. And it seems to me that we ourselves are only too often guilty of putting on blinders as well. (Just look at the dialogue, or lack thereof, over Reclaim HLS.) If we would not reach across the divide, then who would?

Go and ask why someone would support restricting immigration. Unless they straight say that they don’t like brown people, take it on good faith that they are no racist.

Go ask someone why they support cultural pluralism. Similarly, take it on good faith that they seek not the downfall of the American republic.

Assume that they are no more ignorant than you.[6] Assume that they just might be able to imagine what Asian law students face.

Ask not only yourself, but ask friends, and ask strangers.

Don’t just read things on the Internet, but talk to people in real life.

Talk to people who agree with you.

Talk to people who disagree with you.

Take them up in good faith.

Push back when they are wrong.

Accept that you might be wrong too.

Jim An is a 1L.


[1] In my interlocutor’s defense, she had no reason to know that I am a law student. And in an ironic way, perhaps she is right to suggest that Asians face a lot of racism! After all, I sometimes hear that Asians are particularly unimaginative, and since she didn’t know I was a law student, she might’ve thought that I was so dull that I could not fathom the law-school-related challenges that Asians face. Perhaps if I were of another race, she would’ve ascribed greater imaginative ability to me.

Also, just to be fair, though I can think of the racism Asian law students face, that actually requires zero imagination on my part, and so my imagination has never been tested. Perhaps she is entirely right about my imaginative abilities on racism against Asians, my actual personal knowledge of the matter notwithstanding.

[2] In the alternative, why protect newborns? Newborns have hardly more ability to feel or self-awareness than fetuses.

[3] Suppose that all fetuses were gestated by men or otherwise not in a human body. Would liberals support a unilateral right of fathers to terminate the gestation at will? It seems to run counter to liberals’ general tendency to aim to protect the poor and defenseless.

[4] Or closed borders, for that matter.

[5] Though obviously not on gun control.

[6] See, e.g. Charles Blow, “Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters”

Jim An is the editor-in-chief of The Harvard Law Record and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.

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