The Ruthlessness Gap

No, he’s not in the mood to listen right now
(image by Nick Bolton, via Unsplash)

Angry men with lots of guns who believe they know exactly what god wants… that’s always worked out well, right? Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen. Are those our aspirational countries? Because that’s the track that a lot of us have chosen.

We’re going through a lot of turmoil as a nation right now. And for those of us who are afraid, well, we should be. But I think we should understand why.

When someone’s default position is to be inclusive, to consider alternatives, to be empathetic, that’s just not an attitude that leads toward immediate and decisive action. It’s a deliberative position, one that acknowledges that we will never have full and complete answers but need to act anyway, always amending our course and our destination alike, but always in the service of making life kinder and more merciful to more people.

When someone’s default position is to know exactly and eternally what the right answer must be, there’s an innate ruthlessness to that stance. They’ll cut your throat and not think twice about it, knowing that they’re doing holy work. So those of us on the side of inclusion and mercy will inherently face a ruthlessness deficit when it comes to political combat. See, for instance, the sidelining of Merrick Garland for Brett Kavanaugh. That was just a political car-bombing, violence for the sake of the win. Its ruthlessness took half of us by surprise… but not the other half. It was an act of terrorism, the political strategy that inherently flows from ruthlessness.

In 1996, the linguist and philosopher George Lakoff published a book called Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. Lakoff’s research was motivated by the idea that our behavior is governed (often invisibly) by the metaphors we use to make sense of what’s around us. And he argued in this book that we are torn between two unspoken models of parenthood—what he called at the time the “strict father” and the “nurturing mother.” Social conservatives emphasize moral strength and moral obedience; social liberals emphasize nurturing, empathy, fairness and protection. The strict father leans toward reward and punishment for individuals; the nurturing mother leans toward the idea that mistakes are inevitable but that the fallen can always be welcomed back to the family.

The strict parent acts fast, with a belt or with his fists, to correct your errors. The nurturing parent sits you down on the couch for a two-hour talk about your choices and the alternatives you might have considered. The first has two benefits for its practitioners: certainty and immediacy. The fact that it’s also cruel, and raises people who perpetuate that cruelty, is irrelevant.

As has been said way too many times, and far too accurately, in the past five or six years: the cruelty is the point.

The fundamental blessing of America, the thing that has made us great (and the thing that marks all of the advanced economies and free people of the world) is exactly that we are a secular nation, always amending our course toward “a more perfect union.” The Founding Fathers (to use a particularly loaded metaphor—we might instead call them the original Washington elites, enormously wealthy, more than half of them trained as lawyers) were among the most well educated and secular men in the Colonies. They knew that they did not want to replicate the Church and Crown of England, in which the King was not installed by his people but ordained by God. They went out of their way, over and over, to ensure that common people could be heard, that we had the right to autonomy over our selves and our homes, that we needn’t be subservient to any person or faith, that the power of leaders was always harnessed. They wrangled endlessly, and not one single one of them believed that the Constitution they had brought forth was either permanent nor perfect. It was an act of human relations, and thus by definition messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete.

If we believe that America will always be messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete—that in fact those are our highest strengths—then we’ll always be able to push forward.

The alternative to this openness is ruthlessness, aiming only for the victory regardless of cost. The alternative to this openness is theocracy, in which one specific reading of one specific book must be the ruling force for us all. The alternative to this openness is oligarchy, in which wealth is its own justification for power.

More tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: