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To The Left or To The Right?

06 Jan 2004

I live and work in a number of peer groups; some virtual, some physical, some both. One of the biggest challenges (and opportunities for personal growth) I’ve faced over the last decade has been my transition between two of them. When I moved to San Francisco in 1994 to join Wired, I found myself immediately immersed in a shockingly different group of people than those I’d left. Whereas previously I had been living in a conservative, religious community, I was thrust into a group of technology utopians, social hackers, and radically progressive ideologists.

But that was 10 years ago. Now, my social and professional peer group here in San Francisco is a bit tamer, but no less progressive. It’s no secret that this city is a bastion of liberal politics. And, frankly, I couldn’t be happier. Yet thinking back on that transition I made between communities, I distinctly remember thinking, “How could something that sounded so foreign feel so right?” over and over again.

This struck me today as I read Paul Graham’s latest essay, “What You Can’t Say.” In it, he deconstructs cultural taboos, or, as he puts it, “moral fashion.” What is it about the ideas that seem heretical to a particular society? Are there methods for identifying these ideas an analyzing them critically? If fact, there are, and Graham does an excellent job of explaining how.

What really caught my attention, however, was the following:

In one culture it might seem shocking to think x, while in another it was shocking not to. But I think usually the shock is on one side. In one culture x is ok, and another it's considered shocking. My hypothesis is that the side that's shocked is most likely to be the mistaken one.

I don’t need Graham’s fictional time travel machine – or even a ticket to a far-away culture to see this play out. I need merely have dinner with different groups of people. Case in point: If I were to sit down with a group from the church I attended in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and say the following, there would be gasps, embarrassment, and very likely outright anger:

“I believe sexual orientation has no bearing on ordination standards in the church today.”

But if I were to repeat that line with my group of friends here, they would look at me with a somewhat puzzled expression and say, “Well, um, of course.” It would be as if I was suggesting that women should be granted the right to vote, or that left-handed children should no longer be taught to write “correctly”. My two peer groups couldn’t be farther apart ideologically.

Now, my intent here is not to argue for the rights of gay and lesbian people to serve as officers in today’s church – there are plenty of other forums for that. Instead, consider how Graham’s essay relates to America today, and the polarization that is taking place. We seem split almost perfectly down the middle, and the gulf between those two sides increases by the day. But as the left and right bicker and attack one another, I find myself pulled in both directions with no place to call home. Where does a religious liberal exist in today’s arena of ideas? Can someone have both faith and progressive politics? ​


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