January 18, 2016

Someone's Choice of Candidate is a Poor Indicator of His or Her Moral Worth

Conflict (1936) 1We are observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today here in the U.S. Instead of writing about civil rights, as I have done in past years, I thought I'd do something a bit different today. I'd like to take a brief look at one puzzling example of our politically divided climate.

If I wrote a post here at Atheist Revolution in which I said that I just returned from Las Vegas, that I had a great time there, and listed various reasons that Las Vegas is one of my favorite places to visit, I am confident that nobody reading the post would interpret it as me insisting that they should go to Las Vegas or that they would enjoy it if they did so. Some might leave comments disagreeing with my assessment (e.g., saying that they hated Vegas or that they liked another place much better), but they wouldn't behave as if I had just told them that they have to like it.

If I were to write a post about a new band I recently discovered in which I described all the things I liked about their music, nobody would conclude that I was telling them that they should like this band. Again, some might leave comments disagreeing with me, but nobody would react as if I had just ordered them to go buy everything they could find by this band. They would recognize that they were reading my opinion and regard themselves as free to take it or leave it.

For some reason, what I described above does not appear to be the case when it comes to political candidates. If I were to write a post explaining that I had finally decided to vote in the Democratic primary instead of the Republican primary, who I was going to vote for in the Democratic primary, and offering the reasons why I planned to vote for this person, I would expect a different sort of reaction. Unlike the scenarios above, I would expect many people to respond as if I had just told them how they should vote. Some of those who agreed with my choice of candidate would express their approval; some of those who disagreed would respond angrily as if my post was trying to persuade them to vote like me.

What I find fascinating about this is that I think it would happen even if I explained that I was not in any way attempting to tell others what to do. I could preface everything with a clear statement that I was expressing my opinion and in no way trying to convince others of anything. Some would still react as if that was exactly what I was trying to do. And if I left off any such disclaimer, many more people would react that way.

Why does this happen? My best guess is that far too many people have turned the matter of one's support for political candidates into a metric of one's moral worth. If you support the same candidate as I do, you are a good person. If you support a different candidate, you are stupid, brainwashed, or evil. I have seen more people than I can count on social media saying things like, "If you support Trump, go ahead and unfollow me now." And a surprising number of interactions between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters quickly seem to deteriorate into name calling. How can we possibly work together to create a better world when we treat each other like this?

The fact that someone supports a different political candidate than I do does have meaning, and I am not suggesting otherwise. It probably means that the other person has some different opinions than I do on various political issues. To imbue one's choice of candidate with any more meaning than that, especially if I don't even know the nature and extent of our agreement on specific issues, strikes me as irrational. Going the additional step of evaluating someone's moral character solely on the basis of his or her choice of candidate strikes me as both irrational and potentially harmful. It fosters division, fuels conflict, and distracts us from creating the future we want.

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