Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Only Acceptable Bigotry

In today’s America the only acceptable bigotry is political. Far more than in the past people judge others by political affiliation. They have no problem excluding someone from their social circle or even refusing him or her a job for holding the wrong political views.

Cass Sunstein labelled the problem partyism. He defined its prevalence in a Bloomberg column:

If you are a Democrat, would you marry a Republican? Would you be upset if your sister did?

Researchers have long asked such questions about race, and have found that along important dimensions, racial prejudice is decreasing. At the same time, party prejudice in the U.S. has jumped, infecting not only politics but also decisions about dating, marriage and hiring. By some measures, "partyism" now exceeds racial prejudice -- which helps explain the intensity of some midterm election campaigns.

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

David Brooks has offered his own analysis:

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.

Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they’re defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.

Brooks’ point is important and, in my view, correct.

When people do not practice good behavior; when they believe that they are called upon to excuse all forms of bad behavior; when they do not believe that they have the right to judge anyone’s character… they end up judging people by their beliefs.

Brooks is arguing, as I would, that good character-- the ability to follow the basic principles of decorum, propriety, humility, modesty, respect and responsibility – produces social harmony.

But this requires that everyone follow the same rules. In a multicultural world there are no rules that apply to everyone, so we can only form groups by finding others who hold to the same beliefs.

People think of this as enlightened, but it resembles religious fanaticism. If a religion insists that everyone hold to the same beliefs it will quickly figure out that it is impossible to know precisely what anyone really believes.

Thus, it will feel the need to test believers to see if they are harboring heretical beliefs. It will run inquisitions and witch hunts to rid the populace of people who might be unbelievers.

And it fears any association with individuals who might be heretics or who might not be sufficiently fervent in their convictions.

How did our nation arrive at this impasse? How did it arrive at the point where we no longer consider that honorable people can hold different opinions, but insist that any difference of opinion is a sign of moral depravity?

Surely, the failure to practice the classical virtue of patriotism must play a part. If we are all Americans, all wanting what is best for the nation, all feeling pride in the nation… then our differences of opinion are about the means, not the goal.

As Brooks explains it:

Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity. When schools, community groups and workplaces get defined by political membership, when speakers get disinvited from campus because they are beyond the pale, then every community gets dumber because they can’t reap the benefits of diverging viewpoints and competing thought.

Keep in mind, many serious thinkers believe in the positive value of the “Manichean struggle of light and darkness.” Only, they call it a dialectical conflict between opposites.

If we do not believe that we have a monopoly on the truth, we will be willing to interact with those who offer different ideas. After all, we might be able to craft a negotiated compromise that satisfies both parties.

Why is this no longer possible? One reason must be an educational system that insists on emphasizing America’s fault, failings, crimes and derelictions.

If you teach children to criticize their country, you will be demoralizing them and making it impossible for them to identify first as Americans and second as Republicans or Democrats.
Brooks also believes that the nation is suffering from a lack of serious discussion of morality by public intellectuals. This is also true. There is no  real discussion of the importance of classical ethical virtues and the need to develop good character.

The therapy culture would never allow it.

What passes for moral discussion in America today involves defaming and slandering people who do not hold correct beliefs. Citizens are routinely denounced for being racist, sexist, homophobic and whatever.

In such a context your moral being derives from your beliefs… and from any behavior that would betray a bigoted belief. Those who launch these accusations feel comfortable in their self-righteous moral superiority. The accused are immediately labeled as unfit for human community.


David Foster said...

I wrote about this here:


Ares Olympus said...

re: If we do not believe that we have a monopoly on the truth, we will be willing to interact with those who offer different ideas. ... Why is this no longer possible? One reason must be an educational system that insists on emphasizing America’s fault, failings, crimes and derelictions.

I'm not sure at all this makes sense. On the one hand multiculturalism is supposed to encourage noncritical thought and moral relativism, and on the other hand, we've supposely lost are patriotism that brings us all together because educators supposedly are only focusing on the faults of our country rather than our strengths.

