The recent deadly Nazi hate-fest in Charlottesville has, in addition to revealing the extreme moral vacuity of the current White House, prompted a call for more compassion and empathy when dealing with basic ideological differences.
Pundits orate on NPR about how to recognize the psychological damage of those given to right-wing rage. Classes are offered in tactics for engaging those on "the other side" of political debates. My impeccably Democratic New Hampshire in-laws set off to attend one of these sessions last week, earnest in their desire to find common ground with fellow Americans who voted Trump.
These efforts and sentiments are noble, but doomed to fail. Even a minute of exposure to the views of Richard Spencer or David Duke – let alone the Twitter feed of POTUS 45 – is enough to show that there is no rational engagement possible here. There is a moral baseline that Nazism is indefensible; we ought likewise to recognize that most people can't actually be reasoned with.
That's why, much as it pains me to say, as someone theoretically committed to the rule of reason, that what we need in public debate is not more understanding. The utopia of a rational public sphere is an illusion, and efforts to unearth it – in the form of core American values, Canadian tolerance or some other political chimera – fool's errands. What we need, instead, is what social scientists call scaffolding.
In simple forms, scaffolding means things such as air-traffic control, highway roundabouts, exit signage, and queuing conventions – small mechanisms that allow humans to co-ordinate action when their individual interests might otherwise generate chaos. In more subtle cases, we constrain our own desires in the form of, say, computer apps that time-out social-media access (the Enabler-in-Chief could use one of these). Or else we impose limits on freedom in those suffering harmful addictions. Addicts can always try therapy or self-control, but we know that denying access to the drug or even inflicting benign behavioural modification is far more effective.
Why don't we acknowledge that political belief is also an aspect of human behaviour in need of external control? Let's call it conviction addiction. Sure, some people can, like social drinkers, moderate their views and stay clear-headed over the course of the day. Others fall into a pattern of abusive behaviour and acting out. They can't help themselves.
The gateway drug is interrupting, raising your voice and deliberately misunderstanding interlocutors – all standard moves of a CNN segment. Conviction-addicts then move on to ranting at hidden forces, demonizing ethnic groups, and sounding dog-whistles – all standard moves of Rebel Media or Sean Hannity. Finally, if unchecked, they order the flashy haircut, don the white polo shirt and fire up a tiki torch. The fact that a slogan like "Jews will not replace us" literally makes no sense is, at this point, not a defect but a mark in its favour.
Classical liberals argue that bad speech should be met with more and better speech, that the marketplace of ideas will short bad stocks and return investment on good ones. Alas, not so. The mental market is far more irrational than the one governing wealth, which veers from high to low based on rumour, wisps of policy change and random tweets.
Thus the need for market regulation, antitrust legislation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. These are hard-floor scaffolds on trading, meant to combat excesses at the margins. Consider, then, that individual consciousness is considerably less sane than even the most rapacious corporation. Mere existence is sufficient for each of us to form a limited company in the world of thought. That's frightening! There is no dialectic possible here. Haters gonna hate.
Let's recognize the conviction-addictive quality in all of us, and stop imagining that free public discourse will bend toward reason. Curbs on speech and strict rules of engagement – no interruptions, no slogans, no talking points – may be the right answer here. We already, in this country, ban hateful speech. Let's go farther and insist on discourse rules, limits on public outrage and aggressively regulated social media. We could even ban media panel discussions.
We'd still co-exist, versions of Immanuel Kant's notional "nation of devils" ruled by uneasy self-interest. But it won't be through talking things over, let alone hugging them out. Limit indulgence in the cup of conviction; let's have more constraint, less conversation. That's your path to a stable future, friends – by not trying to be friends.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto