Friday, February 15, 2019

For Conservatives... an Advantage? (Part 1)

I started writing this back before the election. I was thinking the whole time, "Wow, this is so important for people to read. Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Gotta blog on this baby!" Then I started thinking of insights I wanted to share about the way Catholic Conservatives versus Catholic Liberals are dealt with by the Church. So I put off posting it, and I kept putting it off until now. [Note: I wrote this paragraph on Tuesday, 2/12/19]

Yes; I put this off several more days because I kept thinking of more things to say. Finally I decided to break this up into smaller pieces, this being the main one. So hopefully next week I'll post more thoughts—I have to travel again.

This is a very insightful Quillette article by Matthew Blackwell written about a year ago. Blackwell It examines temperamental differences between conservatives and liberals (Blackwell uses the term progressives). Excerpt:

Asked to think the way a liberal thinks, conservatives answered moral questions just as the liberal would answer them, but liberal students were unable to do the reverse. Rather, they seemed to put moral ideas into the mouths of conservatives that they don’t hold. To put it bluntly, Haidt and his colleagues found that progressives don’t understand conservatives the way conservatives understand progressives. This he calls the ‘conservative advantage,’ and it goes a long way in explaining the different ways each side deals with opinions unlike their own. People get angry at what they don’t understand, and an all-progressive education ensures that they don’t understand.

Haidt’s research echoes arguments made by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions and Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. Both Sowell and Pinker contend that conservatives see an unfortunate world of moral trade-offs in which every moral judgment comes with costs that must be properly balanced. Progressives, on the other hand, seem to be blind to, or in denial about, these trade-offs, whether economic and social; theirs is a utopian or unconstrained vision, in which every moral grievance must be immediately extinguished until we have perfected society. This is why conservatives don’t tend to express the same emotional hostility as the Left; a deeper grasp of the world’s complexity has the effect of encouraging intellectual humility. The conservative hears the progressive’s latest demands and says, “I can see how you might come to that conclusion, but I think you’ve overlooked the following...” In contrast, the progressive hears the conservative and thinks, “I have no idea why you would believe that. You’re probably a racist.”

Does this ring true to me? Certainly, and I am glad we now have scientific evidence to prove what we have experienced as outspoken conservatives for years. I can vividly recall the fierce accusations of a hardline leftist in a heated interaction; most of the heat was coming from his side. When trying to reason with him about why conservatives dislike the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he told me "You just want people to die!" Had I responded, "Well, you just want to have everything for free, bite the hand that feeds you, and..." then that would be a response in kind, and this "argument" would fall flat. But I rarely hear this sort of rhetoric on the right, and when I have, there is an immediate distancing by other conservatives in the vicinity. Thinking conservatives do not want to be lumped in with unconstructive accusation.

[Side note: In fact, most conservatives do not want to be "lumped in" at all with anything. That is why MAGA hats are such a new phenomenon.]

My friend Nate noticed the same tendency in a very good recent post on his blog, Rotten Chestnuts:

Both sides often make relevant points about important data, and both sides seem to avoid what the other one is addressing leading to a frustration of everybody talking past each other. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that the [Trump] fans seemed to make an effort to confront the counter arguments a bit more often – the [Trump] skeptics rarely so. In fact the skeptics seemed to go out of their way to [avoid] even acknowledg[ing] competing evidence.

(I hope Nate doesn't mind my slight correction – it is what I think he is trying to say. We all could use an editor.)

My theory is that there are really two possible reasons we conservatives don't respond in kind as I described. One is that we don't presume to know motives. I don't really know that someone pushing for Obamacare is trying to stick it to the man and get handouts. The other one is that even if I suspect that this might be his motivation, there is no rhetorical value in throwing this at him. He reduces his chance of winning the argument by accusing me of murderous intent, but I'm not about to give ground by assertions of larcenous intent. Even if I was right I would lose in the mind of onlookers who thought my opponent's motives were pure.

Two conclusions from the leftist's behavior are easy for me to imagine. The first conclusion: the liberal has no desire to convince me I'm wrong or a bit "off" in my thinking. He just means to assert his opinion, usually loudly and in a derisive way which is difficult to rebut. He wants to silence my voice. Whether I shut up out of shame or out of frustration, this is his best hope of "winning" — a forfeit from his opponent. I believe this is why we were all so gratified to hear Brett Kavanaugh swinging back at the "coordinated effort to destroy [his] good name" by false accusations in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. He wasn't having any of it; he wasn't going to give up. We're use to people on our side sitting by and "taking their lumps".

