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Why Not View the Other Side as “Crazy?”

To encourage dialogue, let's treat political identities like neurodivergence.

Key points

  • The impracticality of “curing” the other political side should lead us to reset our expectations.
  • Let’s model our political interactions after productive relationships with our neurodivergent family members.
  • Radical sensitivity to neurodivergent experiences leads individuals with anosognosia to voluntary treatment.
  • As with anosognosia patients, building back trust with our political opponents calls for radical sensitivity.

With the 2024 election fast approaching, anxiety about our fellow citizen’s voting behavior is high. It’s a common refrain that people on the other side of one’s political view seem to be either ignorant, evil, or crazy. This third option is not typically taken seriously. But as a philosopher of neurodivergence and as a father of an autistic child, I think framing the other side as though they were neurodivergent will encourage listening over silencing, negotiation over intransigence, and democracy over violence.

Calling someone “crazy” used to be a way of dismissing them entirely. But it doesn’t have to function that way. Neurodiversity proponents have been trying to get us to change our stereotypes concerning neurological differences. The goal is to support more inclusive social relationships so that neurologically atypical individuals (like my son) can still flourish.

Perhaps the most relevant case of neurodivergence for politics would be individuals with anosognosia. This condition concerns the denial of one’s own mental impairments. Relationships with such individuals can be extremely difficult. But one person has developed a fruitful approach: be radically sensitive to their own experience. The result? Many of these individuals voluntarily attend therapy and take medication for conditions they still deny having.

To see how this works, suppose everyone around you now claims that you suffer from a mental disorder, such that many of your deeply personal beliefs are false. Your spouse? Nope you’re wrong—that’s a stranger that is begging you to leave them alone. Your children? Again, strangers—those aren’t your kids. It’s as though you woke up in a Twilight Zone episode. If this happened to you, how would you initially respond? You’d fight like hell to prove that you’re right. With this insight, clinicians and caregivers can better relate to these individuals—a necessary step towards building trust.

Since political affiliations now function like identities, I suspect that our experience of the world is closer to anosognosia individuals whenever we come into contact with “the other side” (bad-faith actors excluded). To build back trust, we will need to approach our political foes with radical empathy. To illustrate this approach, I will draw on my own experiences as a parent of a neurodivergent child.

The extremely strong preferences of our autistic son raise the stakes of our interactions with him. This has led us to sincerely and continuously reevaluate the merits of, say, a change to his routines. We are more likely to drop the request unless we feel super confident about its value or necessity. And when his preference can’t be satisfied, we will spend considerable time and energy explaining the necessity of the change, preparing our son for the change, finding ways to compensate for the hardships he will endure in response to the change, etc.

To the uninitiated, this might seem to flip much of parenting on its head. Who is parenting who here? But the radical empathy approach illuminates what’s really going on: we realize his experiences are drastically different from ours, and we value his preferences because we love himour efforts are simply a consequence of this awareness and this love.

So, how might this transform our political relationships? Consider two politically contentious issues: voter fraud and voter suppression (no equivalence intended). When conservatives say we should protect against voter fraud, the left hears, “I am completely ignorant about how voting works in the US, so I’ve easily succumbed to lies about voter fraud being a serious problem.” Similarly, when liberals say we should protect against voter suppression, the right hears, “I am completely ignorant about how voting works in the US, so I’ve easily succumbed to lies about voter suppression being a serious problem.” Each views the other as just ignorant. But both sides missed a crucial cry: “I’m anxious about voter fraud/voter suppression.”

Sure, we can explain both anxieties. But, within neurodiversity approaches, the explanation is practically irrelevant. (There’s no “one trick” to change autistic kids into neurotypical kids—and besides, would it even be ethical to use this trick?) Instead, the prescription is radical empathy.

Policy-wise, maybe we just need to recognize the anxiety officially, like a Presidential Task Force on Ending Voter Fraud/Voter Suppression. Or maybe this will grow into bipartisan election reform addressing both concerns. Or maybe just connecting anxious citizens with the actual people who run elections would provide relief. After all, one of the best ways to calm one’s fears is to face one’s fears.

Everyone agrees that we need a fundamental change in our political relationships. But everyone also agrees that it’s the other side that needs to change. My proposed neurodivergent framing will get the change we need today—right now—without having to wait for the other side to grow up, get educated, or have a change of heart. It just requires us to take a step down this path with the “other side.” But to keep walking down the same old paths while expecting to arrive somewhere different is, well, crazy.


"People See Political Opponents as More Stupid Than Evil" Rachel Hartman,1 Neil Hester,2 and Kurt Gray1; Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2023 Jul; 49(7): 1014–1027. Published online 2022 Apr 28. doi: 10.1177/0146167222108945….

Pew Research: "As Partisan Hostility Grows, Signs of Frustration With the Two-Party System"…

Vox: "Political identity is fair game for hatred": how Republicans and Democrats discriminate. By Ezra Klein and Alvin Chang Dec 7, 2015, 8:00am EST.

I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help! | Dr. Xavier Amador | TEDxOrientHarbor (Video);

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