Mike Spivey, a reader and commenter on this blog, chairs the mathematics department at the University of Puget Sound, a highly progressive campus in the Pacific Northwest. Following the Trump election, he was
dragooned invited to serve as the voice of conservatism on a faculty panel — this, even though he considers himself a moderate. He didn’t vote for Trump, but for Gary Johnson. Still, he is one of the most conservative people on that campus.
He writes about the experience in Inside Higher Ed. He decided to be open and honest with the audience. Here’s Spivey quoting his own remarks to the student audience that night:
“As I watched the election returns roll in last night, though, I was surprised to discover that I also felt kind of excited, maybe even elated. And so why is that?
“I grew up in a small town in north Louisiana in the 1980s: a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian. I’m second-generation college: my grandparents worked at jobs like coal miner, gas station attendant, department-store clerk, farmer, beautician. For most of my adult life I’ve been an academic, though, and for the past 11 years, I’ve worked at a very progressive liberal arts college in one of the most progressive parts of the country. That has given me a sort of double vision or cultural whiplash at times.
“Hillary Clinton called my people ‘deplorable.’ She said we were ‘irredeemable.’ Our current president, who I think sees the world similarly, said that my people are bitter clingers who hold on to guns and religion because we don’t have anything else worthwhile in our lives. Why would I want to support someone
like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.
“To understand this election, you have to understand that to be white working class means that you have almost no power. Not economic. Not cultural. Neither do you have the power that comes from moral authority, unlike most other victimized groups.
“To a large degree, Trump represents the revolt of the white working class. The revolt is partly economic. The cultural aspect is that they’re tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country.
“I’ll hypothesize that, in some respects, the more Trump is mocked for his hair, his language, his racism, his sexism, his bigotry, the more the white working class says, ‘That’s how I’ve been treated, too. Trump is like me. Trump is one of us.'”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my campus after saying this, in an emotionally charged room with hundreds of people. But it represented the culmination of something that had been building in me for years.
Building in him? How come? In his college, Spivey has:
… repeatedly found myself in situations where someone makes assumptions about everyone in the room, assumptions that I don’t share. The culprit has always been my Southernness, or my small-town background, or my Christian faith, or my lack of progressivism.
I remember the awkward silence that briefly followed when one of my students asked me outside of class whether I am religious, and I told him I am a Christian. I remember the snide comment about Texas at a faculty workshop. I remember a colleague’s casual dismissal of Fox News and the people who watch it. My mother watches Fox News. She’s one of most giving and selfless people I know — someone who dropped everything to do disaster relief work in south Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Yes. Yes! I know so many people like that. More:
I remember others’ stories, too. I remember the two conservative students who vented in my office for half an hour, thankful that somebody was willing to listen to them. I remember the conservative colleague who told me that he’s tired of being a target and so he just keeps his head down now. I remember the alumnus who told me that he would never have dared to be out as a Christian on our campus because then he wouldn’t have had any friends.
Every institution has a culture and a set of shared norms, and an academic institution is no different. Those sacred values don’t come from the institution’s mission statement but arise from the shared set of beliefs held by the people who are part of it. A newcomer to a college may not ever be able to articulate that college’s norms, but he internalizes them every time an idea is praised with no countervailing opinion expressed. She internalizes them every time a group is criticized, and no one comes to that group’s defense. Over time the in ideas and out groups become part of the assumptions that people make. You don’t even think about them anymore. They’re like the oxygen in the air.
Where does that place you when you don’t share many of those norms? Sometimes you find yourself bewildered. On the literal level, the discussion is about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush or racism or transgender rights or environmental policy. But really the conversation is often about sacred values. [Emphasis mine — RD] When you don’t share the group norms, you feel shut out of the conversation because its very framing assumes the group norms. People don’t listen to the stories you use to explain your views because your stories are tied up with your norms — not theirs — and they don’t have a good mental place to connect them to. As a result, your stories get explained away.
This is so, so important. It’s Jonathan Haidt 101. I am certain that the reason our national media are so bad at interpreting conservatives and nationalists is because they live inside a tight bubble defined by their own sacred values, and cannot recognize that decent people might not hold them. As Haidt has repeatedly pointed out from his own research, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. Dr. R.B.A. DiMuccio explains Haidt’s finding:
These foundations help us categorize people based on their most essential moral beliefs. Those who tend to see morality mostly through the prisms of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating are “liberal.” If your moral compass tends more toward Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation, you are “conservative.” Simple enough.
But Haidt’s second major discovery is far more consequential: the concept of “the conservative advantage.” Based on painstaking cross-cultural social-psychological experimentation, Haidt establishes that the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives are not just different, they are dramatically unequal. The liberal moral matrix rests essentially entirely on the left-most foundations; the conservative moral foundation—though slanted to the right—rests upon all six.
This is a stunning finding with enormous implications. The first is that conservatives can relate to the moral thinking of liberals, but the converse is not true at all. Haidt, who is liberal himself, elegantly explains how and why conservatives will view liberals as merely misguided while liberals tend to view conservatives as incomprehensible, insane, immoral, etc.
Another implication is that liberal prescriptions tend to be incredibly single-minded as compared to those of conservatives. Haidt uses the metaphor of a bee hive to illustrate. A liberal [N.B. Haidt now identifies as a moderate — RD], finding a bee in the hive suffering from injustice, is motivated more or less exclusively by the desire to get justice for the bee. A conservative, being partially driven by the Care/Harm foundation, also desires to alleviate the injustice, but tries to find a solution that also contemplates the survival of the hive itself.
To restate the problem: because the moral matrix for liberals is all but entirely bounded by Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating considerations, people whose moral foundations are more complex than that are seen by liberals to be immoral. In turn, the moral reasoning of conservatives appear to many liberals as exercises in rationalizing immorality. To admit that conservatives have a point is to compromise with evil.
Back to Mike Spivey:
You can always try to go deeper, of course. However, trying to get the group to look hard at its assumptions and then trying to explain why you don’t share them is difficult and exhausting. And even when you do have the energy, it’s easy to transgress some norm that you didn’t see and then face an unexpected blast directed at you. That makes you want to engage even less.
Besides, there are much easier options. You can become cynical. You can become angry. You can start hating the group. You can nurture your pain and envision yourself as a beleaguered minority. You can start throwing rhetorical explosives, which sure feels good — at first. You can find another group. I’ve been tempted by most of these possible actions and have committed several of them.
The story that I’m telling here is about me at a progressive liberal arts college and slowly identifying more over time as conservative. It could also be the story of the white working class at the national level. And that brings me back to Trump and the post election panel.
Read the whole thing to find out why, to his great surprise, Spivey left the panel feeling hopeful.