I'd be more likely to blame the expansive "narrowcasting" media of the internet, where all true believers can exist within their own self-reinforced echo-chambers, where the most passionate partisan voices gets the most attention, and a sort of brain washing follows, where it seems impossible that the other side had a worthy point to make.

I recall also reading that political parties used to have a mixture of liberals and conservatives, but now both political parties have become purified, so no matter how "moderate" the average citizen voter is, everyone in direct participation has purity tests to jump through to get endorsed, and gain access to power via committee assignments, etc.

It is interesting sometimes when we get a chance to see inside the minds of the true believers, like at the Senator Paul Wellstone Memorial, after he died ~10 days before the election, it was attended widely by Senators from both sides, and Wellstone for all his liberal bluster, talked and listened openly to everyone.

But he broke his vow to stop after 12 years, and ran for a third term, defending his decision that the balance of power was at stake. Anyway, at the memorial, one of his campaign staff was allowed to speak, and there was unfortunately no vetting of speakers or content, and his emotions took over as he tried to give meaning to his grief by suggesting everyone should support Wellstone's politics to honor his memory. I mean it was seriously inappropriate, and some walked out, including then Minnesota Governor, Jesse Ventura, who felt "tricked", although it was obviously to me that it wasn't intentionally offensive, and it did the Democrats no favors for the Independent voters for their replacement candidate, retired VP Walter Mondale.

Anyway, as cringeworthy as events like that are, it shows the dark side of moralistic judgment that can't imagine vice on "our side", or virtue on the "other side", or vice versa.

But now 12 years later, with YouTube you can perhaps see 100 times more passionate partisanism, or partyism, and if you want to believe in something, you can pick you bias, and find your team.

But on the otherside, I don't know if agnostic/fence-sitters like me are the answer either. I can play a conservative with liberals, and play a liberal with conservatives, and do my best to bridge the arguments of the other side, but if I succeed in my mission, maybe the best I can do is quell the passion, and people see really there are no simple answers, and all the issues we talk about are manipulated to differentate between opposite solutions to the wrong problems.

The only thing I'm passionate about is being scared shitless that for all our technical success we're diminishing the future potential of civilization and the natural systems that support us, so I love the expression "We have met the enemy and he is us."

But yes, that goes back to fears that the School is "emphasizing America’s fault, failings, crimes and derelictions"

But my enemy is bigger than America's failings. We can't even agree that power corrupts, unless it corrupts someone else much more than us.

Robert Mitchell Jr. said...

I think it's obvious. We saw much the same thing in the lead up to the Civil War. The Supreme court, in both Dread Scott, and Roe vs. Wade, took an obvious moral issue, removed it from the political arena (And in both cases, after ruling for the Evil side....). Since we can't vote at the booth, we are voting with our feet.....

Anonymous said...

I am not a political bigot. I even have some friends who are registered Democrats...

Anonymous said...

Ben Franklin: "A Republic - if you can keep it."

History shows, as the Founders knew, that republics are rare and un-natural. The last true one was Rome, which began slow deliquescence after the Punic Wars. And was built on the backs of slaves.

IMO, we already have an Oligarchy. Voting is vastly corrupted, as in Chicago. Dr. Savage is right to see a new Civil War brewing. We'll become Europe.

Hey, nothing lasts forever. I say that as a fervent, but fatalistic, Union Man. -- Rich Lara

Dennis said...

We also saw much the same thing after the "Civil" War when radical Republicans lead by Representative Thadeous Stevens and his ilk "poisoned the well" for years to come in the South. They also tried to impeach Andrew Johnson who for the most part, along with Grant afterwards, was carrying out Lincoln's desires for the South's reincorporation back into the Union.
Here is an interesting question. Why was there a foreign army at Fort Sumter given that South Carolina had already seceded from the Union? Further more the Union had removed its troops in the other states who seceded at the time. At the time Virginia had not seceded as others did later. Richmond was not the first capital of the South.
So "poisoning the well" has been a well established policy by those who want power and control. There is little that has not been corrupted.

Dennis said...

James Madison answered a number of questions about the state's right to secede in the affirmative. Point in fact the Hartford Convention discusses secession in 1814.
Forgotten history underlies many of the problems we have with creating enemies among friends for political reasons.