The Principle of Charity

And other thoughts on the Berkeley protests

Sculpture by Alexandr Milov

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but in light of the violent protests in Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos

Back in the days when Model UN was my life, the best advice I ever got was this: always apply the principle of charity in debates.

What is the principle of charity? (It is not donating money to your opponent, I was slightly sad to hear.) It is when you assume that the person who is debating you is rational and, most importantly, you chose to engage with and rebut the strongest possible interpretation of your opponent’s argument. If somebody says, “I think pepperoni pizza is the best!” You don’t say, “The best of anything in the whole world? Better than a seven course meal at a Michelin star restaurant? Better than the day your husband proposed? Better than ending world hunger?” Instead, you say, “Well, I think sausage pizza has a lot to recommend it.” (It is a poor example, but if you apply the principle, you get my point.)

Like many people, I find many of Milo Yiannopoulos’s statements troubling, to say the least. But looking at the way liberal rhetoric has developed, both nationally and within my own community, I am sympathetic to his argument that “the left has forgotten how to argue.” I find myself troubled by how easily liberals, myself included, slip into saying “they’re just totally crazy!”, propagating the worst interpretation of the other side’s argument, rather than engaging with what they truly mean.

I thought about this a lot when watching Trevor Noah’s now famous interview with Tomi Lahren. Many of Trevor Noah’s fans shared the clip, excited about how the liberal comedian “ran circles around the conservative Youtube blogger.” I found the interview heart-breaking. When Noah attempted to corner Lahren into a logical fallacy about her position on political demonstrations (“how can Black Lives Matter protest in a way that wouldn’t be offensive to you? how? tell me how?”), I’m sure many people who sympathized and agreed with his frustration cheered him on. Yeah for Trevor Noah! Look how he’s pointing out how hypocritical, how stupid she is.

Which is exactly the point. It may feel awesome to humiliate your opponent by engaging with the worst possible interpretation of their argument, but that doesn’t mean you’ve won — and that certainly doesn’t mean you’ve convinced anybody of your point. And Noah, in that clip, completely misses the core of Lahren’s experience, the thing she’s really trying to say the whole time. The most poignant moment in that interview for me was when Lahren says, very quickly, and just as an aside: “We are the flyby states. People have forgotten about us.”

You learn in debate that you often have to hear beyond people’s words to understand what they are saying. When Lahren says those words, that’s it, that’s the moment: She’s saying her community feels forgotten. And rather than engage with how or why that affects her interpretation of #BLM and the rest of the country, Noah just tries to make her admit she’s a hypocrite, that’s she’s stupid. And so of course Lahren also doesn’t listen when Noah tries to tell her that his community, too, feels marginalized. Why would she?

Although I am glad my liberal compatriots have been so actively engaging in democratic demonstrations these past few weeks, we do have to face that we lost a lot of elections. It wasn’t just the White House. The GOP has majorities in the Senate and the House, controls 32 state legislatures and 33 governor’s mansions. There is no silent liberal majority. Our message is not being heard, it is not being supported, and it is certainly not being voted for.

It is worth repeating, although I wish I didn’t have to: conservatives are not stupid. People who voted for Donald Trump are not a monolith of scurrilous or feebleminded individuals. They are not irrational.

I think if you listen to what people are saying, really saying, when they say “the left doesn’t know how to argue” or “liberals are obsessed with PC culture” or “university students’ are pro-censorship,” what they mean is that liberals are not engaging with their arguments. And we’re not, really. I suspect the reason so many Trump voters were invisible to their liberal friends before the election is because when politics came up, we rolled our eyes, and said “can you believe this? They’re crazy.” And our friends nodded— but they really did not understand our point at all.

I know. I’ve done this. So my goal for the next four years is to apply the principle of charity. To listen, really listen to what the other side is saying, underneath the noise — and to always engage with the best interpretation of their arguments. I will do my best to not post comments like “this is ridiculous!”, but instead to say things like “I am concerned that a travel ban against seven specific countries endangers religious freedom, and makes it easier for our government to discriminate against people on the basis of faith.”

We have to believe that the other side is rational, and reasonable, and has reasons for thinking and voting and acting that deserve to be engaged with, that deserve to be questioned and challenged, rather than dismissed and ridiculed. That is the only basis upon which to build a democratic society.




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Alina Utrata

Alina Utrata

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford.