I hear this attitude a lot in my left-of-center circles. And even worse than the old “I’m right and you’re wrong” kind of comments, these days in our angry, polarized society, I’m hearing way too much “I’m right and you’re stupid” disdain meted out by liberal (so-called “open minded”) people.
This is what I call our liberal arrogance. (Stay with me here; this is for us progressives. I’ll spend another future blog talking about conservative self-righteousness. But right now, I need to say this to my friends on the left.)
It is absolutely normal for us humans to believe we are right. We couldn’t bear the moral tension if we knew we were investing ourselves in something clearly false. So of course, when any of us thinks through our positions, we come up with a stance that seems most reasonable and true based on our personality and experience. Of course we think we are right.
The problem comes when some of us also believe that ONLY we can be right on a particular issue. That ONLY our way of making sense makes sense in the world.
The problem comes when we look at others who disagree – people who see the issue differently, people who see the world differently – and attribute insincere or immoral motives to them and their beliefs.
“I’m right and you’re stupid” is a supreme arrogance.
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who has been talking about the morality of politics for years. His research led him to lay out five core foundations upon which humans build our societies: Care. Fairness. Authority. Loyalty. Sanctity.
In his 2008 TED Talk, Haidt describes these moral foundations and explains how liberals and conservatives relate to them in their various ways.
Two of the foundations, Care and Fairness, are generally valued by people across the spectrum. Humans (as well as many animals) seem to be hard-wired to care for their young and to protect those who are vulnerable in their group. And we all generally agree that things should be fair; we have different ideas about exactly what is “fair,” but liberals and conservatives alike value fairness.
However, three other moral foundations seem to carry much less value for liberals than for conservatives: Loyalty. Authority. Sanctity. As Haidt says in his 2012 essay, “America’s Painful Divide,” in general, liberals question authority, criticize group loyalty and distrust faith and/or religion.
“Loyalty to a group is the basis of racism and exclusion, [liberals] say. Authority is oppression. Religion is used to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia…”
Of course there are exceptions. There are many of us progressives who do respect authority, value faith and are absolutely loyal to family and country. (Please note and forgive my broad use of the pronouns “us” and “we” in the context of this blog.)
So we should not dismiss Jonathan Haidt’s theories by taking his descriptions personally. This social psychologist is not criticizing “us;” rather he is seeking to understand and name reality. When you look at the big picture of liberalism in America in 2018, can you see some truth in his description of “us” ?
I certainly can.
I can see plenty of ways progressives inaccurately assign blame for racism, exclusion, oppression, misogyny and homophobia. We blame religion for the ills of society without acknowledging its power for good. We rail against institutions and the status quo without recognizing how they provide stability and structure. We criticize group loyalty without admitting all us humans seek the comfort of homogeneous groups.
Blaming others without acknowledging our own failures is a supreme arrogance.
Have you read or seen Margaret Atwood’s brilliant story The Handmaid’s Tale? Ms. Atwood wrote this novel in 1985, years before our current “populist” takeover. Long ago, she recognized the danger that was brewing in America. Yes, the danger of the perversely pious Gilead, but also the danger of the arrogant left that helped launch that tragic pendulum swing.
One scene takes place in flashback as Mrs. Waterford (Serena Joy) is invited to speak at a university about her passion for family values and the sanctity of life. The liberal students rise up in riotous protest and refuse even to listen. They sacrifice an opportunity for intellectual engagement for their arrogant “we’re right and you’re evil” caricature. Consequently the architects of Gilead were even more convinced of the righteousness of their ultra-conservative cause.
The similarities to some of the attitudes and actions in our current public conversations are chilling. Our liberal arrogance may not produce an actual Gilead but we on the left did – and do – contribute to America’s painful divide.
The left is NOT always right.
The right is NOT always wrong.
No one is ALWAYS anything.
We ALL are Both/And, mixed, complex. And we all are often blind to our own shortcomings.
So my plea to my progressive partners: let’s practice some humility as we engage our conservative neighbors. We don’t have to give up confidence; we can still engage conversations with our beliefs in tact. But we are much more likely to be heard when we engage others with curiosity and civility.
“Help me understand why you think that way.”
“So you and I agree on this part, but here’s where I see we disagree.”
“May I explain where I’m coming from? I, too, have thought about this quite a bit.”
“Tell me about the kind of America you want our grandchildren to inherit.”
This kind of engagement makes it much more likely that we will hear and understand a perspective that is different from our own. After all, if we are going to call ourselves “liberal” or “progressive,” we ought to live up to the classic definitions of those terms: open, broad minded, generous, growing and developing new ideas and approaches.
If we on the left truly believe we have good and generous ideas for our society, then it’s high time we step up with confident humility. As a progressive, I absolutely believe liberal approaches are good and healthy so I want these ideas to be taken seriously by conservatives and this will only happen if the left and the right can find ways to talk and listen to each other; to collaborate and cooperate and one another.
But since this blog is for us progressives, I have to repeat this wisdom for us:
WE must be the change we want to see in the world.
We can’t change anyone else. We can only change ourselves: our attitudes, our actions, our words, our minds, our hearts.
As Jonathan Haidt suggests:
If you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the “other” group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light.
We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.
“America’s Painful Divide,” Saturday Evening Post article (Fall 2012).
See here an important book review published by the New York Times that explores something about the current state of our American universities and this generation of students (not exactly a pre-Giliead academic environment, but still, liberal education in flux.) One of the books is “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. Pay special attention to this quote from the article by Thomas Chatterton Williams:
What both of these books make clear from a variety of angles is that if we are going to beat back the regressive populism, mendacity and hyperpolarization in which we are currently mired, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism. This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert.
Yet as the tenuousness of even our most noble and seemingly durable civil rights gains grows more apparent by the news cycle, we must also reckon with the possibility that a full healing may forever lie on the horizon. And so we will need citizens who are able to find ways to move on despite this, without letting their discomfort traumatize or consume them. If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble.
“Does Our Cultural Obsession With Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy?” by Thomas Chatterton Williams (