top of page

Weird Little Platoons, and What We Can Do For Eachother

My parents were Goldwater conservatives, Reagan Republicans. They were also in ministry to hippies (many of them Jewish!) and blacks in the 1970’s – “sold out for Jesus” as we used to say back then – and deeply disappointed at the mainline churches for the way their traditionalism shut out people who were seeking. My parents were theologically conservative – good old Baptists when it came to all that – but rejected the legalism sometimes associated with that tradition. We welcomed bluegrass musicians, missionaries, and inner-city kids to stay at our house for extended periods of time. I had a black pastor, a Jewish-Christian pastor, and my dad in leadership at our church. We had bluegrass Sunday (“The Baptized Jesse Taylor!”), black gospel Sunday (“My Tribute” by Andre Crouch!), and rock ‘n roll Sunday (“My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison – with the “Hare Krishnas” left off!). There were democrats and republicans. Dad avoided politics altogether in church, but would speak out on moral matters such as reaching out to the poor and the value of unborn life. Soon, Wash U college students from all over the world began to attend as well. We had Nigerian dances for the offering quite regularly, we sang in Spanish sometimes, and Hebrew more often. We had Christian bikers, LOTS of recovering addicts, formerly incarcerated people, a famous sculptor (and his art dealer!), half of Mama’s Pride (a popular 70’s rock band in St. Louis), and, believe it or not, a whole support group of schizophrenics. We certainly had our issues, but I don’t recall any of them being about ideological disagreements. There was a general spirit of earnest conversation. It was the personal stuff that was hard – the living together in community with all of our brokenness.

When I decided to go into philosophy I was introduced to a world so intellectually diverse that it seemed far more threatening to me than any of the cultural diversity with which I had grown up. Over here we had Peter Singer the utilitarian, defending infanticide. Over there we had Aquinas, whose sexual ethics led to the Catholic Church’s rejection of contraception. Socrates doesn’t think that justice is even about retribution, or that we ever intend evil. Katherine McKinnon is sure that the grammar of sentences conveys our history of patriarchal oppression. Cornell West condemns Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wealth, while Coates condemns West’s Christian hope. And these people aren’t just making this stuff up. They’re starting with certain first principles, and reasoning from there. They’re trying to be consistent and rational. They’re all whip-smart. It became increasingly obvious to me that while the bastardized popular versions of many philosophical viewpoints are not worth taking seriously, the original ideas always are. They’re too well thought-out to be simply dismissed. They must be addressed in all sincerity. People have become convinced. If they (or I!) are wrong, we must be convinced otherwise, if possible.

Of course, as a Christian, I paid some attention to the intersection of philosophy and faith as well. Turns out that theology is not so simple, either! True, dedicated followers of Jesus have reasonable disagreements about creation, the nature of the fall, the meaning of the Old Testament account of Israel, the atonement, salvation, becoming holy, and the end of time. This is deep stuff, and I was greatly enriched by becoming more familiar with the substantive debates on these matters throughout the history of the church and today. Apparently, God is not at all afraid of our questions, and will forgive our wrong theology just as He forgives our sins! The depth that was gained through this exposure probably saved my faith from the predictable failure to which an intellectually shallow tradition must give rise when troubles come.

Nor could I ever have been under the impression that people’s viewpoints could be easily categorized, much less into only two stripes! I detested even traditional ways of memorizing the history of philosophy (empiricism vs. rationalism!, realism vs. nominalism!), because I thought these categories ran slipshod over the nuances of the thought of particular individuals. Locke thinks all knowledge arises from empirical experience, but gives rationalist arguments for the rights of ownership. So which one is he? As a professor, I have always taught historically, rather than by category.

Jumping back into the fray of current political debate after having cloistered myself in the history of philosophy for 15 years, I was completely stunned by what I found.

The traditions themselves are just as nuanced as ever. The ‘father of conservatism’, Russell Kirk, was a pacifist and called the draft evil. Elizabeth Anderson, a democratic egalitarian, quotes Hayek and addresses economic trade-offs. These people aren’t playing games to present a certain face to the world, or to manipulate others. They’re searching for the truth. But the political conversation is almost completely poisonous. Publicly, one could acknowledge two – or MAYBE three – possible perspectives. A majority of people in each group assume purely evil motivations on the part of the others. Stupidly, each offers very little as to acknowledgement of the concerns of the others, many of which are perfectly valid. I.e., Why can’t we copy the Nordic systems, with their mostly free markets and robust safety nets? Or, How will we maintain a stable society if we upend so many central notions – gender, marriage, property ownership – and so quickly? Or, Why should this invention, the state, have power over voluntary exchanges between me and another person, whether economic, sexual, or any other category of exchange?

I think I know why this mass alienation is happening: increasing geographical and even familial divisions along ideological lines has meant an increase in the ‘echo chamber’ effect, leading both to more mutual hatred and more extremism in all directions. Hence my puzzlement: As someone familiar with plenty of ‘weird’ people and groups, the fact that there are weird people and groups doesn’t strike me as strange or objectionable. As Toqueville said, Americans gather in their “little platoons” and form clubs to solve problems. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Vive le difference!

I am also helped by the economic understanding of diversity. From Plato to Adam Smith, philosophers have noticed that the impulse to join a society comes from the division of labor and specialization. An individual, or even a family, can only do so much to survive and thrive on their own, providing food, shelter, clothing, and care. But a society allows for each to specialize and then trade, creating a far more efficient system and allowing for greater human flourishing. Aristotle critiqued Plato for imagining a society that was still too simple – too much like a family. It’s our differences, Aristotle points out, that makes us want to be together and cooperate. Societies can have symphonies. Individuals – or even families - cannot.

Recent work in psychology may provide some insight into how to apply the logic of the division of labor to the political scene. There are many psychological types, but two that are a good predictor of voting patterns. Some people are high in openness to new things, but low in concern for order and stability. People like this tend to become what we call ‘liberals’. Another type has the opposite profile, and these tend to become what we call ‘conservatives’. But doesn’t a society need both of these types of people?

If we all had the first profile, we’d be in a constant state of cultural revolution, making the rearing and educating of children, marriage rites, caring for the elderly, and other basic human tasks endlessly confusing. Such confusion isn’t just existentially painful either. It can have terrible consequences for issues such as poverty and child abuse. The data is actually fairly clear on this.

On the other hand, if we were all of the opposite profile, we would be so content with tradition that real injustices would be ignored in favor of ‘not rocking the boat’, and cultural and economic exchange would be discouraged. These kinds of failures are also tragedies of huge proportions. Cutting off trade, though a great way to protect oneself from any changes, is also a great way to impoverish others and yourself. And when minorities’ right to their day in court is routinely denied, dangerous alternative enforcement mechanisms naturally arise.

Instead, both impulses – for change and for order – ought to be embraced so as to temper one another. As Mona Charen put it, “The great liberal virtue is impatience with injustice. The great conservative virtue is gratitude.” We must have both, or we’re going to go off the deep end.

A person with my background is necessarily puzzled by the current state of our conversation because it simply doesn’t reflect our truly diverse social reality. It will not be possible to simply force our wills on one another. Nor can we be what my childhood church was, because we don’t share what church members share. But we can be a bunch of oddballs in a conversation. It will be ugly at times, no doubt, but genuine engagement isn’t just a good idea because it sounds nice. It’s the only thing that can save us from ourselves.

bottom of page