Sometimes people make horrible decisions. We have friends who make terrible life choices — they date someone who is cruel or bad for them or dishonest, or they leave their families to pursue a career path for which they have no aptitude, or they make a foolish investment. How do we talk to them respectfully?
Consider the case of Steve Jobs. Jobs came down with a form of pancreatic cancer which was curable by medicine. He chose instead to treat it himself by drinking fruit juice. (Or maybe vegetable juice — it doesn’t matter.) He died.
Suppose we wanted to convince Jobs that he was making a mistake. It seems we would have to say something like “I respect you. You are an awesome guy. I feel very bad for you that you have cancer. I even feel a bit guilty that you have cancer and I don’t. But because I care about you I must say — you are making a terrible mistake. This fruit juice thing is going to kill you.”
Something like this is I think how people should talk to people who are making terrible political decisions and it is not condescending.
Is this too rational and bloodless? Does it avoid the language of moral condemnation?
No, Jobs foolishly ending his own life because of pride is a moral failing on his part — or a psychological failing — or a character failing. It is not categorically different than other mistakes that we call moral failings.
But suppose Jobs had said (he didn’t) “I don’t trust doctors because they are Jews.” If that were the case he would be an anti-Semite and a racist (he wasn’t — I’m just making a conceptual point). Would the appropriate response to him still be “I respect you, you are an awesome guy — you just are laboring under a misapprehension about Jews? A mistake which will harm you and others?”
Sometimes it might be. But in other cases that might not be the whole story. It could be that we think the reason Jobs is railing against Jews is that he wants to bully us. In other words that he is using his language to terrify us and make us afraid to argue. In that case we might need to be tougher and scold him. “Bad Jobs! You are giving in to truly horrible human tendencies — and we expect more of you!”
Is that condescending? It is disrespectful? Perhaps we should say we are actually being condescending to those parts of his personality that deserve to be disrespected, so his true self, a child of God, or a rational member of a community of people each of whom acknowledge each other’s greatness can shine through.
He still might not like it.