Liberals and conservatives may never agree on whether or how deeply bigotry infects American conservatism. They don’t need to. What America needs is a conservatism whose devotees feel less stigmatized, and who earn that lack of stigma by trying harder to disentangle their support of small government and traditional morality from America’s history of bigotry. To make that possible, liberals and conservatives each need something from the other.
Conservatives need liberals to stop abusing their cultural power. Although conservatives dominate America’s elected offices, liberals wield the greater power to stigmatize. In the 1950s, conservatives could exile liberals from polite company by calling them Communists. Being called anti-American can still sting; ask the NFL players who kneel when the national anthem is played. But in most elite institutions, being accused of bigotry is now more dangerous than being accused of insufficient patriotism. In 2014, Brendan Eich was forced out as the head of the tech company Mozilla for having donated to an anti-gay-marriage initiative. He probably would not have been forced out for donating to, say, a campaign to eliminate the Pledge of Allegiance from California’s schools.
Conservatives feel their cultural vulnerability acutely. In 2011, researchers at Tufts University observed that conservatives consume more “outrage-based” political radio and television than liberals do. One reason, they suggested in a follow-up paper, is that conservatives are more fearful than liberals of discussing politics with people with whom they disagree, because they dread being called a bigot. “When asked how they feel about talking politics,” the researchers noted, “every single conservative respondent raised the issue of being called racist.” Liberals expressed no comparable fear. As a result, they felt less need to take refuge in the “safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs.”
Obviously, political correctness did not create white supremacy, patriarchy, or homophobia. But as the Tufts researchers showed, shaming people for their views can backfire. In a 2011 study, three social psychologists then based at the University of Toronto gave college students two different pamphlets meant to combat prejudice. The first emphasized the value of nondiscrimination (“It’s fun to meet people from other cultures”). The second emphasized social norms that discourage discrimination (“People in my social circle disapprove of prejudice”). The second pamphlet was not only less effective than the first in reducing bigotry; it actually led manifestations of bigotry to spike. The scholars concluded that pressuring people to accept a nonbigoted belief can engender resentment that leads them to express more bigotry than they did before.
Liberals would be wise to recognize this vicious cycle, and to use the nuclear epithet more sparingly. Yes, Fox News and company will likely describe political correctness as a menace to white, straight, Christian men no matter what. But liberals can make Sean Hannity’s work harder by resisting the temptation to deploy the label bigoted, or one of its synonyms, when describing an idea they consider stupid or immoral.
Read the whole thing. It’s an interesting piece. Beinart goes on to say that conservatives ought to give some too, such as being willing to recognize that prejudice really does exist. For example:
Conservatives sometimes deny there is anything they can do to convince liberals they aren’t bigots. But when conservatives acknowledge bigotry’s persistence, liberals do take notice. In a remarkable August 2015 interview on Fox News, Marco Rubio was asked for his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement. He said he understood the frustration with the police that fueled it. “I have one friend in particular who’s been stopped, in the last 18 months, eight to nine different times,” Rubio explained. “Never got a ticket for being stopped—just stopped. If that happened to me, after eight or nine times, I’d be wondering, What’s going on here? I’d be upset about it.”
Beinart makes an important point here. I want to acknowledge that, but I’m not interested in a round of whataboutism with liberal readers (so don’t start). I’m still ticked about Ross Douthat being denounced as a defender of white supremacy, by liberals who know better.
I have some Trump-supporting friends on the Right who think of me and conservatives like me as naive idealists. These aren’t knee-jerk Trumpkins or the kind of people who use the word “libtard.” They simply believe that dialogue isn’t really possible, that it’s pointless to try to reach common ground with liberals. When I see what happened to Douthat — the kind of thing that happens all the time when dealing with the Left — I confess I am tempted to agree.
I would a thousand times rather spend an evening having beers with fair-minded liberals who know how to laugh (I’m looking at you, Franklin Evans, but I could name ten liberal friends off the top of my head) than with conservatives who share my convictions, but who are driven by anger and resentment. I sometimes wish my fellow conservatives (including Christian conservatives) could grasp that people don’t like them not because they’re conservative and/or Christian, but because they’re jerks. This is a real thing.
Having worked as a conservative in a highly liberal environment — newspaper journalism — taught me a lot. One of the things it taught me was about the extreme lack of self-awareness among many liberals. I was once at a national journalism conference. There were only a handful of us present who were conservatives, and somehow we found each other. We could hardly get over what a pack of self-righteous blowhards scores of our professional colleagues were. They must have had no idea how they sounded. One invited speaker to the conference was a writer whose latest book had put forward some kind of argument considered conservative. Honestly, I don’t even remember what it was. The audience of professional journalists treated him so rudely that a couple of us felt obliged to apologize to him after his talk. That experience left me so angry that I decided never to attend the conference again.
