Chun: The Worst of Friends

An unlikely Supreme Court friendship can teach us to rise above hateful politics.

by Steven Chun | 3/1/18 1:00am

It was 9 a.m. on June 27, 2016 when I woke and sat up, the texture of the sidewalk pavement imprinted deeply into my cheek. I checked the time, strai aghtened my tie and glanced toward the front of the line I had been in for four hours. I was outside the Supreme Court on the day the decision for the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, which concerned a Texas law that required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and raised the standards of abortion clinics to that of ambulatory surgical centers, was set to be announced. At the base of the court steps were two sign-wielding groups, ready to assume their role as supporter or protester depending on the holding.

An hour later, I was inside the hallowed chambers. The presence of eight of the nation’s fiercest intellects was awe-inspiring; the absence of one was unmistakable. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s chair was cloaked in black wool crepe, a tradition dating over a century. If the black drape on the bench was the first thing that drew my gaze, the second was the diminutive yet undeniably impressive figure of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is the figurehead of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court and a legal titan who has won battle after battle for women’s rights. She was also one of Scalia’s closest friends. It was an odd friendship emblematic of an understanding that America, and Dartmouth, has all but lost.

The interpersonal foundation of democracy is founded on the assumption that someone whose opinions one finds abhorrent is still a decent human being with good intentions. People may castigate others’ position with the harshest words imaginable, call their truths lies and declare their position morally bankrupt but they do so with the understanding that the other side has the exact same intention: the common good and the betterment of this country. Ad hominem attacks are worse than outright lies. Lies obfuscate the facts; personal attacks kill the process.

Scalia staunchly opposed the Supreme Court’s gradual recognition of LGBT rights. Ginsburg was the first justice to preside over a same-sex marriage. Ginsburg dissented against gutting the Voting Rights Act, the law protecting ballot access for the historically disenfranchised, while Scalia referred to it as one of several “racial entitlements.” It would be difficult to find two more ideologically opposed people nor two who could argue their positions with such intellectual force and passion. Yet they celebrated New Year’s Eves together. They loved opera and travel, both of which they did together. They loved each other because of, and in spite of, their ideas.

Dehumanization is the weapon of choice in the acrid national debate. Liberals are declared straw men, mindless state-controlled actors bent on taking guns and killing babies. Conservatives are labeled uneducated deplorables, hateful fanatics incapable of reason or principle. Reducing opponents to generalizations allows people to dehumanize them, to strip them of their good intentions, to forget that pro-life Republicans are trying to protect what they believe are innocent human lives and that pro-choice Democrats are trying to preserve women’s sovereignty over their own bodies and their own lives.

At Dartmouth, this manifests itself in ways big and small. The offhand comment about adamantly refusing to room with a Republican. The text I received from a friend back home with a mocking caricature of liberal snowflakes. The way I recoil from someone when I hear that they write for the Dartmouth Review. The earbuds I used to drown out the protestors on First-Floor Berry three years ago. The list goes on and on.

Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom cited the work of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss who noted, “humankind ceases at the border of the tribe, of the linguistic group, even sometimes of the village.” The words people choose reflect the very act of reducing hated groups to “beasts” or “vermin.” As Bloom remarked, “Wait long enough and you’ll hear the word ‘animals’ used even by respectable people, referring to terrorists, or to Israelis or Palestinians, or to undocumented immigrants, or to deporters of undocumented immigrants. Such rhetoric shows up in the speech of white supremacists — but also when the rest of us talk about white supremacists.”

Let’s be clear: At a predominantly liberal institution such as Dartmouth, conservatives are dehumanized. Many members of this community dehumanize conservatives because they see conservatives as dehumanizing others. Conservatives regularly reduce undocumented human beings in America to “illegals,” they deny the experiences of women, they support policies that oppress marginalized groups and deny them even a simple acknowledgement of their humanity. No side is in the right, but understand this: No matter how justified it may feel, dehumanizing others precludes progress. If people care about the issues, they must care for those who stand against them.

Discussion at Dartmouth is paralyzed by the realization that holding the wrong position can result in being resentfully rejected. No position is worth one’s humanity, so why even bother? Furthermore, people generally do not wish their beliefs to cause distress and despair to others, so they stay quiet. This leads people to mistake fear for hate, ignorance for intent and passion for cruelty.

Ginsburg and Scalia’s friendship embodied what the world must return to for anything to get done. Part of the problem is the medium people communicate through — it can be easy to forget that someone else is human over blitz or cable news or social media. It is harder to deny someone’s good intentions in a face-to-face discussion or over a friendly beer.

When I left the Supreme Court after the decision of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was announced, the pro-choicers were dancing and blasting upbeat pop music. Just a few feet to their right, the pro-life contingent stood looking at the ground, holding hands, black tape covering their mouths. I could not help but feel for them. I would feel the same despair a few months later, as I watched the results come in from the 2016 presidential election. Everyone is scared, angry, loving, confused. Everyone is human.