Guilt, Hubris, and the Meaning of Martin Luther King – A Conversation with Jesse Lava

by Matt B. on March 20, 2014

A few weeks ago, Jesse Lava sent me one of the most thoughtful and generous emails I’ve ever received. (It’s below.) The ensuing conversation dealt with our contrasting notions about what we’re doing when we engage in politics. In particular, we circled round and around the question: is it possible to debate our deepest values?

Jesse Lava: I’ve been reading your political stuff, particularly the Tim McCarthy conversation and your pieces on political psychology and the OCD/paranoid style in American politics. Something about your voice feels simultaneously heartening and frustrating — endearingly innocent and irretrievably cynical. I can’t quite put my finger on why that is. To be clear, this isn’t a bad thing. That combination is part of who I am, too. My brother Josh once said in a song that he and I have “the same touch of sappy and irony.” Yet the way the duality plays out in you seems different, and I’m not entirely sure what feelings and assumptions are driving it.

Here’s an example. In the paranoid piece, which laments how Americans always try to find something wrong in our politics, you close with this: “However passionately we seek to demonstrate the logical consistency of our ideas, something in us knows that we’re fooling ourselves. And it’s this something…that is the only thing really worth listening to.” So it seems like you’re making an impassioned plea for both less pessimism and more. We should have an optimistic, constructive politics but stay mired in a state of radical self-doubt that allows for no actual beliefs. I see where you’re going with it; I’m not saying this is an outright contradiction. But there’s something gnawing at me about this duality. It’s almost like you’re suggesting that we take the loathing we now aim at others and turn it inward. Almost.

Do you have any idea what i’m talking about?

Matt Bieber: I do! And I’m really glad you wrote this, because I haven’t been able to put my finger on it either, and it’s unsettling. I’m not sure I’m wrong, exactly, but there is something that I’m not seeing yet. So let’s dive in.

My warnings about the weight we place on ‘belief’ aren’t rooted in radical self-doubt or pessimism. Just the opposite, actually. We rely on belief as much as we do precisely because we don’t trust ourselves. We want something to lean on, somewhere to ground ourselves, so we make up a bunch of conceptual claptrap and then allow ourselves to forget that we’ve done so.

But we don’t need all that. There is a line from ‘The Little Prince’: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” We might also say that what is essential is invisible to conceptual mind.

I’m not saying we can’t say anything. Words can be useful. But we need far fewer of them than we actually use. Compassion and care and love, and maybe fairness – I wonder if we need any more than those.

Does this get at some of it?

JL: A bit. But why should we use fewer words? You, for instance, are a word man. You rely on them for expression far more than the ordinary person, as do I. So if you’re saying Americans use words way too often, inventing “conceptual claptrap” as a way of feeling better about ourselves, what does that make you? Isn’t that pretty self-loathing? I wonder if the same phenomenon is at play: you’ve got this endearing earnestness in promoting compassion, care, love, and fairness, but it’s embedded in what feels like a mindset of hopelessness — like self-flagellation mixed with disgust at your country mixed with a loving exhortation to humankind.

MB: It doesn’t feel like self-loathing to me. In fact, if there’s any loathing involved, I’m not sure it’s really even directed at people. Instead, I think it’s mostly targeted at our tendency to self-deceive, to suppress our deepest and most heartfelt intuitions in the name of illusory conceptual clarity. Loving the sinners – myself included – but hating the sin.

More and more, it feels like this line of criticism is coming from a place of care. I don’t like turning on the TV and seeing scared people shouting at each other. I don’t like watching our politicians strutting around acting tough when it’s very clear that they don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t like the way that real human feelings and doubts are treated as deficits in our political culture. None of this is good for us.

When Martin Luther King leveled his critiques of American society, he did do so from a place of love. It pained him profoundly to see people hurting each other (and in the process, hurting themselves). He also knew that there were boundless reserves of love and compassion within us, and that revolutionizing our culture would mean helping each of us get more familiar with those parts of ourselves.

