I once wrote that passion is an overrated virtue. We live in a moment in history when passion is celebrated. Having a passion for the things you do is seen as essential to doing them well. Being passionate in your beliefs is seen as demonstrating authenticity. Passion in politics is seen as demonstrating honesty. All of these may in some sense be true, but passion also carries with it a potentially high cost.
This is not the first time that American politics have been filled with passion. The nation is divided between those who intensely love the president and those who hate him. There are deep social and cultural divisions in the nation, and they aren’t new. Donald Trump did not create these divisions; rather, he emerged from them. But the current political debate reveals the great danger in being passionate: the loss of a sense of proportion, reflection and flexibility.
Trump’s supporters believe that he will save the country and make it great again. He represents a segment of the country that has been harmed by the same forces that have enriched the country, and that is appalled by cultural evolutions that the other part of the nation embraces. His opponents believe that he is destroying the country and its values. As the passion on each side grows, the ability to have distance from and reflect on the issues at hand declines. Passionate feelings about the president manifest as feelings about those who support him and oppose him. Celebration and derision of the president make reflection difficult in the extreme. Reflection requires that the president be put aside and that we consider instead the reasons why he has emerged and why we care so much. It also requires a degree of flexibility. When we stop caring so intensely about the man, we can begin to think about the forces on either side that confront each other. And in that reflection, we can potentially modify our views on things.
Passion fixes our thoughts in place. We focus on what we think to be true – but the truth is always subtler and more complex than our passion allows for. I recall from my youth how Lyndon Johnson was so deeply hated that some accused him of having plotted the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Supporters and opponents of the war in Vietnam fixated on Johnson, imbuing him with more good or evil than any one person can possess. The focus on him made it difficult to think about the complexity of how the war started and was fought. The passion surrounding the war was so great, the ease of focusing hopes and fears on one man so enticing, that scrutinizing the truth of things became impossible. It turned the complex into a cartoon – in which either a patriot was saving the nation or a monster was destroying it.
There are those who love passion. For many, life without lurid colors and lurking monsters is bland and boring. Make no mistake, there are monsters that stalk the world and must be defeated. But the urgent need to have monsters, which itself often creates them, makes it impossible to see the real monsters, who thrive as we hurl ourselves against irritants that we have reinvented, making them vastly more important than they are. But that is the nature of the passionate.
We are again in a political moment steeped in passion on all sides. A single man becomes the obsession, and any understanding of the subtlety and complexity of the nation that created him is lost. So is empathy. The passions make it impossible to stop thinking of the man. We cannot get beyond him, as messiah or monster. We are filled with love and hate, and it blinds us to reality and to ourselves. In these moments, our minds are filled with simplistic caricatures of our country, built around our feelings about a single man.
I wrote once that civilization is that moment in which someone is able to believe deeply in things, yet at the same time be open to the possibility that they are in error. That is an enormously difficult posture to maintain, and civilization is a difficult condition to maintain. Another depiction of civilization is a time and place where people believe deeply in different things and still converse calmly, still regard each other as worthy of respect. Passion makes that impossible. Passion reduces us all to cartoon characters.
Passion destroys all sense of proportion, all sense that those we disagree with are not monsters, and any ability to contemplate the possibility that we might want to change our minds on things. This will pass, as did the ’60s, ’30s and so on. But it is painful to watch those you care about plunge into the rigidity and urgency of passion.