Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Vilifying Conservatives

Warning: Political/Cultural/Philosophical blog ahead. Turn back now if this sort of thing upsets you.

Disclaimer #1: In order to talk about cultural movements and ideas I'm forced to group people into imperfect conceptual boxes, such as "liberal" and "conservative".  For the record, I see liberals as people who tend to favor new experiences, are open to relatively fast cultural changes, and value individual expression more than group stability and tradition.  I see conservatives as those who value tradition, stability, and appeal to the moral foundations of Authority Sacredness and Loyalty much more as the basis for wanting to keep our culture as it is, or often, back to a time when things were more traditional.  Every person has a mix of these impulses, so don't think that I'm ever talking about YOU as a person, or even ANY individual person when I use these words.  For more on the Moral Foundations I’m using, see my post here:  http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2016/01/book-musings-righteous-mind-why-good.html

Disclaimer #2: I was raised mostly conservative but not close-minded.  I've grown much more liberal with age, but I'm by no means "a liberal".  (see disclaimer #1)  Being raised conservative I've witnessed first hand the bad deeds and faulty reasoning that is often employed to fortify conservative ideas.  (YEARS of listening to right wing talk radio)  The fact that this post is going to be about liberals doing bad deeds and using faulty reasoning does NOT negate that fact.  As far as I can tell, ALL people, including myself, use a lot of bad deeds and faulty reasoning to fortify their biases.

OK, now the substance.  Here’s a comic about a guy who thinks he's so great because he stops arguments by telling two arguing parties that they are both wrong and the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I identify with this guy.  Except I don't think I'm THAT great.  I mean, I think I'm great enough to waste the time of anyone reading these meandering thoughts, but this is purely an opt-in exercise on your part.  (I'm 41 and this this the first time in my life I've spelled exercise right on the first try.)

The point is that this heuristic is obviously imperfect for many reasons.  One of which is issues that, in the past, were hotly contested, but now, if you contest them, you are actually, truly, in the vast majority of people's minds, a bad person.  If you use that heuristic for something like slavery, or selling daughters into forced marriages... it falls apart.  "Look, anti-slavery guy, you're on the extreme side of this issue.  And listen, pro-slavery guy, you're on the extreme side of this issue.  The TRUTH must be somewhere in the middle.  Maybe slaves should only be enslaved every other day."  "Listen 47 year old guy. Buying that 7 year old girl as your wife is absurd. Wait till she's 13."  See.  Doesn't work so well.

I think what this demonstrates is the the liberal (culture changers) side of issues are necessary to progress the moral arc.  (Though conservatives try with great vigor to attach those movements to conservative values)  Modern progressives have taken this mantle, and are are passionately and actively attempting to apply it in every possible sphere of life.  Faster, I think, than has ever been attempted in history.  Conservatives have always been the brakes on the runaway fix-the-world tendencies of liberals.  And the faster the liberals push, the more the conservatives dig in.  My gut tells me this has less to do with any particular issue (like gay marriage or gender neutral bathrooms) and more to do with the human instinct to preserve stability.  Whether conservatives are right or not on any given issue, the impulse to pump the brakes has to do with the assumption that society 'works' (ie: does not descend into anarchy, rape and murder) because of the institutions that structure our lives.  The more those institutions are changed, destroyed, rebuilt, remodeled, etc. the more likely we are to accidentally knock out a cornerstone or load-bearing member.

As far as I can tell there's a basic miscalculation that liberals make when ascertaining conservative motives.  Since many liberals don't see the 'Authority' or 'Sacred' moral foundations AS legitimately moral, (They see them as outdated vestiges of oppressive institutions) they can't 'hear' a conservative argument that appeals to those foundations.  (Which many of them do.)  So in order to complete the equation they are forced to substitute a different motive than the one that a conservative claims.  Generally the motive they substitute ends up being (generally subliminal, but more recently "coded" or "open") racism, bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, greed, etc.

This presents an interesting ethical dilemma that Glenn Loury brought up on his latest podcast. (linked below)  Given that there will always be an uneven distribution of people's beliefs about progressive projects to reform society, how should those on the forefront of that reformation treat those on the other “woah-sloooow-down!”side of the spectrum.  Since I have many friends, family and loved ones on that side, (Not to mention my own impulses formed from years of conservative influence) I always want to work from an "inspirational" framework of convincing them of the ways that particular progressive ideas coincide with their own moral values and can work within the existing institutions we have.

