How should FAIR practice its pro-human principles?
Does FAIR want to be a place known for loudly condemning anything “woke” and “politically correct”? Or does it want to be something more?
It seems like it should be so simple. On FAIR’s homepage, five points are laid out under the header of What We Stand For. There’s a nod to defending civil rights and liberties, advocating for individuals who are threatened, support for respectful disagreement, a belief that objective truth exists, and a commitment to being pro-human.
Looking down from 30,000 feet up, these seem so anodyne that someone would be forgiven for wondering: What kind of person would object to such statements? Who are these “anti-human” people anyway? But, of course, the devil is in the details. And the 30,000-foot view fails to capture just how contentious some of our most heated issues have become.
Most readers will know that FAIR has been both controversial (see here, for an example) and beleaguered. That’s, at least in part, because there’s a social and political crisis afoot. While that crisis has been characterized in multiple ways—a battle against woke-ism, a war against the alt-right, etc…—one way to understand it is as a disagreement about how to preserve democracy.
Given its commitment to, among other things, respectful disagreement and civil rights, FAIR is well-positioned to play an important role in answering this question. But it has a choice to make first. Does FAIR want to be a place known for loudly condemning anything “woke” and “politically correct”? Or does it want to be something more? Because it turns out that fortifying democracy requires something deeper than just being against the “other guy.”
The argument usually put forth for being stridently “anti-woke” is pretty straightforward. I’ll describe it here, without either endorsing or condemning it. It goes something like this. A narrow ideology has come to dominate various cultural and educational institutions. It’s one where, for instance, the world is simplified into good people and bad people, oppressors and the oppressed. And it’s one where the question about any given interaction between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds isn’t: Did racism occur? It’s: How did the racism manifest?
Pointing out the problem with this way of seeing the world is a fairly easy task. At its core, such a view leaves little, if any, space for people to see things differently. It simply says, either get in line behind this set of ideas, or your character will be called into question. This, as we’ll see, is incompatible with pluralistic society. At the same time, there’s a big difference between saying, “we don’t want ‘wokeism’” and saying, “we have something better to offer.” One is a negation of what is, the other offers a vision of what could be.
In recent months, organizations like FAIR—not to mention institutions of higher education—have had their mettle tested. The October 7th attacks in Israel, and the response to them, have placed FAIR at a fork in the road. Does the organization’s role and mission lead it to take a vocal position, in this case, against Hamas and in favor of Israel? One could argue that such a statement would be consistent with their mission of advocating “for individuals who are threatened.” Or is FAIR’s primary role to create a space where that “respectful disagreement”—which is also stated in its What We Stand For section—can unfold?
It turns out that this choice amounts to more than a simple coin toss between two equally good (or bad) options. If FAIR wants to take up the mantle of playing a role in preserving democracy, there is really only one answer. It has to make space for respectful disagreement. Here’s why.
Democracy is rooted in a very specific assumption. We assume that our democratic co-participants are—by and large, although not without exceptions—capable of reasonable thought. This premise is so crucial that we might even say it’s the sine qua non of self-governance. It also means that if we’ve decided that the “other side” is crazy, racist, hateful, deluded, or in some other way incapable of responsibly participating in a democracy, then we need to ask ourselves a question: Is democracy still the mechanism we want to rely upon to run this country?
I, for one, hope the answer to that is yes. As someone who prefers democracy to any readily available alternative, I’d like to think that we’d resort to throwing it away if and only if we’ve exhausted every other possible explanation for why people see things differently than we do. That means not seeing an opponent’s position as we justify it for them, but seeing it as they justify it for themselves.
The way to do that is by committing to a few core axioms. These include:
The moral outrage and righteous indignation that allow us to dismiss and demonize people who disagree come from some value, principle, or belief we’re holding onto as certain, or given.
Certainty (or, as I’ve called it, The Certainty Trap) leads us to both stop asking questions and to be sloppy in our thinking. As in, why do I have to be clear or explicit in my reasons if they’re so obvious?
The solution to the problem of certainty is to both recognize the uncertainty in what we know about the world and to be precise in our thinking. That means that when we disagree with someone—especially on a heated topic—we do so in a way that specifies which principle or value of ours is being violated. Here’s an example: Let’s say I’m talking with someone who doesn’t think women should be allowed to drive. And I don’t agree with this. A commitment to democracy means hanging my argument on “I think women should have equal rights under the law,” instead of “Well, you’re a raging misogynist.” After all, the first option allows the conversation to continue. The second one does not.
When these three axioms are combined with the understanding that no value, belief, principle, or claim is exempt from criticism, questioning, or examination, we have a powerful —and necessary—tool for the preservation of self-governance.
Let’s go back, for a moment, to FAIR’s “What We Stand For” page. We’ve just pointed out that respectful disagreement is tied to the core of democracy itself. This doesn’t suddenly mean that, for instance, advocating for individuals who are threatened is pushed aside. It means that, even or especially when an issue is contentious and hits close to home, we remain willing to: question and clarify our own thinking, disagree based on principles articulated in a way that someone on the other side would understand, and to never hang an argument on an assumption of the other person’s intent. FAIR, in its commitment to promoting tolerance, has the opportunity to model this for the world.
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