According to the few records we have, way back in 1254 in the court of Mongke Khan at Karakorum, there was a debate (source, see also Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World). Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists gathered to argue their case before the Great Khan to plead their case and (hopefully) convert a few people to the one true faith. There was apparently quite a lot of lively debate, with the Christians doing pretty well (at least according to their own account), but one important thing was missing. No one was actually switching faiths:
They all listened without making any contradiction, but no one said: “I believe; I want to become a Christian.”
Faced with this impasse, the Christians and Muslims started singing and quoting scripture at each other, with the Buddhists just being silently Buddhist at everyone else, and when that didn’t win any converts either, they gave up on debating altogether and…
…And everyone got drunk instead, and then went their separate ways. (No really, check the original account.)
Notice what didn’t happen: they didn’t try to slit each other’s throats. Even though there was plenty of religious throat-slitting happening everywhere else in the world, they didn’t do that at Karakorum. They all put up with each other instead, and found a way to get along even though they couldn’t agree on matters that they all agreed were very important. They made a truce. Perhaps an unwritten one, but one that they all agreed to just the same.
I believe that this sort of unwritten truce is vital to pluralistic societies, such as the one I live in, and so I wish to discuss our own unwritten truce today. In particular, I wish to discuss the forces threatening its existence, and what might happen if we break the truce.
The specific terms of the truce are unclear and subject to constant change, but I think that the eart of the truce is constant and clear. Put bluntly: “I’ll put up with your bullshit if you’ll put up with mine.” A tit for tat, easily understood by almost everyone. You don’t want to lose the chance to say whatever you like, so you let the other guys say whatever they like. Fair’s fair, after all.
This is the spirit of freedom of religion. Your competing religions can’t both be right, but since you can’t come to an agreement on which one is right, you agree to disagree, and you let the other guy keep on living his foul heathen creed while you go about your pious duties. This is the spirit of freedom of speech. You know that the other guy’s opinions are wrong, but you can see that he is thoroughly convinced that your opinions are wrong and both of you know you’re not changing each other’s minds, so you let him spew his nonsense while you declare the truth. You’d like to shut the other guy up, but everyone can see that the only way to do that would be total war, and you’re not sure if you’d win that war at all, let alone score a victory that’s actually worth the cost. Besides, you’re not too keen on destroying your enemies, even when they’re really wrong. I mean, they’re still people, aren’t they?
Scott Alexander calls this truce “a timeless Platonic contract that doesn’t literally exist”, and he has a lot to say in favor of it, and against the people who would break it. That post of his was a large inspiration for the post of mine, especially since the people in favor of breaking the contract seem to be growing bolder and more numerous. Let’s have a look at some of the folks currently protesting the terms of the truce.
Not so long ago, a government official came to a university to speak, by the invitation of some of its students, but some other students weren’t so happy. They did their very best to shut him down:
After dozens of protesters filed into an event featuring House Representative Briscoe Cain, they wouldn’t allow Rep. Cain to speak, claiming he has ties to the Alt-Right and is anti-LGBT.
Rep. Cain was invited to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law by the Federalist Society to talk to the students about the recent legislative special session. Instead, the event was shut down before it even started.
“No hate anywhere, you don’t get a platform here!” protesters yelled inside the room.
The words echoed through the classroom.
“When a racist comes to town, shut him down,” they continued.
That was the mission of the student protesters: shutting down Rep. Cain, who was invited on campus by student Daniel Caldwell.
“It appears that many of you have comments, questions or concerns that you’d like to take up with him,” Caldwell said to the students while at the podium.
No comments, questions or concerns were ever voiced, however. Rep. Cain tried to speak, but his words were lost below the chants.
“No hate anywhere. You don’t get a platform here!” the chant continued.
The general sentiment was clear: we won’t put up with any more of your bullshit. Alright, fair enough. But tell me this: what happens when your opponent decides they won’t put up with your bullshit? Did you think that far ahead?
Some folks, of course, have thought that far ahead, but I don’t think they’ve thought well enough. Take, for instance, George Ciccariello-Maher, who is currently having some free-speech-related difficulties. In the face of a rather shocking injustice (a jury being unable to convict a police officer of murder for shooting a man in the back), Ciccariello-Maher advocates violent revolution (unless “the spirit of John Brown” means something else I haven’t thought of yet). But is this a fight that George and his friends can win? The source of the original injustice comes from people who are unwilling to convict a police officer. There are quite a lot of these people, and if George’s anti-police crowd tried starting a violent revolution, these folks just might fight back, and of course they’d have the police on their side. Do you like those odds, George? Because I don’t.
Of course, there’s at least one good reason to start a war even when you might not win: when the peace is no longer tolerable. If the terms of the truce are bad enough, then you have a good reason to gamble on breaking it. So is our current state of affairs bad enough to justify breaking the truce and making a bloody play for a better peace?