Yes, he absolutely used the language of rights and justice and fairness. But I get the sense that he did so not because he fetishized those concepts, but because he saw them as a kind of shorthand, signposts pointing the way toward truths that we already know deep down.

JL: So what do you think the gnawing duality is about? It feels like we’re debating whether it exists, but it seemed at first that something about the idea resonated with you. I’m with you on what you say above. We shouldn’t self-deceive. Posturing sucks. And when we critique, we should do it from a place of love. All good stuff. So now I’d like to clarify what we’re aiming for as we converse. Is this me trying to convince you that there’s something fundamentally negative (paired with something fundamentally positive) about your recent writings? Or are we trying to figure out together what this duality is?

MB: I hadn’t clarified the mix of motivations that were going into my writing, even to myself. This conversation has helped me do that. Of course, I still feel anger and frustration at the cruelty, smug indifference, and self-deception that permeate our politics, and those feelings sometimes swamp my efforts at clarity. (Might this be the source of the negativity you feel?) Still, I stand by what I’ve said about the traps that arise when we’re too invested in conceptual thinking and “identity” formation. Do you disagree with any of that?

JL: When it comes to conceptual thinking and identity formation, I think there’s a balance to be struck. As long as we’re invoking MLK, here’s a nugget of his: “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” There’s a tension between having humility about one’s point of view and being confident enough to assert it. We’re on a tightrope. Lean too far in one direction and you’re Fox News; lean too far in the other and you’re stuck in the paralysis of analysis. It’s hard to pursue self-empowerment and the dignity of the individual when self-questioning becomes the goal. Indeed it becomes hard to have a voice at all. There’s an old joke that says a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument. And I think there’s some truth to that. Just as we can fetishize our ideological markers, we can fetishize the questioning of those markers. Both fetishes are dangerous. So perhaps your writing is an attempt to walk that tightrope. You’re clearly putting more stock in some values than others — indeed you seem to be holding them up as foundational to a decent politics — but you also reject the notion of certainty, and you reject it on principle. A crass way to put it might be that you long to speak but feel guilty about it. And perhaps that’s the hint of self-loathing I’m detecting.

The way your writing comes out, though, I wonder if you’re not actually walking the tightrope but straddling it, with your legs sticking way out. Please forgive that tortured metaphor; it’s worthy of Tom Friedman. But my point is you may be engaging both sides of the tension. You love certain political principles and you also love self-questioning, so you express both loves with fervor. That imbues your writing with passion, intelligence, and authenticity, but there’s a downside: you might end up with both of those dangerous fetishes instead of neither.

MB: Hm. I don’t think self-questioning is the goal. I’m not really sure there is a ‘goal,’ so to speak. But if there is, it’d be something like “trying to see what’s really going on inside of us.”

This is the reason I don’t feel like I’m walking the tightrope you describe. For me, compassion and care aren’t a ‘point of view;’ they’re elemental aspects of being human. The more we’re in touch with them, the more confident we are, and the less we feel the tendency to analyze and conceptualize. We look around, we see the way that we’re treating each other, and we know it’s not good enough. That’s the place MLK spoke from.

It works in reverse, though, too: the less we’re in touch with our own basic impulses, the more we feel the need for some kind of external confirmation – so we stake out a position on the tightrope and defend it. And that’s how we get cable news.

JL: Ah, there’s a tasty irony here. You bemoan the brash sense of certainty that pervades our politics. But you hold your political values of care and compassion to be so self-evident that they’re beyond the realm of argument. Your POV isn’t a POV, you say; it’s the starting point for any decent conversation. Doesn’t that mean anyone who offers a contrary starting point is, by definition, poisoning the political discourse? Doesn’t that mean you’ve won the argument before you’ve begun? If we’re talking certainty, you’re coming dangerously close to Fox News territory, my friend. Indeed, in one (limited) sense, you may have passed it. At least at Fox News they relentlessly argue for their foundational political values of freedom, masculinity, and purity. But you seem to be saying that your central values need not be argued for. I agree that self-questioning and self-awareness are great virtues, which is precisely why we shouldn’t shield our most sacred values from analysis. It’s too convenient.

I myself don’t see self-awareness as the goal of political expression, by the way. I think the goal is to bring what’s inside of us to the outside. It’s to affirm our dignity, our mattering, by making ourselves part of a community of decision-makers and not the mere recipients of others’ decisions. At the most basic of levels, political expression is about believing in our own beauty. Yet there’s a counterbalance, too: we have to honor the beauty of others by recognizing the legitimacy of their values. I don’t mean all values are equally good; we can persuade, cajole, agitate, and activate people in an effort to have our own values guide policymaking. But we can’t just define other people’s emotional starting points out of existence. We honor them by debating them.

I fear that if we doubt ourselves so radically that we make self-awareness the Holy Grail of political speech — and yet we reject opposing values so foundationally that we refuse to admit them as legitimate parts of the debate — that’s when our humanity is diminished.

MB: You keep wanting to re-assimilate what I’m saying into the language of concepts, values, and points of view. But I’m saying that compassion, openness, and care sit below the level of concepts. They are experiences, not propositions – and that’s why it’s very difficult to ‘debate’ them. (How does one debate an experience? How would you defend the claim that human beings are “beautiful?”)

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that we can think about human beings from one of three different perspectives. Either we are basically good, basically bad, or basically malleable/unformed. Now, it’s true – there are things you can say that point toward one or the other view. But ultimately, where you land isn’t going to be a matter of argument – it’s going to depend on what you actually see in the world.

To be sure, there’s a lot of horrible shit to see. Human beings are capable of treating each other with astonishing cruelty and indifference. But if you want to take those facts as evidence that human beings are basically bad, then you’ve somehow got to account for the goodness that cuts against the grain – the civil rights activist who walks into a hail of nightsticks, the concentration camp guard who risks his life to provide an inmate with a bit more food, and so on.

Of course, it would be easy to get lost in examples and counterexamples. For every Medgar Evers, there’s a Bull Connor; for every Nelson Mandela, there’s a Pol Pot. Heck, perhaps there are even more of the latter figures than the former. Inevitably, the question reasserts itself: which type of person is truer, fuller, and more profoundly human?

And here I want to say that the answer is clear. When we think about people who do hurtful things, we come up with reasons, explanations about where things went awry. What abuse lies hidden in the rapist’s childhood? How did personal and political frustrations warp the heart of J. Edgar Hoover? How did Stalin become so blind to the humanity of his fellow citizens?

But we don’t ask for explanations in the other direction. When our Kings and Gandhis endure beatings and jailings in the name of love, we may feel awe and wonder. But we don’t imagine that anything has gone wrong. Rather, we understand that something has gone profoundly right – that they’re capable of extraordinary things precisely because they are acting out of the deepest forms of human goodness, and because they see that goodness in others.

JL: Sweet: we have ourselves a clear disagreement! You say compassion and love are experiences, not values, and thus transcend debate. I say if we want them to drive public policy, they’re in competition with all the other values people advance, so we better join the muck and debate them. After all, we could say that the conservative ideals of freedom, purity, and traditional manliness are things we “experience” as well. But when we get involved in politics, we are acting as citizens, not just individual experiencers. My concern is that you’re privileging your political values as being beyond debate, which displays a rather deep sense of certainty that belies your reverence for self-questioning.

The stories you refer to about extraordinary human goodness and badness are indeed compelling. Those are the kinds of stories that animate my own involvement in politics. But when we’re acting in the political sphere, all sides have their animating stories. Take the Boston Tea Party. As the story goes, those early Americans made an extraordinary protest — for the sake of freedom. Or take St. Paul. He transformed from a persecutor of Christians into an evangelist of the Gospel because of the power of Jesus. Those narratives point to Truth for an awful lot of people. What makes your animating stories trump these others? In the public sphere, I get to promote my central values and others can promote theirs. I usually hope the social justice storytellers win out in any given battle. Those tend to be my people, values-wise. But there’s something disconcerting about the idea that we get to dismiss our adversaries as poisoning the debate just by having different emotional starting points. It’s actually kind of depressing. It simultaneously honors the stuff I care about and invalidates the terrain on which I might promote it. And perhaps that’s the dichotomy that’s gnawed at me from the beginning.

MB: I’ve reread our discussion, and I’m a little confused: where do you get the sense that I’m dismissing anyone or accusing them of poisoning the debate? If I’ve conveyed any of that, that I’m not doing a very good job of communicating, because I certainly don’t mean to! More than anything, I’m interested in relating to where people are coming from.

But seeing where people are coming from doesn’t require us to agree with what they say about where they’re coming from. And here, I want to disagree with you about Fox News. Typically, they don’t argue for their values – they simply assert them. They offer no meaningful account of their own motivations – or of human psychology more generally – to explain their politics. They just profess their politics.

In other words, the anchors at Fox (and the rest of cable news) tend not to be particularly self-aware. They get riled up about infringements on their ‘values,’ but they seem to have very little sense about why they’re so attached to those values.

And this, I think, is what distinguishes compassion from the other values you listed – it’s more existentially basic. True compassion is an unmediated response to suffering. We see the toddler waddling too close to the well, and we don’t think – we respond. We hear another person describe her pain, and our hearts open. We notice how aggressively we’re treating ourselves, and something in us relaxes.

Masculinity, purity, and freedom – at least as they’re deployed in politics – don’t tend to work like this. They aren’t experiences – they’re ideas, concepts about how the world should be which mediate our feelings and activities. In other words, they can’t serve as “emotional starting points,” because they aren’t emotions. They’re not really feelings at all. Which means that there’s something beneath them.

JL: You are making me reflect hard on my assertions and frankly I resent it. I was hoping to get into bomb-throwing mode! I want my MSNBC.

OK, let’s back up. So you don’t see opposing values as inherently “poisoning the debate.” But there’s still something curious here. Consider this combo: (1) You exalt self-questioning because certainty turns us into aggressive talking heads who avoid attentive, empathetic conversations. (2) You want our politics to have only a select few emotional starting points — “compassion and care and love, and maybe fairness.” (3) When you’re reminded that many people have different starting points, you basically reply, “But those starting points aren’t really what being human’s about.” (4) You say there’s so much fighting of the kind we see on cable news because too few people understand that your emotional starting points are the right ones.

See what I mean? There’s a sense of deep ideological commitment paired with an opposition to ideological commitment. I know you’re arguing that compassion and love are feelings whereas purity, freedom, and masculinity are abstract, so you’re not embracing ideological values in the same way. But feelings undergird those opposing values, too. Pride. Self-respect. Resentment of freeloaders. A thirst for vengeance. Comfort with tradition. The dignity of autonomy. Those feelings are just as real to others as your feelings are to you. If you think your feelings are the better drivers of public policy, great; make the case. But then you’d have to admit to being in the fray instead of above it, declaring a pox on all houses.

I concede that a nagging issue for me during this conversation has been that my career is about political change. I have to figure out how to respond strategically to the world as it is so we can inch closer to the world as it should be. As Tim McCarthy wrote to you in January, there’s never been a utopian political discourse. Harsh debate is part of the deal, as is jostling over interests. You responded to Tim by approvingly quoting someone who said, “You’ll never successfully build a politics of unity out of disunity.” Then you wrote:

“That’s not to aspire to the utopian vision that you reject. But it is to say that if we aspire to a politics in which respect, care, compassion, and even love are the basic currencies, we’re never going to get there no matter how far we extend health care or how much humane legislation passes through Congress. As long as all of that comes about in an intensely aggressive way, then we’re going to continue to solidify aggression on both sides.”

