Heated political arguments are common in a democracy, but there’s something unique about our present situation. For all our wrangling, we have achieved precious little comprehension of opposing positions. Our discussions seem to bog down into insults, in which no commonality of facts, much less values, can be established. Sometimes, distant opinions are best understood indirectly, through allegory or metaphor.
Consider this scenario. My religion states clearly that oranges are a symbol of evil which should neither be eaten nor displayed. Your religion is based on the orange, using it in prayer, worship, and holiday feasts.
I insist that government act to ban the sale of oranges and prevent them from appearing in schoolbooks. You want schoolchildren to celebrate an orange-themed holiday and for oranges to be distributed to the public for free. Who wins?
Answers vary, but consider this possibility. There are far more adherents of my religion than yours. After a period of some contention, an order develops in which my values become the default national standard, but yours are “tolerated.” In enclaves of your faith, oranges may be sold and eaten, though not in public. Oranges may not appear on television. Across the country, outside your few neighborhoods, an orangeless society prevails. Orange-eaters are greeted with suspicion, derision, and occasional violence.
Over time your orange-eating people congregate in cities where your peculiar practices can go mostly unnoticed by the wider population. You are gradually joined by other groups with their own practices, all mingling while also protecting their unique identities. Those cities develop an intellectual and cultural dynamism not seen elsewhere under the stultifying rigidity of a softly, but relentlessly-enforced majority culture.
That cultural dynamism quietly feeds an economic dynamism. Tolerance and diversity in culture fosters tolerance and diversity in ideas. Openness to ideas means openness to risk, luring entrepreneurs, thinkers, and investors to these hothouses of experimentation and freedom. Economic growth eventually reaches a tipping point, creating a powerful economic engine. Almost anyone who wants to participate in the booming wealth of the country must make their peace in some manner with these culturally complex cities.
A powerful pull of opportunity draws the most promising young from around the country to these places. In the urban cultural cauldron, a new agreed order must develop. Unable to lean on a shared religion or culture, common public standards evolve based on empirical facts rather than shared traditions. Surviving in that order means living under the anxious energy of relentless ambiguity, tolerance, and empathy. Unconsidered assumptions about the nature of the world become troublesome baggage.
Through the lens of empirical facts, the advantages of oranges are immediately apparent. Older prohibitions become quaint. Armed with an education and loosened from their attachment to tradition and religion, otherwise decent, pious young people experience oranges.
Folks back home; parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, see pictures of the young people they raised living in these cities and eating the evil fruit. Media emanating from those morally compromised culture centers drop their prohibition on broadcasting scenes involving oranges. Young people bring oranges home on visits in an outrageous insult to tradition. Children raised in those environments grow up eating oranges, to the mixed horror and envy of their cousins in smaller towns, the “real” areas where the most virtuous people live.
Urban elites describe the scriptural prohibition of oranges as a mere metaphor, symbolic at best, not to be taken seriously. Scurvy sores, once revered as a symbol of piety, become an object of ridicule.
Moving to the cities to participate in the economic life of the country comes to involve far more than a cost burden. Cultural obstacles are daunting. Companies and social institutions in those cities have entirely abandoned the quaint, pious habits of the old ways. Merely getting a job in one of those places would expose a person to oranges at every turn. Cultural piety develops into an economic and even educational burden, breeding resentment among those still attached to tradition.
Urban dwellers who have abandoned tradition grow healthier, wealthier, freer and more sophisticated while conditions in the more conservative countryside deteriorate. Eaters of oranges see themselves as open-minded, tolerant, and inclusive. They see the opportunity and prosperity they enjoy as freely available to everyone who wants to experience it. They fail to recognize the quiet, painful cultural obstacles that keep their country cousins isolated from emerging opportunities. In the countryside, these “open-minded” elites are seen as snobbish and condescending, out of touch with realities for real folk. City-dwellers are often willing to accommodate the religious needs of orangehaters, but the pious are not looking to be tolerated. For generations, their values have been the de facto national identity. They want their identity restored to its rightful dominance.
Those country cousins find a leader who promises to restore their power. He hails their resistance to empirical knowledge in favor of traditions – the superior truth of faith and culture and race. He celebrates their scurvy and promises to return their influence. Everyone knows he eats oranges. There are pictures of him eating oranges. Yet he presents himself as the grand champion of ‘The People,’ that pious majority who abstain from the corrupted fruit.
City dwellers point to the broad freedom and prosperity brought by their order. The orange-haters insist that the numbers are rigged. Facts are just another way for the corrupted to lie. Their suffering is beyond measurement, beyond empiricism. Their injured self-image is a reality that can’t be mitigated by GDP or employment figures.
As long as they can muster the numbers to win elections, the good, pious folk, the true “people,” have the chance to rid their country of the dreaded, debased orange. Those with the temerity to eat it in public will face wrath and intimidation. It will be stripped from school curriculum, removed from public media.
This will be a contest of money, power, education, and sophistication versus pure outraged numbers. Everything about this contest weakens and impoverishes the country, including those pious devotees who press the battle, but they don’t care. It isn’t about money. It isn’t about what’s best for the country in any measurable way. It isn’t about scurvy. They are fighting to restore their dignity and the order of their values. They will happily dismantle the country itself for the chance to feel powerful and respected once more, lords of the ashes.
The smaller core of true believers cannot be persuaded. No scientific papers on the health, economic, or moral value of the orange will ever influence them. No reference to the number of jobs that depend on the orange will buy their acquiescence. Roused from passivity by the sight of the hated orange on TV or in movies, they will not relent to reason. If a tolerant, free, prosperous order based on facts will survive, it must fight. True believers must be exposed, isolated, separated from the marginal followers, and defeated.
It might end well. Some effort at understanding what drives this resistance might provide the key to defusing it. Or it might end with the prosperous, free urban centers overrun and repressed. From Renaissance Florence to Industrial Liverpool, urban diversity and runaway innovation often sparks retrograde resistance. Outcomes are never assured. Science, facts, and reason do not always win. A future based on science or scurvy hinges on our willingness to wage a winning fight.