The second possible conclusion: he really does want to convince me he is right and thinks this is the best way to go about it. This is less likely in my opinion, but I admit it is possible. It would mean that I have to "change my mind" in a sort of nominal way to be able to go with the flow — his flow. There is still no logic involved, and probably no real willful change of heart or mind. Maybe the liberal imagines he can pull off the ol' Jedi Mind Trick?

Going back to Blackwell's beginning paragraph:

When I disagree with a conservative friend or colleague on some political issue, I have no fear of speaking my mind. I talk, they listen, they respond, I talk some more, and at the end of it we get along just as we always have. But I’ve discovered that when a progressive friend says something with which I disagree or that I know to be incorrect, I’m hesitant to point it out. This hesitancy is a consequence of the different treatment one tends to receive from those on the Right and Left when expressing a difference of opinion. I am not, as it turns out, the only one who has noticed this.

I remarked to my wife last night that reading this made me want to be even more empathetic in by use of rhetoric and conciliatory in my tone when I debate with anyone, especially liberals. I never ever want to respond in kind. It is obvious that Trump is not so worried about this, but I don't think we have to imitate him by any means just because he is the de facto head of the more conservative political party. But typically the people in the Trump Resistance camp are even worse at seeing the other side because they respond in kind almost reflexively and with barely any self-awareness. It's like Cleveland talker Mike Trivisonno famously stated two years ago, "The people who hate Trump the most don't realize how much they're like him."

[In my next installment, I'll talk about the effect this phenomenon has had on the Catholic Church.]


  1. (I hope Nate doesn't mind my slight correction – it is what I think he is trying to say. We all could use an editor.)

    Drat! I swear I went over it twice and STILL asked someone to help edit it. Thank you for the corrections. I'll gladly steal credit for someone making me sound smarter. ;)

    My theory is that there are really two possible reasons we conservatives don't respond in kind as I described. One is that we don't presume to know motives.

    I would add a few more. Note also that these are not mutually exclusive possibilities, overlaps are probable.

    1) Conservatives are just too busy. They tend to be the people actually running business and families and when you do that you just don't have much time or energy for arguing.
    2) Someone's state of mind is really impossible to prove. You can figure out probabilities of what someone's thinking but not prove it. Given that and fact #1 above, trying to prove a state of mind is just wasted time & energy.
    3) Related to #2, there's also the fact that motive is just not that relevant. If the communist kills ten million people, does it matter whether he intended to punish or to help them? Does the motive make the victims any less dead? Likewise if a man invents the cure for cancer, does it matter if he's greedy and just wanted as much money as possible? Would you turn down a cure for your disease just because the maker is a "jerk"?

    And don't forget CS Lewis talked about all this already.

    Looking forward to the rest & thx for the citation. :)

    1. Conservatives are just too busy. They tend to be the people actually running business and families and when you do that you just don't have much time or energy for arguing.

      Totally agree. This has become a weakness for conservatism in academia. "Those who don't [can't] do, teach." That is still a bit of a slur -- teaching is doing something. But ofttimes the doing pays better. If I taught computer programming I wouldn't be able to support my large family with that profession.

  2. Your observations are so very accurate, Pauli (and Nate). Or at least they have been -- I fear that the conservative side is beginning to show some of the same habits as liberals. The last election brought out the worst in many people.

    But back to the post: I think the other side of the question is also interesting: why do liberals tend to respond as they do?

    If the difference in progressive and conservative responses depends on which side of the question one is on, it cannot simply be because one side doesn't presume motives, or because one side wants to persuade the other side more, or because one side is busier than the other. On those matters, I expect the two sides to be essentially equal. The difference has to stem from something more fundamental that is linked to the political viewpoint.

    I've recently re-read Witness by Whitaker Chambers. I cannot recommend that book enough, especially the "Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children". In that foreword, Chambers explains the faith of the Communist:

    The tie that binds them … in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weaknesses of the body and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world.

    Of course, liberals are not (necessarily) Communists. But as Chambers says, Communists and "those miscellaneous socialists, liberals, fellow travelers, unclassified progressives and men of good will, all [] share a similar vision" -- but only the Communist will truly act with the courage of his conviction.

    IMO, the reason that liberals tend to respond as they do is that their political positions are essentially (even if not knowingly) based on the conviction that "it is necessary to change the world." And if it is necessary to change the world no matter what -- then Reason becomes the servant of Will and not its master.

    1. Beautifully put. And depressing as hell.

    2. Agreed.

      Politics is their religion.

      Religion is *our* religion.

    3. A good point. See also Thomas Sowell's Conflict of Visions where he narrowed them down to the "constrained" vs "unconstrained" visions.

    4. Will do, Nate. It's on its way to my Kindle.