I’ve learned a lot after sixteen years in a mixed marriage.
And by mixed marriage, I mean, of course, politics. We are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. We talk, and argue, about politics all the time. The most important thing we’ve learned is that any discussion of motives is a complete dead end. Here’s why:
Motives are unknowable.
Heck, half the time I don’t even know my own motives. I tell myself that I am going to eat a cookie because I am hungry, but the reality is that I want the feel of sugar and fat on my tongue and I want an excuse to sit in front of Facebook for five more minutes before I clean the bathroom. If I’m not always aware of, or honest about, my own motives, how can I ever expect to understand someone else’s motives? I suspect that because we know that motives lead to actions, we assume that we can reverse the arrow and look at actions to determine motives. But this simply isn’t true. We just can’t ever know someone else’s motives. Any effort to identify someone else’s motives is nothing more than speculation. (Note: I think people should spend a good long time thinking about their own motives [for political beliefs and everything else they do/believe]. Introspection is a good thing. In this post, I’m talking only about debating other people’s motives in the context of political discussions.)
Not all members who agree on a policy position do so for the same motive.
This one should be obvious: even if I were to have solid, irrefutable proof that one person held a position for a certain reason, I have no way of knowing if that motive applies to anyone else who holds that position.
Motives are ultimately irrelevant. (Only policy matters.)
Thought experiment time:
(1) Let’s say that a minority group in the US were being denied its constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Let’s say a senator was promoting legislation to change that, but deep down, he actually hated members of that minority group and only wanted to protect their rights because he thought they might donate money to his campaign out of gratitude (and this would benefit him and impoverish them). Do his motives (which are very poor) matter in evaluating whether his legislation is a good idea?
(2) Let’s say a senator really, really, really cared about the poor and therefore wanted to pass legislation mandating the creation of a new government agency that would hire people to go around and kiss poor people to show how much we care about them. Do his motives (which are very good) matter in evaluating whether his legislation is a good idea?
My point is that, even if we could know someone’s motives, it wouldn’t matter. Bad policies can be supported by people with good motives. Good policies can be supported by people with bad motives. Knowing the motive of supporters (even if we could know) wouldn’t help us evaluate whether the policy was any good anyway.
Discussions of other people’s motives lead to contention in a way that policy discussions do not.
I have seen this in my own home, on the Internet, etc. Whether they articulate it in the terms I do above or not, people always get ticked off when their motives (or those of their ideological allies) are questioned. They take it personally in ways that they don’t when the (de)merits of a policy are discussed. It changes the tenor of a discussion when it turns to motives, and not for the better. I can imagine swapping charts, facts, and figures with a conservative for hours in a civil manner, but as soon as he says to me, “you only believe that because . . .” we’re done. It’s become personal. Note that I can’t really respond to his argument (“I do not!”) in any meaningful way (not only are motives unknowable but they are also unproveable), so I’m likely to turn to questioning his motives, or making snarky remarks, or ad hominem attacks, etc.
I am not always good about avoiding discussing people’s motives. I know I have failed on this from time to time. But, after many discussions with my husband, I have learned to be more aware of it. I was pretty thrilled the other day when a member of my ward who thinks that Allan West should have been the GOP VP pick said he appreciated the way that I talk about politics. Me–who thinks that President Obama is way too conservative. When I’ve argued with this brother on Facebook (and I do it a lot–he’s always posting political links), I’ve tried to stay focused on policy and not motives or personalities.
This post is a long way of saying that I completely understand why Alison Moore Smith was not pleased that some people question the motives of conservatives. By the same token, I think Alison’s post was just as wrong to try to tease out the motives of liberals.
Nothing productive comes from questioning the motives of our political opposites on either side of the aisle.