The Debate- A Socratic Look at American Piety

Socrates said, “know thyself,” and in his inquisitive dialogues sought meaning toward his culture’s biggest questions.

What is piety? What is virtue? How should one be educated, and what is one’s obligation to one’s society? At the heart of Socratic questioning is the idea that a person should know why they believe what they do, and should be able to argue it from reason not faith.  He believed the sovereign reason of the individual was their greatest power. Flash forward to our current day world, and in American culture there is an absence of Socratic wisdom prevalent in nearly every aspect of political life.  If we look at the Vice-Presidential Debate between Senator Kamala Harris, and Vice President Mike Pence, more specifically, at the reaction, or the interpretation of the debate by the media and pundits we can clearly see that faith and beliefs are triumphing over self-knowledge, reason and facts.  

In America, in 2020, there is an assumption of the superiority of beliefs- what Socrates’ society would have called piety-that has drawn a line between groups of people. A stark contrast is assumed based entirely on socially created structures. Facts and truth are now being challenged. The first division is political affiliation,  Democrats versus Republicans. Each side has constructed beliefs that are coded in the language of certainty. We hear from one side about inherent human rights,  the inherent evils of discrimination, and the biological differences of each individual. On the other side, we hear words like sanctity of life, freedom is a word used to justify war. And personal liberty is used to justify citizens who stockpile guns. When it comes to cultural issues of human differences, one side points out how unequal our country still is, while the other points out the strides we’ve made. All of these issues are framed to their political followers as right or wrong, good or evil, us or them.  Why are we buying into this? Without an ounce of research, a person who identifies as a Democrat will spout the truth of these issues, because, in their mind, they have virtue, and therefore, are justified in their blind faith. The same goes for Republicans. For people who are apolitical, or belong to different parties, they will find their own groups, whose rhetoric they will equally, unjustifiably spout. And politics is just one of the vehicles for this need for faith over reason that is polluting academia, the corporate world and pop culture. Race, gender, sexual orientation and class status are all clearly divided by faith-based arguments of virtue versus sin, or pious versus impious. This is how religions have historically spread throughout the world. It seems that people, since human history has been recorded, desperately want to belong to a group, and they will clearly die and kill for the “justices” that their group has claimed to be a matter of life and death.  And then scream that this is a matter of life and death. So, to steal a film quote, they make it rain, and then they cry, “shit it’s raining.”

If we look at the conversation by the news media immediately following the Vice-Presidential debate, we can see a perfect example of our faith-based opposition to one another. Examples of each division came up over and over again. It was kind of a perfect storm of faith-based divisional attacks on both sides. We can see the groupthink that comes from four very stark differences. First, Covid-19 has already delineated the righteous from the iniquitous. The left-leaning citizenry fears the pandemic, advocates mask wearing, with a better-safe-than-sorry attitude. The right-leaning side calls out the left side for going too far, for advocating that we demonize one another, that we look at each other as infected. They want schools re-opened and life to start resuming some sense of normalcy. The science is not fully clear on the subject, but that hardly matters in a culture war. Neither side is “wrong” for their beliefs. Beliefs cannot be right or wrong, they are by definition a matter of opinion, and in the absence of nihilism, cannot really be relied on to justify what is right and wrong. Though I will admit that erring on the side of caution is a stronger argument. Sorry republicans. But that is only the first of several faith-based divisions. Second, Senator Harris is a woman, and Vice President Pence is a man. At the moment, the definition of a man and a woman is not fixed, which is a whole separate division, that I will not go into. For our purposes, the difference on the left and right side of the political spectrum will make the arguments that women are seen as having less agency on one side, and as choosing to victimize themselves on the other.  This issue came up immediately in the post-debate coverage and did not relent. Third, Vice President Pence is white, and Senator Harris is a woman of color, her mother being Indian and her father black. The racial divide in America is stark in 2020. There are factions who believe that white America is purely a racist state that needs to be brought down, and others who think racist theory is total nonsense and that liberal progress from the 1960s and 70s has won, and that we have been moving in a liberal progressive manner ever since. The people in the middle of these two ideas are mostly silent on the subject, so as not to rock their respective tribal boats. Finally, both sides are equally certain of their claim to virtuousness. It seems that the 21st century American has no ability to say, “I may be wrong.”  Because it’s life or death, it’s good versus evil. The stakes are as high as they can be, and so to question your “tribe,” is nothing short of heresy.  Spend a day following political pundits on Twitter and you will see how many people are willing to state beliefs as facts over and over again.  Just to reiterate, I truly believe the rhetoric claiming our current political predicaments are life and death is the most grossly exaggerated claim one could make. We are the most peaceful, liberal, free thinking we have ever been in history, and those who argue this point, don’t even see the irony that their mere ability to spout their beliefs and question the system entirely, proves the system is working.

