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Civic Friendship and Disapproval
I grew up, as you may have grown up, hearing variations on the line misattributed to Voltaire: “I despise what you have to say but will defend to my death your right to say it.” In time, I would discover Voltaire never said those words, though they certainly summarized his views.
The line belongs to Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote – channeling the great French philosophe – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Somehow, someone in my life (Mom? Mr. Lyon, my junior year English teacher?) swapped out “disapprove” for the stronger “despise,” and that’s how I’ve always bandied the words about.
If you really regard “hate speech,” or graphic pornography, as a public threat then you neither wish to defend it nor approve of it. You’re happy in your consistency: “This sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed, and I don’t like the people who express it!” If, on the other hand, you regard the speech other people hate as a positive good, then you too are blissfully consistent: “I approve of what this person is saying, and therefore, I will defend it.”
What interests me is how we defend the right of someone to say something without losing their freedom (or their livelihood) while also making it clear we disapprove of what they are saying. More basically, what does disapproval look like? What does it look like to “defend and despise” simultaneously?
The common trope in our hyper-partisan age is that there can be no profound disagreements between friends. Friends may argue about sports, or whether they prefer tea or coffee, but any disagreement more substantive is grounds for terminating the relationship. “If you believe in depriving someone of their basic human rights, then we can’t be friends.” I see that slogan everywhere, and it is compelling, especially to the young. It sounds good, like standing up for a basic principle. But of course, what we regard as “basic human rights” is an elastic category. Anything except the most trivial of subjects can become, if you’re angry enough, a “basic human right.”
“I can’t be friends with racists,” says Joe.
“I’m not a racist,” says Mary.
“Yes, you are,” replies Joe. “You still vote Republican, and you support the police. Therefore, you are unquestionably a racist.”
“I can’t be friends with people who think it’s okay to murder babies,” says Amy.
“I don’t believe in murdering babies,” protests Winnifred.
“Yes, you do,” declares Amy; “You vote for pro-abortion Democrats. Therefore, you are a supporter of baby murder, and we cannot be friends.”
And so it goes. You could think of other examples. (A recent favorite: a friend of mine had a prospective date cancel on him when she found he was an NFL fan. She explained that the NFL exploits and damages Black bodies, and therefore to love football was to engage in active white supremacy. Everything is a human rights issue if you can summon the right mix of outrage and imagination.)
Very few of you want a country, I imagine, where only speech with which you agree is permitted. Very few of you want to live in echo chambers, surrounded by those who share your suppositions about how the world is supposed to work. (I may be naïve here! Perhaps some of you are saying, “Actually, Huglet, I’d like to live surrounded only by people whom I regard as reasonable! ‘Twould be paradise!”)
The real question is this: how do you stay in loving relationship with people whose views offend you? How do we stay in civic friendship as a country with people of whom we disapprove? What does it look like to despise someone’s views while adoring them at the same time? Or does whatever imagined authenticity you think you need to embrace require you only love those who share your world view?
I am a lucky man. I have children, I have siblings, I have friends and a large extended family. (Literally NO ONE agrees with my set of views, which tend towards the benignly libertarian --except on foreign policy, where I’m an old hawk.) My loved ones make no secret that they disagree with me strongly. I have certainly had friends cut ties. Yet I’ve had many more who have looked past my views and said, “Hugo is often wrong, but I know his heart, and I choose to stay in relationship with him.” They disapprove of my views, as they disapprove of many of my past actions, and they find a reason to love me anyway.
I do not take anyone’s love for granted. I am grateful in particular for those who have said to me, “I really don’t like the things you did, and I think you’re dead wrong on this issue, but I appreciate having you in my life.” I thank them for both their honesty and their forbearance. I’m touched they think I’m somehow worth it.
It is possible, of course, to disapprove of someone’s views so strongly that you do cut personal ties – while still believing they shouldn’t go to prison, or lose their job, for the things they’ve said. It is perfectly reasonable to say, “I find Edgar’s position so abhorrent on this issue that I cannot have him in my home any longer, but I can separate my personal distaste from both the law and public opprobrium. I wish him well, and I wish him liberty – somewhere far from me.”
Perhaps it is healthiest to think about political disagreements less like a high-stakes conflict over absolute truths and more like how one deals with an ex-lover or former spouse. “I love Jennifer very much, and always will, and I wish her the best, but it hurts me to see her or even hear her voice, so I want her to thrive – but please let her thrive on the other side of the country.” That’s a reasonable stance to take, rooted as it is not in some imperious moral claim about right and wrong, but rather in one’s own personal set of boundaries and vulnerabilities.
What does it look like to disapprove – and stay connected? What does it look like to despise, and defend? How do we navigate these tensions in our private lives – and in the public square?
I don’t have answers, but I think these are questions worth asking. And I’d have lunch with every last one of you, time permitting, no matter how bewildered I am by your values and your visions.