The Correct Way to be Reasonable

A good friend and I have had a long-running discussion regarding the ongoing moral panic about “the coddling of the American mind.” While I’m inclined to mostly dismiss these concerns as fitting into the long history of wrongheaded and pernicious discourse about political correctness, my friend sees a real erosion of discourse that is haunting the halls of the academy and damaging liberal political discourse. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, a number of soul-searching think pieces (and more hot takes) have taken up this same discussion. They point to how Trump and his ilk used anti-PC rhetoric as a bludgeon against Democrats, and suggest that kind of argument is a reason to “refocus” the politics of the Democratic Party away from identity and toward economic issues, as if those two things can be cleanly separated (a real head-scratcher and the subject of another post).

Recently, my friend shared this post pointing to the Left’s perceived overuse of stigma in place of reason to win arguments from serial “coddling of the American mind” hand-wringer Conor Friedersdorf with me to further our discussion. I felt compelled to respond in part as an exercise in sharpening my own internal arguments against PC fear-mongering and in part to argue that persuasive political discourse is far from dead — it’s simply changing with the wider cast of contributors. And I decided to share it here for the same reasons.

A lightly edited version of my email response to the article follows.

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So I’ve been thinking about that article and I wanted to share some thoughts I had before they slipped away. These are a little raw and rough, but I think it’s important to try and articulate the reasons I find the positioning of this article (and much of the discourse that fits in this line of thinking) not just problematic, but pernicious and wrong.

Here’s where I’ve landed at a high level: this reads like the Liberal Academy’s version of “Make America Great Again” (“Make America Debate Issues Through Reason and Logic Again” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it).

What makes this so pernicious is how it uses the same logic of Trump’s appeal: idealizing a woefully bygone time when Men resolved hard problems with Reason. I know that This is the popular narrative of how history since the Enlightenment is taught, but you and I both know that this characterization is at best deeply misleading and at worst an outright falsehood. Even more damning, his only real example of the gold- tinted age where Reason won the day and beat back the entrenched tentacles of bigotry and hatred is how Andrew Sullivan changed public opinion on gay marriage which, frankly, is insulting. Not insulting to me, but to the millions of gay men and women who risked their economic and social standing by taking the hard step of coming out to their family, friends, and employers or did the hard work of organizing for and demanding equality. I would actually argue that Will and Grace had a greater influence on public opinion than Andrew Sullivan did. I don’t have any evidence to back that up, but Friedersdorf didn’t provide any evidence to back up his claim either so I think I’m on pretty reasonable ground there.

It’s just not true that people change their minds on just about any meaningful issue because they are confronted with clear logical reasoning or any kind of facts and figures. In fact, there are reams of research showing that attempts to persuade with facts and reason (especially through any kind of media) are more likely to cause folks to double down than to be moved. And this result has nothing to do with education (in fact, the more educated and capable we are of leveraging information into an argument, the more likely we are of being skeptical of the “other side” trying to change our mind) or political leaning — it’s just the way our dumb brains work. Instead, human interaction and socialization is time and again proved to be the path towards influencing hearts, minds, and policy. Priming, socialization, and tribalism are the ways of human interaction, and can be leveraged towards our angels or our demons.

Now, all that said, as we’ve discussed in the past I totally agree that dialogue is important. And far too often, conversations get shut down by personal attacks or the kinds of appeals to tribalism / otherness that are so damn effective. You know we agree that there needs to be a far greater emphasis on love for our fellow humans and empathy for the disadvantaged that is so often missing from our public discourse. But I would also argue that the impetus for those kind of radical acts should be placed on the shoulders of those of us who are privileged in so many ways, those of us who have benefited from the accumulation that came from generations of exploitation and confiscation and societal institutions that have systematically prioritized our interests above those of others. We need to have the moral clarity to break down the barriers separating us from those who have been disadvantaged by the social structures we’ve built up (race, class, gender, etc.) and the grace to accept the diminishment of that privilege as equality replaces the demolished social hierarchies of the past.

The reality is that viewing logical reason as the only legitimate means of influencing public opinion is disappointingly narrow and ultimately depoliticized way of looking at public discourse. More voices are included in our democracy today, and they deserve to be heard whether they fit into the traditional framework of Liberal discourse that Friedersdorf and his ilk have proclaimed to cherish. This might make things messier, but that’s a trade off I’ll take in the pursuit of justice.

Sorry that got way long. The next drink is on me!

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