Green: Some people look at our fractured media environment—where groups don’t even share facts to argue over—and see nefarious forces at work, like the Russians manipulating Facebook or consistent left-wing media bias.
You argue something different: that individual behavior makes it impossible to have a conversation across ideological divides. How do you reconcile your view with these kinds of structural analyses of the vast forces that pull America apart?
Jacobs: Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.
One category that’s gone away in America is “wrong.” Nobody is just “wrong.” They’re wicked, they’re evil, they’re malicious, they’re the victims of these vast subterranean forces.
But sometimes we get things wrong, because politics is hard. Knowing the right policy in any case is difficult, because you’re having to predict the future and the variables are astronomically complex. But we want to believe that it’s obvious what to do to fix our social problems.
Green: So what’s the boundary? How do you decide which ideas, people, and ideologies should be considered morally unacceptable?
Jacobs: I’m probably going to regret this later on, but I’ll give you an example from the Christian world. A group of conservative evangelicals recently posted this Nashville statement about sexuality and transgenderism, as they call it. That was like a line in the sand. The idea is that now it’s time for you to decide: Are you with us, or are you against us?
Almost at the same time, I read something by a young lesbian woman who had recently been married, who was essentially saying to her friends, “If you attend churches where gay and lesbian Christians are not completely welcomed and affirmed, you’re not really an ally. So you need to decide: Are you on our side, or not on our side?”
I’m looking at that and thinking, “So, where is the space where Christians who find this complicated or difficult can talk?”
When people are drawing lines, saying, “I have settled this issue, and I want to be with other people who have settled this issue,” I think there can be really, really bad consequences. That’s saying, “I’m not interested in having that conversation anymore.” Sometimes, being a grown-up is realizing that there are issues you’d rather not talk about that you’re going to have to talk about.
Green: Do you think people are obligated to engage with an opposing viewpoint if enough people hold that view?
Jacobs: I do think that’s true. When a position is really widely held, it’s not really a safe option to deem it out of bounds. Practically speaking, refusing to deal with it can be a way of yielding the floor to people whose views you find repulsive.