Thomas Friedman takes a lot of guff for his (admittedly precious) habit of interviewing anonymous cab drivers, but sometimes that’s the best way to escape the clamor of Politics Inc. The average man, because he doesn’t follow around the partisan circus, isn’t particularly committed to one party or orthodoxy, which allows for a broader range of discussion than you’ll ever see on MSNBC. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, as anyone with a Sean Hannity-addled family member will attest. But outside the constipated little theater that is cable news, the real world is painted in grays, and people tend to acknowledge and reflect that. There are entire industries desperate to make this complexity more uniform. Ideologues shepherd man into pens of left and right; Twitter reduces him to narrow windows sliding by; wonks compress him into Cartesian points. In reality he is a person, and the only way to understand him is to chat him up as such. That isn’t to espouse relativism—just because there are myriad viewpoints doesn’t mean there are also myriad truths—but it does mean our politics must be compatible with the variety and reality of human nature, which can only be absorbed firsthand.
Sometimes, the ecumenical tolerance of the Average Joe toward the details of political philosophy is nothing more than incoherence born of failure to think rigorously about the logical derivatives of his vague principles. In that sense, it’s not necessarily a virtue that he can’t be roused to a debate, let alone a fight, if his laodicean tolerance is really just a manifestation of his inability to take serious topics seriously. However — and this is a point which I would have struggled to accept when younger — there are also habits and practices of everyday life which are no less important or worthy of respect for their failure to take the form of a skillfully articulated creed or theory. A simple way to put it is, a lot of Average Joes are good people, even if they’re naïve or self-contradictory when expressing inchoate political opinions, and character is much more valuable and dependable than intellectual rigor in many instances.
The media environment tends to select for personalities who would rather be right than conciliatory and are therefore driven to leave no hair unsplit if it means gaining a slight edge in an argument. This makes a perfect breeding ground for the narcissism of small differences. There have been many times where I’ve caught myself starting to feel irritated by some minor point of disagreement with someone whose ideas usually mirror my own, and I just stop and think: It’s this place, man; don’t let it get to you; just walk away. I’ve heard slaughterhouse workers talk about how the constant smell of blood in the air makes them feel much more tense and short-tempered. Something similar happens to people who spend too much time on social media.