So one day Jesus stands up on a hill and gives a sermon. And at one point he makes a joke about people’s prejudices: “Why are you concerned with the mote in the other’s eye when there is a beam in your own?” It’s a picture of somebody scolding another about having a dust speck while the scolder’s face has a tree branch jammed into it. It probably got a laugh. Good sermons can do that.
And 2,000 years later we find ourselves on Facebook, where the politically involved spend inordinate amounts of time collecting the dust from their enemies and assembling it into beams of evil. Except usually the ones who protest the loudest — against their opponents’ twisting of the truth or use of propaganda — are themselves guilty of the same crimes.
I’ve gotten caught up in discussions with a friend who posts frequently to Facebook; usually the friend condemns the dark plottings of the Right Wing. When I have expressed my concerns that the friend, an otherwise intelligent and creative person, often sounds as biased as the other side, I’ve gotten elaborately legalistic responses — elegant, forceful, righteous — that counter each of my objections. But I didn’t need to hear about their dust motes; I wanted to discuss the beam.
To the friend, an open letter:
“You make lovely, lawyerly arguments — some of which I agree with — but all it does is put a gloss on prejudice. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, and I’ve seen more than enough bias on both sides of these arguments, and it’s painful to see someone as smart and worthy as yourself using the same type of arguments (that cater to tribal hatreds) as those used by the other side.
“You insist that the Right Wing is severely biased as to fact, whereas your side is merely concerned with the truth. Oh, fer crying out loud! It’s on both sides! I hear this sort of special pleading from people of all stripes on Facebook, in the news, and in long discussions in person. It’s like saying, ‘Trust me!’ No, thanks.
“Those who protest the loudest — about how honest and fact-oriented they are — tend also to focus on demonizing the other side. And that means they’re not objective at all, but as subjective as their enemies. Facts are twisted while innocence is proclaimed. It’s a head-scratcher to watch.
“You would be more direct and honest to cry, ‘I hate them! I hate them! I hate them!’ than to alternate between ad hominem attacks, long lists of ‘evidence’, and hand-wringing protestations of your sides’ innocence. It’s just as annoying coming from you as it is from my right-wing acquaintances. And you should know better, as you claim to be from the side that champions the facts. If so, stop calling them names! Stop dumping them all into the same basket! That’s not facts; that’s prejudice.
What’s the difference between arguing that an entire category of people are wrong-headed liars, and the kind of racism and religious hatred that has dominated civilizations for centuries? Nothing at all. It’s the same. ‘I have become what I have beheld, and I am content,’ said agent Eliot Ness of his campaign against Al Capone. Are you content?
“You possess the kind of mind we need to solve these problems; instead, you focus on vitriol and legalistic arguments and over-simplifying and stirring up hatred against your fellow citizens. It breaks my heart.
“I once dated a brilliant woman who, whenever we had an issue or conflict in our relationship, would argue forcefully for her side, aggressively asserting that I was wrong. There was no admission of responsibility on her part; always it was my fault. Try though I might, I never could settle any of those issues, which of course continued to irk me, perpetually unresolved. Finally I stopped dating her. Before I left I said, ‘You would have made a great lawyer.’
“Lawyers are trained to win. I’d want that in my attorney, but during informal discussions it’s sometimes hard to get them to admit to any weakness in their arguments. I suppose they’re afraid they’ll go soft if they accept insights from the other side, like a musician who won’t play clarinet for fear it’ll ruin his mouth for the trumpet.
“I only get into these kinds of arguments with people I admire. When I give up, I become polite and distant. I admire your search for justice and virtue, and I’m inspired by your courage to stand up for your beliefs. On the other hand, nearly all of your Facebook essays lately are diatribes. Those are a dime a dozen around there.
“None of these big problems ever get solved by the litigious, as the victories last only until the political pendulum swings back the other way. But many of the same issues may yield to negotiation and ingenuity. If you were to access the contract side of your lawyer brain, with your skills you might make a fundamental difference to the world.
“A victory that includes only one side, in this crowded age, is no victory at all. We are challenged to transcend the old tribal political boundaries and make room for everyone — even those we might, at first, find reprehensible. It’s a job for the just and the great, who can see beyond the anger to the real needs and fears and frustrations of the other side, and then have the perception to find answers that work for everyone. That’s everyone — not just those on our side, whom we would prefer to believe are the only deserving ones.
“But we can’t see those issues and concerns when we are blinded by the beams in our own eyes. A wood-removal procedure is called for. Then maybe we can really see our opponents for the first time.”