THR Web Features   /   August 17, 2022

Reaching the Adjacent

Is there a way beyond the politics of personal destruction?

Alan Jacobs

( Shutterstock, Inc.)

When trying to think about the conflicts that beset American society today, we might find it helpful to make a few distinctions—to sort the people of our motley republic into some rough categories. Thus my list of eight types of people according to their responses to political and social disagreement:

  1. Those who commit violence against their fellow human beings (often, but not always, their fellow citizens).
  2. Those who engage in the destruction of property.
  3. Those who explicitly threaten violence or the destruction of property, without, at the moment anyway, acting on that threat.
    (You can already see that there are some difficulties here—especially if the categories are to be ranked in order of severity or dangerousness, which I admit I am doing. For instance, some might say that threatening personal violence is worse than actually destroying property—some commentators don’t believe that destroying property is violent—although it seems to me that those who destroy property are implicitly threatening violence against persons. They are, in effect, saying, Yeah, you weren’t there this time, but keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll see what happens next time. This is debatable, of course, but I think the categories themselves remain useful.)
  4. Those who practice psychological intimidation: verbal abuse on social media, doxxing, demands that a person be fired from his or her job.
  5. Those who do not do any of the things already listed but vigorously portray their political opponents in the worst possible light, and especially portray them as people who are on the verge of doing something terrible. They want to destroy people like us. Or: They’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you. Or: They’re denying our very humanity. The implication—which, for reasons of plausible deniability, usually remains an implication—is: We have to get to them before they get to us. And that amounts to an anticipatory justification, a prospective absolution, of more aggressive actions.
  6. Those who do not do any of the things already listed but, while claiming merely to explain, provide a kind of retrospective covering for such actions. Well, of course, I don’t endorse violence or intimidation or doxxing or trying to get people fired, but what did they expect would happen when they did X?
  7. Those who in times of political and social conflict typically remain silent. This is the most complex group—and indeed not really a “group”—because there are many reasons for remaining silent, some of which are not just acceptable but commendable. Sometimes you might actually agree with some of the political positions taken by your hotheaded uncle, but you don’t express that agreement because you’re afraid that that will simply further inflame him. Or you’re silent because you are occupied with your own good work in the world and don’t have time to learn all the things that your neighbors are upset about. But there are some circumstances in which silence is regrettable.
  8. Those who believe in and strive to practice and openly recommend the peaceful resolution of conflict, the the pursuit of political ends via debate, argument, persuasion, and so on; who believe that their political opponents are wrong but usually no worse than wrong—not demonic, not bent on destruction, not animated by irrational hatred, just…wrong. Mistaken, in error, as we all are about some things.

In response to this effort at categorization, I want to make three claims.

The first is that the most important division in American society today is between those in the eighth group and all the others (with the understanding that the seventh group is the most complex and in many cases can be left out of the equation).

The second claim is that the members of each category exert a kind of pressure on those in categories adjacent to them, typically on the side of more aggressive action. Given that group polarization is a well-attested phenomenon—all  things being equal, groups tend over time toward more extreme positions—I think it’s important for all of us to understand where we are in the distribution I’ve indicated above, and to understand that in the absence of intentional counterpressure we, and those like us, will drift toward more aggressive forms of action. Those who demonize their opponents are, consciously or not, making it easier for others to choose to try intimidation; those who relentlessly intimidate are, by acting as though their opponents deserve no mercy, helping their peers to escalate to the next level: explicit threats. And those who openly threaten their fellow citizens are laying the groundwork for others to carry out such threats.

The third claim is a kind of corollary of the second: Those of us who are concerned about the increasing hostility of Americans toward one another should realize that adjacency is possibility. As a member of Group 8, I don’t have much access—as far as I know, I don’t have any access—to people who act violently toward or threaten violence against their neighbors. I don’t know them personally and they certainly don’t read anything I write. But I have regular access to those who are silent, those who demonize their neighbors, and those who implicitly or explicitly justify such demonization.

Might there be a way for me to encourage them to moderate their language, to understand the inertial power of group polarization, to exercise a subtle and gentle counterpressure? 

That seems to me a question that every one of us should ask. We are all, even the most peaceable among us, adjacent to people who are at least flirting with “the politics of personal destruction,” in one form or another, as an alternative to the long, slow work of persuasion. How can we use that adjacency to the advantage of our wounded social order?