This is for Gigi, who can’t figure out why I don’t like Bill Maher.
Gigi, a reader in West Palm Beach, wrote me last week noting that I agree with the star of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” on most political issues. Yet I have, on previous occasions in this space, expressed distaste for him. “I just don’t understand,” wrote Gigi, “why you profess to dislike someone who is so like-minded. It baffles me.”
Me, I don’t see the contradiction. To whatever admittedly imperfect degree you can judge character from a television performance, I find Maher smarmy, self-satisfied, condescending and just plain nasty. Besides which, his use of coarse, sexist vulgarisms to describe Sarah Palin and of an offensive term to describe her special-needs child a few years ago strike me as far beyond the pale, whether as comedy or as political analysis.
That said, Gigi’s letter intrigues me less for its unspoken assumption that we should flock toward people with whom we agree than for the obvious, albeit equally unspoken, corollary: We should avoid those with whom we disagree.
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Her bafflement tracks with the findings of a 2014 Pew Research Center study. It found that partisan animosity has increased significantly in the past 20 years, the right moving further right, the left, further left, with the result that people now largely prefer to make their lives in echo chambers where their beliefs reverberate without challenge. Half of all “consistently conservative” respondents told Pew it’s important for them to live in a place where most people think like them. Forty-nine percent of their liberal counterparts said most of their friends share their views.
Indeed, to a great degree, political identity now serves the same function in the public mind as racial identity — namely, as a fundamental and immutable marker of character and worth. To put that another way: Would you want your daughter to marry one? Twenty-three percent of consistent liberals say no, they would not want to see an immediate family member marry a Republican. Thirty percent of consistent conservatives feel the same about the idea of a Democrat in the family.
Look, I get it. We argue — and we have to, and we should — over momentous things. This is not a call to paper over critical political differences with false harmonies of Kumbaya. For the record, I doubt I could share a bus shelter in the rain with such conservative icons as Sean Hannity, Ted Cruz or Ben Carson. Drenching would be much preferable to five minutes with any one of them. But, as with Maher, that represents a judgment less of politics than of perceived character.
In this era, unfortunately, that’s a distinction without a difference. My problem is that I came of age in another era, that I remember the likes of Bob Dole, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, men with whom I could — and did — have sharp political disagreements without feeling obliged to personally dislike them or to disparage their patriotism or decency.
Having been shaped by that era, I persist in believing party does not equal character, nor ideology, identity. I feel no imperative to like you because I agree with you. Or to dislike you because I don’t.
Granted, that is an outdated and minority view, but I hold to it, largely because I can’t see how the alternative solves anything except the need to argue. If a political opponent is defined as unalterably misanthropic and irredeemably evil, then all politics is doomed to fail. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise. You don’t compromise with monsters.
No, you compromise with people like yourself, who have wants, needs and fears like yourself, though they see the world through a different lens. That’s a truth lost to this loud and polarized time. As is this:
Disagreement is not a reason to stop talking. Truth to tell, it’s a reason to start.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.