The reaction to the debate made these four issues crystal clear. So much so, that it doesn’t really matter what Harris or Pence actually said, it only matters how it was perceived by their respective groups. CNN’s panel immediately following the debate didn’t wait too long to dive into groupthink. Van Jones remarked how Kamala Harris was standing on that stage for women and women of color everywhere. A fine sentiment, but a burden, to be sure. Does Harris’s race and gender stand as a representation of literally everyone who is either a woman or a woman of color? And what does this mean to a diametrically opposed republican woman? There is nothing wrong with celebrating a candidates historical standing, but to suggest Kamala Harris is emblematic of everyone who looks like her, is to strip her of her own agency and the hard work that got her to where she is. Should I, as a white man, feel that Mike Pence represented me? Of course not, according to tribal politics of the moment, being white, Mike Pence and I have agency, we’re the oppressors so we’re allowed to have nuance. CNN and many, many others also suggested that Mike Pence “mansplained” to Senator Harris. This is just another way of suggesting women are fragile and must be spoken to differently than men. It is a belief, again, not a fact, and therefore, when fully believed makes the owner of such a thought predisposed to look for evidence in every interaction.  Beliefs, unlike facts, require confirmation, which requires the accuser to always be on the lookout for the evidence that proves their faith-based belief. In truth, we do not get to tell Mike Pence what his intentions were when he spoke to, or even spoke over Senator Harris.  That’s not how being human works.

On the other side, Fox News immediately called Mike Pence the winner of the debate. They also quickly pointed out that Sen. Harris used fear mongering about Covid, and accused her of being anti-science because she said she wouldn’t take a vaccine that Trump, not doctors, told her take. They then had to go into defense of Mike Pence. They got word that people were accusing the Vice President of “mansplaining.” And from there, everything seemed to just devolve into which “group” got the advantage.

The following are Tweets during or shortly after the debate:

Dan Rather: I don’t think VP Pence’s mansplaining and over-talking is doing a lot to narrow the gender gap, unless it is also turning off more men as well.

Megyn Kelly: Take it like a woman. Don’t make faces.

S.E. Cupp: Pence’s mansplaining, interrupting, condescending and general smarminess is at an 11 tonight. No wonder suburban women have left the Republican Party in droves.

In the middle of a pandemic, a virus our President has contracted, the narrative is which group was most offended. And women seem to have emerged the victors. This is American substance in 2020. I marvel at the glorious distinctions between these two candidates. I think our system is working just in their very presence. An Evangelical white man, and a liberal woman of color sharing a platform, competing for the same position should be celebrated as a diversity of ideas in action. But it’s not. And that makes me sad.

As I write this, I realize that the debate, or rather the trivial, tribal spin that was placed on the debate, which is to say the faith-based beliefs that these two human beings are either a representative of a whole group of people, or of beliefs that are so adamantly believed that people genuinely fear their lives on the line based on who wins this election, is so far from the point it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter? Maintaining our ground and our virtuous standing. Proving our piety by pointing out injustices whenever we can. Go on Facebook and see how many people are posting a “belief” as something true. It’s staggering. And each side makes such drastic claims that to not believe them feels dangerous. If Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court, women will lose the right to their own uteruses. Gay marriages will be dissolved, and gay spouses will be denied visitation rights to see their dying partners. She has a lot of power if this is true. And whether it is true or not, the claims are not being made because she has ever suggested she would want to do any of this. We are demonizing her because of her faith, and her political affiliation, the same two things causing the demonization itself. Ironic?