The point is not that most of the people there had liberal politics. The point is that they were so convinced of the rightness of their politics, and of their character, that they felt unconstrained by ordinary politeness. Nor, in any of the speeches or workshops I attended, did I pick up any sense of epistemological modesty, or the slightest awareness that maybe they ought to be questioning themselves and their worldview. I believed then and I believe now that a big part of the problem was that they had convinced themselves that they were on the side of Goodness, and that people who disagreed with them were not simply wrong, but Evil.
This is how you end up with liberals saying that conservatives who believe in ____ are so wicked that they deserve no consideration in political deliberations. The list is constantly changing. Beinart wrote last summer in The Atlantic that as recently as 2008, prominent liberals criticized illegal immigration in ways they never would now. You could say the same thing about same-sex marriage, which President Obama did not affirm support for until 2012. Today, many liberals act as if conservatives who hold the same positions they do until recently aren’t only wrong, but are so malevolent that they cannot be reasoned with, only rolled over.
If you are a conservative who works in a mainstream newsroom (I would suppose academia is the same way), you learn quickly to keep your mouth shut most of the time, and only to speak up when you feel that you must. The reason is that there is a serious potential cost to being labeled a bigot. I’ve gotten into arguments in which opinions that were commonly held among majorities of our readers were taken as irrational bigotry, and therefore not worth arguing against. You learn pretty quickly that when a dispute becomes having to prove to your interlocutor that you’re not a racist/sexist/homophobe/whatever, there’s no winning. And more to the point, there’s no debate.
Besides which, as Jonathan Haidt and the folks at Heterodox Academy tirelessly point out with regard to academia, universities cannot do what universities are supposed to do without open inquiry and free debate. Today HA runs a post by a Columbia sophomore who says that professors welcome discussion and debate in his other philosophy classes, but the one on feminist philosophy is nothing but the leftist professor haranguing the students, and intimidating them into silence.
A political culture in which people do not feel free to say what’s on their mind for fear of being called a bigot is one that will suffer from a dangerous feedback distortion. Douthat’s controversial column did not endorse White House immigration hardliner Stephen Miller. It simply said that Miller speaks for a hell of a lot of Americans, and that you can’t simply declare these people to be deplorables, and walk over them. For this, lots of liberals called him an appeaser of white supremacy.
I have made it a policy not to engage in discussion and debate with people who call me a bigot. There’s no point. The thing is, I am open to changing my mind when presented with facts and logic. I really am. But if you call me a bigot, I don’t care what else you have to say, in part because I know that you aren’t willing to listen to my side.
This, by the way, is why the supposed “national conversation” that we’re always supposed to be having about race is never going to happen, and would be a waste of time. Everybody on the Right knows that they cannot say what they really think, or even pose honest questions about race relations, because these events are really just liturgies meant to establish liberal moral hegemony over discourse. Orthodoxy is important to establish and to defend within religious institutions and communities, but it’s deadly to academia, journalism, and pluralistic democracy. Among other things, you make it too risky for people to tell you what you need to hear.
Honestly, I don’t understand why so many liberals are so fixated on anathematizing those who disagree with them. Could it be that they have made politics their religion? One of my right-of-center friends who thinks I’m too naive is a doctoral student in the humanities at a leading university. The stories he tells about things he has had to deal with sound like the kind of thing you would have heard from an East bloc defector. I know he speaks truth not only because I trust him, but because I heard the same stories from a student in the same department who studied there before my friend was. What is so puzzling to me is the rage these leftists have. They turn on each other, ultimately, because there is always someone willing to be more pure (note the story about the British Labour Party punishing a woman party activist who objected to male-to-female transgenders taking advantage of Labour’s internal set-asides for women). Still, it is hard for me to grasp why these hardcore lefties don’t understand that they are undermining themselves with this radicalism. You don’t need a University of Toronto study to understand that when you call people who disagree with you a bigot, you just piss them off, and cause them to see “bigotry” as a concept whose only real meaning is to stifle dissent, as “communist” was used in the McCarthy years.
The point is this: if you cannot tell the difference between Ross Douthat and Richard Spencer, you’re not marginalizing Ross Douthat, you’re mainstreaming Richard Spencer.