I really don’t think so. See, it wasn’t so long that we had some really nasty violence between factions here in the US of A. Consider:
– The Elaine massacre: A huge mob of white people kill over 100 black people, maybe over 200. Only 5 white people are killed in response, and none are arrested, unlike the 122 black people arrested afterward.
– The Tulsa riot: A white mob, with police assistance, destroys a wealthy black neighborhood, using planes to drop bombs on the houses and people. At least 300 innocent people were killed. No one was ever prosecuted for any of this.
– The Colfax massacre: White voters attack black voters to prevent them from gaining power. 100 black people killed, 3 white people killed in response, attackers arrested but never convicted.
There are more, of course. Many more. Notice which way the violence keeps leaning? But notice, also, that these sorts of things seem rather rare nowadays? To me, this suggests that our current peace is precious, because it used to be a lot worse, and if it was that bad once, it could be that way again. Or, if other parts of the world are any indication, much, much worse.
And just to make this all about me for a second, what about disputes that aren’t along racial lines? I started this post with a story about religion, and the various parties in that story are still fighting with each other in some parts of the world. They could easily come to blows here, too. And what about those of us who aren’t Christian or Muslim or Buddhist? My own religious preference, atheism, is pretty unpopular here in all sorts of places, including the USA. But right now, the truce still holds. Millions of Americans think I’m a monster, but I am still free to declare that there is no god and go about my business in peace. That freedom could go away. I really don’t want that to happen.
And there are plenty of other freedoms I enjoy that could go away, because there are people who openly want to take them away. Freedom to disrespect the government and its symbols, including the flag and the anthem. Freedom to disobey cops. Freedom to disbelieve and offend just about anyone. Sure, there are laws protecting those freedoms here in the USA, but those laws are only of force because the laws protect the great unspoken truce. If the truce goes away, people won’t care about the laws.
And so I am very frustrated when I see minorities threatening to break the truce. I know you guys have the short end of the stick now, but do you realize how much shorter it could get? You do not have the upper hand here. You may have legitimate grievances, but there’s a critical mass of people out there who think that they have legitimate grievances and you don’t, and you may enjoy making fun of them now, but if they pull out their guns and come for you, it will be of little comfort to you in your final moments to know that they are still completely unaware of how privileged they are.
Part of smart politics is realizing that you and the other side will never see eye-to-eye, but you can get along anyways if you compromise. I know it hurts, but it is better than the alternative. Put up with their bullshit, and if they don’t put up with yours, you can call them out for cheating. As long as a truce is in effect, this has force. But if you demonstrate that you don’t care about the truce, then no one else cares either, and it’s time to play hardball.
In fact, let’s dwell for a moment on the fact that cheating by one party gives other parties an excuse to cheat as well. Lots of people don’t like playing by the rules, so they’re constantly looking for an opportunity. Consider the Nazis and the Reichstag fire. Some credible people believe that the Nazis staged the fire to give themselves an excuse to seize power and suspend liberties. If that is true, then what we have is this: a powerful group wanted so badly to get away with cheating that they framed another group for being the first to cheat, and it worked. They got to set the new rules, and they retained the moral high ground because everyone thought the other guy started it. With that in mind, does it really make sense to be so eager to set aside politeness and get into fights, when doing so encourages your enemies to really fight back? When you were so eager to punch Nazis, did you realize that you were seen as throwing the first punch, and now everyone is okay with people punching right back at you?
The fragile peace still holds in the USA, but it can be destroyed, and a lot of us stand to lose big if it goes. With that in mind, I beg you to keep the peace. You may not feel like getting drunk with your ideological enemies, but you can still preserve the truce.
P.S. I have spent most of this post taking the perspective of the prospective loser in the event of a broken truce. But what about prospective winners? What if you’re in the majority, and your side might win in a bloody culture war? Should you go for it?
Well, I’ve got some bad news for you, champ. It turns out that when you win by killing your way to the top, it’s hard to stop killing, and you and your mates end up killing each other.
The French revolution, after having successfully overthrown the monarchy, soon turned on itself. Robespierre and his allies slaughtered their fellow revolutionaries for not being revolutionary enough, until they grew so unpopular that they, too, were sent to the guillotine. The Russian and Chinese revolutions were similarly cannibalistic; the Russians had a full-scale civil war, killing milllions, and in China, Mao launched his “Cultural Revolution”, which was less bloody than civil war but only because most people weren’t in a position to fight back. Even the Nazis got in on the act; not long after the Night of Broken Glass, they had the Night of Long Knives. Apparently, when you break the truce with the other side, you break it within your own ranks as well, and everyone starts cheating each other to death.
So just be careful before you go discarding the rules of civility and murdering your way to the top, for you may find that one day, when you least expect it, the ghost of civil society will have its revenge upon you, and you will have to pay for breaking the truce.