I had a discussion about belief versus fact recently with a friend of mine. He told me that white supremacy can be proven in America. And when I asked him to show me the evidence, he said “the police murdering of unarmed black citizens.” And I, in turn, for the first time in my life, approached the topic from a Socratic method. My goal was not wanting to prove him wrong, I wanted him to convince himself that he is correct.

            “Do the police murder any other race of people?” I asked.

            “Sure,” he said with not a small tinge of placation, “but not in the same numbers.”

            “And what are the numbers?”

            “I don’t know the exact numbers.”

            “Then how can you make the claim that it’s not in the same numbers?”

            “Everyone knows more blacks are killed than whites!”

            “And in ancient times, didn’t everyone believe that the weather was dictated by the mood of the gods?”

            “Are you trying to say cops aren’t racist?”

            “I’m not saying anything. I’m asking why you think cops are racist.”

At this point, he, perhaps understandably started to get irritated with me.

            “You’re white,” he said triumphantly, “you can’t know what it’s like to be profiled by the police every day of your life.”

            “That’s true,” I had to agree with this. I wanted to point out that he too is white, but instead I found the generalization a more fertile ground to expand on.

            “Are you saying every black person has the same experience?”

            “I didn’t say that!”

            “Were you implying it?”

            “Of course not!”

            “Then what was the point of telling me I can’t know what it’s like to be racially profiled? Unless you were suggesting that every black person does?”

            “I’m sure they do!”

            “How can you be sure of the experience of millions and millions of people.”

            “I meant the average black person.”

            “And who would that be?”

            ‘So you don’t think racism exists?” I was a bit jarred by this leap.

            “My questioning your facts makes you think that I don’t believe in racism?”

            “Why question something we all can accept as true?”

            “Is that a real question?” I know he heard the absurdity of his question after he posed it, and so I didn’t hold him to it. What he meant was that enough people have had experiences of feeling racially profiled to be believed. He then quickly goes through a litany of examples of police brutality against black people. All of which I accept as evidence that racism does still exist. I just want to know the difference between a racist person and a racist system.

            “What do we do about this systemic racism, then?”

            “We tear the system down and replace it with a better one.”

            “Could you be wrong about that?”

            “Fuck no! We can’t wait for one more black person to be killed.”

The stakes being this high I asked him what his answer was to the issue of non-police, gun-related violence in certain black communities. He said I was racist for suggesting there’s an “issue” with gun violence in any “black” community.  I wanted to show him that his emotions were overriding his argument, and that black and white solutions (pun intended) don’t feel productive when there are facts we can examine. I believe the data that shows me how many black citizens every year are killed by other citizens, and this data shouldn’t be ignored simply because it doesn’t fit with my belief. Because I also believe that racism still exists in America. But the story is the system is racist, and so we cannot bring other evidence to bear. He wasn’t getting what I was saying, so I needed a better example. One with no emotions involved, but that literally has stakes that are life and death.

            “Do you think flying is unsafe?” I asked, preparing to go full Socrates on him. Bearing in mind that I would probably fail, so this is by no means a brag.

            “What?”

            “Do you think commercial flying is unsafe?”

            “No. Why?”

            “Why don’t you think it’s unsafe?”

            “Because planes don’t crash.”

            “Never?”

            “You know what I mean!”

            “I do. Now let me ask you, if a survivor of a plane crash told you that flying is unsafe. Would you tell that person that he or she is lying?”

            “What?”

            “Are they lying, if they say that flying in a plane is dangerous?”

            “No, they’re not lying, they’re just letting their experience determine how they see airplane safety.”

I smile at him, hoping he’ll figure out the connection to what he just said.

            “And what if we believed them?”

            “Well, that would be stupid.”

            “Because…?”

            “I’m not playing this game with you. It’s a false equivalency.”

            “To what? I was making the point that personal experience is not the same as fact. Science tells us that flying in a commercial airplane is safe. But, it is not perfect. That doesn’t mean millions of people won’t still be afraid to fly and insist it’s inherently dangerous. Now imagine that when a plane crashes, all other planes are deemed faulty by association. Well they look the same, so they’re probably going to crash too. So they don’t inspect any of them, they just assume they’re broken and make it a point to keep pointing out that we can’t just look for the bad one’s, we need to rebuild all of them. Meanwhile, the other planes that are actually suffering from the problem that caused the first plane to crash, are still flying and will certainly also crash someday. Or…maybe we should find out why the plane crashed and make sure others don’t have that same issue. Which is exactly what the airlines do. And every time a plane crashes, flying gets safer. They find evidence that isn’t based on personal experience, or assumptions, and they address it. Assuming correlation as causation leads to believing something that can’t possibly be true.” And for the people who do think planes are unsafe, every time there’s a plane crash, they will use that as evidence to prove their point. Confirmation bias plus personal experience leads to irrational beliefs. But we also have compassion and understanding for the people who do fear it, and certainly for those who’ve survived a crash. We don’t minimize real experience, we just don’t let it interpret the industry as a whole.

He didn’t like my comparison and said I was white, so I was just trying to excuse racism because I don’t want to lose my privilege in society. But from my standpoint, I think finding what leads to something not working correctly is a more substantial route to correcting the problem. The correlation to race, in my mind, is that the actual racist people in America should be the focus of correcting racist issues, not everyone. When you say something is “inherent” you are implying something like “original sin.” It is not a fact, it is not evidence, it is a fallible belief that people can and should disagree with. Democracy thrives in the diversity of ideas, and telling people their skin color makes them a victim or a victimizer is, at best, a colonial, anti-democratic attitude that leads to further division, further mistrust, and more racism than before.  

Which brings me back to the great man’s axiom: Know Thyself. If the world strove to understand themselves to themselves and not based on how others interpret them. The mainstream news demonstrated so perfectly with Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, that when you are defined by the “group” you’re representing, you are not an individual, and when you lose your agency, you better hold on tight to how other’s perceive you because that’s all you got to make up who you really are. But if we all really understand who we are, and what we’re worth to ourselves, then the us versus them mentality cannot thrive at such a vitriolic level. If we can all truly know ourselves, to ourselves, we wouldn’t need likes on Instagram, we wouldn’t need to post why we’re virtuous, we wouldn’t need to vilify people who disagree with us, and we wouldn’t need to strip autonomy from individuals because we see them as spokespeople for their race, or gender or religion, or sexual orientation, or anything else. When someone tells you that you can’t say something because it might offend someone who is a “minority,” what they are really telling you is those people are too fragile to handle your interpretation of them. Essentially, they’re stripping them of their agency, and their choice. If someone knows themselves, they don’t care what you call them. We wouldn’t have to redefine words like “violence” to literally mean someone who disagrees with us. We wouldn’t need the world to create emotional safe spaces for us, because we can be safe in our own skin. If we are not in immediate danger, actual physical danger, not someone telling us that some part of us is wrong, we are not unsafe. How can we be? We don’t need anyone else to tell us who we are. Conversely, when we know ourselves we extend respect to all people, not just the one’s who look and talk like we do. We respect what pronoun people want to be called. We respect differences whether we agree with them or not. I know I’m not what you say I am, so I can respect what you think I am, because it’s utterly meaningless to me. Also, I refuse to believe that people who oppose us, are in fact, trying to hurt us. I adhere to the adage that Anne Frank gave us, “most people are basically good,” if a girl imprisoned by a Nazi regime can see her society as consisting of mostly good people, shame on us for failing to do the same.

Of course, I may be wrong.