The grandson and great-grandson of U.S. presidents, Henry Adams, wrote his famous statement about politics being “the organization of hatreds” as an expression of  his disillusionment with politics, especially the political effectiveness of whipping up contempt for others. Unfortunately for us all, modern technology makes the organization of hatreds a more effective political tool today than any time in the modern regulatory era. And many scholars warn that fomenting contempt or hatred for people based upon group identity is a precursor to identity-based violence and transitions to repressive autocracy.

But slippery slope arguments aside, demonizing groups of others damages not only the object of our contempt but also the people doing the demonizing. It is bad for our brains. It shuts down empathy and critical thinking in favor of a laser-like focus on destroying the enemy, whether literally or politically.  Once we believe in the irredeemable evil of the other group, we cannot accept or tolerate evidence of their humanity. We shut out parts of the truth. This is the core of bigotry, but it is broader than that.

Perhaps no conflict illustrates this better than the Israeli-Palestine conflict. College campuses have been rife with this sort of alienation, as U.S. students have intensified their protests to disrupt speaking events, university ceremonies, trustee meetings, and more.

When a political conflict is based on identity, each side’s advocacy seems much more threatening to the other. When politicians and online advocates fan those fears, we lose our ability to think humanely about our fellow humans. Threats of violence against Jews and Muslims are on the rise, and our Jewish and Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues feel it. Divisions of opinion on the issue are severing friendships.

A recent online kerfuffle over an essay in the online magazine Guernica is a sad reminder of this human tendency. If you haven’t read the essay, please take a moment to read it before continuing — by clicking here.

That essay’s publication provoked multiple editors and writers to resign from the magazine’s staff, and you can read some of their resignation letters here and here. Guernica subsequently pulled the essay and issued a statement of regret for publishing it in the first place.

To my mind, the Guernica essay linked above reads like an uncommonly determined effort by the author to hang on to her own humanity and empathy in the face of intense circumstantial pressure to abandon it – and a painfully honest account at that. It therefore seems admirable (to me, at least), not condemnable.

But clearly, others see the author’s membership in the wrong group – oppressor rather than the oppressed – as far more important than her true story or the shared humanity of Israelis and Palestinians. It seems like a sadly myopic perspective, and ironic that people so far removed from the conflict can express such contempt for the perspective of someone who is living it.

Political violence is on the rise in the U.S., lagging (as it does) the rhetoric of contempt and hatred. For some it is human nature to respond in kind to group provocation, whether physical or rhetorical. The response feels defensive and necessary in order to be true to one’s principles and identity. But the problem is that in the midst of sustained and bitter conflicts, each side sees its actions as defensive.

What does all this have to do with energy transition politics? Group identity-based contempt plays an ever larger role in our regulatory politics too, fanned by modern media. Unfortunately, influential climate and energy bloggers, podcasters and even scholars have built brands focused upon the evil of the policy “enemy.” This hurts rather than helps the cause of building congressional majorities for strong climate policy for reasons I explain in Climate of Contempt.

Furthermore, whipping up contempt for a group does its damage by injecting hatred into the ether, where it warps the thinking of both the speakers and their audiences. It foments misunderstanding of the energy transition as a political task. It makes shaming and vanquishing the policy adversary seem more important that winning the policy fight.

We see this on the political right in the GOP’s turn away from conservative philosophy and toward a hyper-populist, anti-Democrat nihilism. And we see it in the populist left among rhetorical warriors on social media whose contempt for policy adversaries denies the possibility finding common ground on policy. 

In my book (chapters 4 and 6, and Appendix G) I address the research detailing the harm that comes from listening to voices that try to activate our contempt for another group. Individuals may do contemptible things, but it is an attribution error to treat groups to which they belong as contemptible. In today’s hyperconnected world it is also a strategic political blunder.

We are far better off when we try to communicate with individuals whose policy or political views are different from ours than when we work to demonize them. You may read  about how some group — Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, Boomers, Gen Z, hipsters, farmers, ranchers, ivory tower intellectuals, RINOs, DINOs, SJWs, normies, etc. — thinks, but that is not the same thing as interacting with individual people from that group.

A recent and inspirational article in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed how thoughtful and courageous groups of Jewish and Muslim college students are putting this advice into practice, trying to understand each other’s perspectives in face-to-face conversations. It would  improve our political life if more people followed their example by turning down the temperature of political discussion, moved their discussions offline, and instead worked to understand others’ points of view face-to-face. – David Spence