Institutions and Tribal Epistemologies

On Mental Policing

Jay’s description of how he felt as a conservative member of liberal institutions like NYU Law and his workplace sounds awful. I knew, at some level, this was how he felt over the last few years but reading about it in detail is upsetting. He explicitly said he’s not asking for sympathy but it makes me sad none the less. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of my immigration experience. Coming to Central Illinois, adjusting to mainstream culture in the US, becoming American, required a lot of the same kinds of mental policing Jay described going through in the last few years. There may be some merits to these kinds of experiences but by and large, I know they take a heavy toll on the people who go through them.

As a young person, the adjustments I made weren’t political in nature. But when I was becoming more politically aware, I remember feeling a similar pressure to keep my thoughts to myself in school, around friends and around adults in my life. I remember multiple times throughout middle and high school when I would express my support for a Democratic presidential candidate, or discuss something like gay rights in a social studies class, feeling compelled to keep my mouth shut lest I alienate some friends or draw the ire of a teacher. The stakes, as a teenager, are much lower, but I think the feelings are similar.

While Jay may be right that our country’s most powerful institutions are liberal — they largely exist on the coasts, they’re largely populated by people who are born and raised around other liberals — there’s something to be said about the kinds of conservative institutions that exist throughout the rest of the country. Although these institutions may not be as powerful, on a per-institution basis, there are way more of them. Schools, churches, small town councils, radio stations, and so on, throughout the country, loosely described, are conservative. These institutions, while not having as much culture power (in strictly defined media/pop culture terms), have a lot of political power.

Ring Fences and WMDs

The most interesting part of Jay’s argument about the ring fence (which by the way, was very well described and very scary) was the analogy to WMDs. Although Jay wasn’t interested in diagnosing who shot first (to mix WMDs and Star Wars metaphors), it seems like an important point. WMD escalation on the left, from how I understand it, seems like a reaction to WMD escalation on the right. Although he discounts Fox News and Limbaugh, and put them in a category next to Seth Meyers and Colbert, their political power is much greater. A few months ago, when Roger Ailes died, some people (admittedly on the left) were commenting on the effect that Fox News had on their parents and grandparents. Jay and lots of conservatives like him don’t listen to Fox News, but their hold on the conservative political imagination is undeniable. Their political coverage was among the first to truly go outside the ring fence of political discourse. I admit to not have enough clarity, distance, or knowledge about how political discourse has changed over the last 20 or 30 years to say this for sure, but to me it seems like Fox News was among the original culprits.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that Fox News or online alt-right communities sprung up because they felt squeezed out by the left in the arena of civil discourse. And now, in reaction, the alt-right may have created a “dirtbag left.” Of course conservatives aren’t uniquely susceptible to conspiracy theories or tribal epistemology, the left has its own troubles with this. But the true scale and comparative impact of these tendencies is hard to determine.

If we take all that to be true, then the left’s reactionary use of WMDs, while still bad for the country, is more understandable in context. There is a sense of moral superiority on the left, with this I agree. This is something I’ve fallen for in the past but have become more sensitive to recently and it drives me crazy (and has contributed to my sense of feeling adrift from the left). There is a sense of competition for victimhood or suffering. The one who has suffered the most is held in the highest regard. And everyone else gets a sense of satisfaction from giving support. In extension, anyone who doesn’t agree with this approach, is morally inferior, and it’s much easier to write off people who don’t pass your morality test.

I agree that use of WMDs, shrinking the ring fence, or kicking entire people or viewpoints out of institutions is dangerous. And Jay’s description of what is likely to happen in return is, as I said, very scary.

Spending time in uncomfortable places

In some ways, I like the fact that Jay and I represent two different kinds of people, who, despite not feeling welcomed, have made an effort to spend time in places and institutions where we’re not comfortable. I have happy memories of going to church with high school and college friends, despite the fact that I wasn’t really a member of that community. We’ve talked in the past about how Jay enjoyed living in NYC for the time that he did, and parts of the NYU law experience, despite not being like everyone else in those places. Incentivizing more people to have more experiences like this could go a long way in reducing the strain on the ring fence. It is much harder to feel morally superior to or completely alienated from someone with opposing views when you live near them, get to know them as a friend, and share your life with them. America’s “Big Sort” trends suggest we’re not headed down that path, but it’s never too late to try and turn those trends around.

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