No one should be asked to understand someone that hates her/him.

Kevin Drum, “We Should Try to Understand Even the People Who Hate Us – Mother Jones”:

There are plenty of people who are simply beyond reach for liberals. They’re either racist or sexist or they love guns or maybe they’re just plain mean. Whatever the reason, they aren’t going to vote for anyone even faintly liberal, and there’s virtually nothing that could persuade them otherwise. For myself, I’d say it’s still worthwhile understanding them for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s just generally a good idea to try to understand points of view that are held by a substantial number of people.
  • At the very least, it’s worth understanding the rural working class well enough that you can speak about them in ways that aren’t contemptuous or insulting. A lot of liberals have a real problem with this.

Beyond that, there’s the fact that there are real problems underlying all these various resentments. Addressing those problems may not win any votes, but we lefties should be dedicated to at least trying to help anyone who needs it. If you’re only willing to help the people who will thank you for it, then you’re not really much of a liberal in my book.

I sort of agree with Drum here, in that I tend to think that it can be tactically useful to understand why the person on the other side thinks/believes things I find to to be crazy or wrong.

Drum leaves out a pretty important piece of this discussion, though. The example he uses (which, to be fair, comes from the interview to which he is responding) is a fairly innocuous instance of the other person believing something crazy.

This person doesn’t like liberals because she thinks they’re part of the moral decline of America, and does some hand-waving about spanking as her evidence. I’m a liberal, so that accusation is aimed in my general direction, but I feel like it wouldn’t be too big a stretch to at least talk to her about it and ask her why she thinks it is true. It is not all that different than talking to someone who believes the earth is flat or that aliens built the pyramids.

However, that is not what I was expecting when I read the headline about understanding people who hate us.

What I was expecting—and more importantly, where these arguments tend to get nastier—is when the person on the other side actually hates you. Are we really going to lecture people of color about how they should try to understand the racist who thinks they should be killed or kept as second-class citizens? Are immigrants supposed to understand bigots who think they should be hunted down and deported? Are we going to tell women they need to understand misogynists who think sexual violence is fine?

Maybe, as a general rule, there is objective value in understanding these deplorable people, assuming that “understanding” does not mean agreeing with them or sympathizing with them. Even so, it is far to easy to slide from there into the implicit or explicit notion that individuals have an obligation to understand the people who hate them.