Yet making progress, little by little, given human frailties, is what change agents do. Why brush aside monumental policy changes like healthcare reform (which is improving millions of lives) just because “the discourse” was harsh? Maybe I just want there to be a positive place for people like me in your worldview. What do you think of activists who pragmatically pursue progress within real-world constraints? Do you think we’re largely doing something toxic or honorable? Or both equally? I know you hold up King, Mandela, Evers, and Gandhi as exemplars, but I think you overlook that they were strategic, aggressive, tension-creating actors in the very thick of acrimonious battles. So were the countless anonymous fighters who were essential to those movements but didn’t have the luxury of preaching about love all day for the cameras. They focused on winning. Because they did, you get to admire their movements’ figureheads today. So why so much emphasis on lamenting the absence of a utopian public discourse? Though you occasionally concede that utopian expectations are folly, you seem more comfortable idealizing the pristine dream than navigating the messy reality. I’m reminded of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s bit on the phrase “Having said that…”: you pretty clearly mean one thing, then you distance yourself from it just enough to avoid fully accounting for it.

On that note, I’ll let you have the last word. I’ve found this conversation challenging because it’s a critique of your work even though I love both you and your work! But it has helped me figure out what’s driving my reactions, and hopefully it’s helped you unpack what you tend to focus on and why.

MB: I feel the same way! Your initial email was extraordinarily thoughtful and caring, and it’s led to a great conversation. Your questions are great ones to end on, too – in part because I’m not going to be able to answer them fully! But let me try.

I see real value in some of the values you listed – pride, self-respect, the dignity of autonomy, and (maybe) the comfort of tradition – but only if they’re rooted in an accurate view of how we work as individuals, and how the world works more generally. Very often, though, they’re not. Instead, they’re grounded in an effort to build ourselves up by dominating or dismissing others.

I use the word ‘accurate’ very deliberately here. When we see ourselves as self-creating, as fundamentally separate from and in competition with others, we aren’t just operating with an unhealthy mindset. We’re actually incorrect. I’m happy to get into the fray about why, though better-qualified writers have been discussing it for a long time!

As for change agents: there’s a huge place in my vision for people who do the kind of work you do – so long as it’s conducted in the spirit of King and Gandhi. And while I totally agree with you that nothing gets done without a movement full of dedicated change agents, I do want to point out that these men were leaders precisely because they not only set a tone, but because they reined folks in when they strayed too far from that tone. In other words, if King and Gandhi had only preached about love to the cameras – and not insisted on it from their followers – neither movement would have met with much success.

As for their other traits: I don’t there’s anything wrong with being strategic or creating tension – both men relied on creating tension in the hearts of their opponents! I would question the extent to which either of these men was truly aggressive, though perhaps that’s a conversation for another day. (Mandela’s views on violence would complicate things even further!)

I also didn’t mean to dismiss health care reform – only to suggest that we won’t ever legislate our way to love and compassion. Hearts have to change too. Fundamentally, that’s what troubles me about our discourse – in the name of short-term victories, we trade away the possibility of fundamentally changing the way we see ourselves and others. Which is why we need a new political vocabulary.

You’re right – I do sometimes get disappointed, and I end up lamenting the state of our discourse. And you might say there’s something inaccurate about that – that in order to be disappointed, I must have unrealistic expectations. Perhaps! I don’t feel particularly utopian, though. Like you, I’d like to see us make progress, even if it’s only little by little. I don’t think we’re capable of anything else.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Marlo March 21, 2014 at 10:31 am

Very interesting discussion. I’m glad more of these are sprouting up. My comment is this book, which speaks directly to the points you are both making, in better ways than I have the time to articulate at this moment. If you haven’t read it, do yourselves a good one and check it out:

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