Thursday, April 10, 2014

You Know, You Know; No, You Don't, You Don't

Speaking of Andrew Sullivan and credit where due, I thought this was a very good post:

One seeks to get to a place where a conversation ends. The other seeks never to end the conversation, and, in fact, gets a little queasy when any topic is ruled out of bounds in a free society.

Maybe if we can appreciate both traditions, we can see the underlying forces behind this debate more clearly. My own instincts on the gay rights question have always been classically liberal/small-c conservative/libertarian. I think hate is an eternal part of the human condition, and that ridding oneself of it is a personal, moral duty not a collective, political imperative. I never want to live in a society in which homophobes feel obliged to shut up. I believe their freedom is indivisible from ours. Their hate only says something about them, not me. I oppose hate crime laws for those reasons. And my attachment to open debate means constantly allowing even the foulest sentiments to be expressed – the better to confront them, expose them and also truly persuade people of the wrongness of their views – rather than pressuring them into submission or silence. Others have a different vision: that such bigotry needs extra punishment by the state (hence hate-crime laws), that bigots need to be constantly shamed, and that because of the profound evil of such thoughts, social pressure should be brought to bear to silence them. More to the point, past sins have to be recanted and repented before such bigots are allowed back into the conversation.

...But liberalism, for me, is not a means to a progressive end. It is an end in itself.

It seeks to guard against groupthink and social pressure as dangerous threats to freedom of thought and of the individual. It aims to protect the rights of bigots as well as the targets of their bigotry. At any one point, that can seem grotesquely unfair. And it is. It is and was deeply unfair that, in order to enjoy some simple basic rights, we gays have had to explain ourselves to the world, listen to our very lives being debated as if we were not in the room, have our lives and loves traduced and distorted and picked over by people who treat us as pawns in a political game or an intellectual exercise. But, you know what? We had no choice if we were to move forward.

It calls to mind the old quip about how a liberal is someone who won't even take his own side in an argument. Fair enough. And one could easily object that there's no sense in remaining open-minded indefinitely; at some point, you have to accept whatever provisional conclusions you've drawn and just act. This may very well be an impossibly idealistic standard to aim for. My own commenters, among many others, have made the comparison: what if Eich had been donating money to white supremacist or neo-Nazi organizations? Would anyone be worried that he was being treated unfairly? And it's true — there is, more or less, a cultural consensus on topics like those that would brook no discussion. There would be no mitigating factors on his behalf. But that consensus didn't form as a result of each individual citizen being rationally persuaded by argument of the evils of Nazism and Jim Crow. It was, at least partially, simply imposed by people who had the power to do so and cemented into place by social pressure and groupthink. If, over time, a visceral rejection of homophobia is to join that consensus, it may very well have to be imposed by force. Perhaps a tolerance omelet will require a few broken Brendan Eichs. I'm not advocating that, I'm just acknowledging that individuals often get steamrolled by larger historical forces.

Nonetheless, I think it's vitally important that gadflies exist, even when they pester the most seemingly-worthy of causes. Take the example of progressive boycotting. In theory, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it. People are free to be choosy about which companies they patronize. They're also free to attempt to persuade other people to act similarly. In many cases, the ostensible motivations for the boycotts are noble enough. So why do I spend so much time mocking them?

Because in practice, they're doomed to futility. For starters, they're not overwhelmingly popular to begin with. It would take a disciplined, sustained effort to win enough support to be effective, but attention spans being what they are these days, the initial outrage quickly fizzles out. Increasing support for a cause would also mean having to interact with people who are indifferent or even hostile to it, but given the well-documented tendency for people on the web to form silos and block all social media communication with others who criticize or offend them, it's more likely that the boycotters will only end up preaching to the converted. Saying "I'm boycotting Barilla pasta because their CEO only allows 'traditional' families in their ads" lacks any practical consequence, and thus is only another way of saying "I don't like people who are prejudiced against gays." Opinions are stated not to persuade anyone of anything, but to promote yourself in a shallow, narcissistic medium, to fish for praise, to burnish your status among your peers.

So what you end up with is a marginal group of perpetually aggrieved people, full of moral fervor, yet bitterly resentful over their lack of power and influence, lacking the discipline or planning to experience the satisfaction of meaningful achievement. To me, that sounds like a perfect recipe for displaced aggression. They'll settle for taking scalps if they can't accomplish anything else. I saw this dynamic in the political blogosphere all the time. I haven't read Digby's blog in years, because I got so tired of the endless pity party. Ever since Obama's election, it was nothing but complaining about how the media "villagers" were so unfair to the Democrats, how the Republicans were so much more effective in power, how poor progressive bloggers were seen as nothing but dumb dirty hippies. And predictably enough, after all this constant moaning, when an easy target presented itself, Digby was right there to serve up a few posts' worth of red meat for her commenters. Well, you know, I hated bullies way before it became a progressive cause du jour, and that doesn't change just because I might agree with the bullies in principle. Somebody needs to force people to check their consciences at times like those.

I was reading a comment somewhere (can't find it now) by a woman whose name is on the list of people who donated to Prop. 8. She said that at the time, she was a law student and was enamored of some byzantine legal reasoning that said gay marriage should only be legal if approved by a majority of the population in a vote, not as a result of a judicial ruling. In other words, she was overly impressed by her own newly-minted legal cleverness and a smug belief that she saw important nuance where duller minds didn't. She regrets it now, but she worries about the possibility of it coming back to haunt her. If she ever became the subject of one of these Two Minutes Hate sessions on social media, would anyone stop shouting long enough to give her a chance to explain herself? Would it even matter, or would the event take on a momentum of its own at that point? To me, it's a quintessential liberal principle to worry about the one innocent person who might get caught up in the rush to serve justice to nine guilty ones.

No one deliberately sets out to become a groupthinking herd animal. It happens by steps, in degrees, and if the subject is even aware of how drastically they've changed, they almost certainly think it's for the better. In my pessimistic estimation, people are always at risk of being swept away in the current of seemingly inexorable logic; in fact, I think a lot of people are just looking for an excuse to surrender themselves to it. To use Sullivan's distinction, liberalism is the necessary brake on progressivism's moral impulses. Neither one would be effective alone; they need each other.