What I see most of my progressive friends doing is castigating, name calling, imputing of poor moral character, mocking, shaming, etc.  Now.  This makes sense when viewed from the Slavery issue perspective.  People who worked to maintain the institution of slavery were worthy of those actions. (mocking, shaming, etc.)  And progressives see themselves as the modern day abolitionists, and so according to this model they see those opposed to them as equal to pro-slavery advocates.  They see the suffering that the current institutions and cultural norms impose on marginalized individuals and they want to end that suffering.  They've diagnosed the problem and prescribed a solution.  The solution requires exactly what the conservative impulse fights, which is the deconstruction and reformation of institutions.  Because I happen to agree with much of the progressive assessment about suffering of marginalized groups, it's hard to find a justification for NOT vilifying those who oppose the progressive agenda. In fact, I myself get castigated whenever I oppose the vilifying of conservatives by my liberal friends.  They view me as the absurd caricature I postulated above who argued for a 'moderate' form of slavery.

And maybe I am.  Maybe if I lived in 1850 I’d be that guy.  I don’t know.  I’d hate to think so.  But I think there’s a problem with this move to frame every progressive assertion as the equivalent to ending slavery.  I think there’s two problems.  First, there’s a pragmatic problem.  People don’t tend to change to your side when you constantly berate and insult them.  IF the goal for progressives is to build enough support to change the institutions in the ways they perceive they must change, they will need more than the fringe that they are.  They need a way to pull in more of the bell curve.  The second problem is that I think the progressive left have found a neat rhetorical trick that works really well to whip up the base, and have used it over and over and over.  They make Every. Single. Issue. That composes their platform a “slavery” issue.  Whether it’s taxes, drug policy, environmental policy or prison reform.  If you deviate even slightly from their template you get the same result.  You are branded a bigot, a hateful misogynist, a greedy monster.  A stupid shill for big business, etc.  All of these labels and names serve to put you in a dehumanized state.  You are beneath contempt because in their eyes you are causing others less fortunate than yourself to suffer needlessly.  Why SHOULD you be treated with anything other than contempt?  

And well… that’s what’s so neat about that trick.  There IS no good reason to treat someone who is oppressing others needlessly to be treated with anything other than contempt.  But I called it a “trick” because I think that’s what it is. Couching virtually every issue in the context of “HERE is a person who is on the verge of suicide because X POLICY.” means that every issue is cleanly parsed into good guys who try to help that poor person, and bad guys who don’t care about that person.  The problem is that life is more complicated than that.  That one person on the verge of suicide should never be ignored, shamed, or dehumanized.  But I think the idea a specific change to a law, policy, institution or culture will both fix their problem AND have no other equal or worse outcomes for others is where the “trick” happens.  THAT move, requires a confidence unchained to reality.  A confidence that I would define as arrogance.  That one understands something as complex as culture, laws and institutions so well that one can extrapolate the consequences of changes.  As I said before, I think we NEED that progressive push.  And that requires the arrogance to think that one can endlessly shape social structures in purely positive ways that simply creates more justice.  

But the idea that *I* personally, have to share that arrogance and be on board 100% OR be a contemptible repressor leaves me in an impossible situation.  I just don’t have the epistemology for that.  I’m not that confident in my own interpretive powers. I really really want to help all those marginalized people.  And the more confident I am that a particular agenda will do that, the more I’ll advocate for it.  But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve figured out I don’t know.  And I certainly will not punish a person because they aren’t convinced that X progressive policy is better for society.  I’m sorry that most of my liberal friends do.  Both because they are living in a world with fewer people (since they dehumanize conservatives) and because I think it’s slowing the change they COULD be making to help those they want to help.  I think the constant mockery and misattribution of motives is a huge factor in many conservatives who voted Trump, not because they love Trump (I personally don’t know any conservatives who do) but because they wanted ANYTHING but more smug insults from the intelligentsia/media complex.  That election was a digging-in of the conservative impulse because not only are the progressive engines on full-steam-ahead, but because the conductors have been mocking them for 30 years.   I don’t think voting for such a disgusting person was the RIGHT way to react, but I do think it was very human.  

For more on what got this thinking going, checkout this podcast.  
The relevant conversation starts at just around 15 minutes in and tapers off around 19.  But the whole thing is worth listening too.