“If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.” — Philosopher Anthony Weston in A Rulebook for Arguments
I may be libertarian, but I understand my friends on the political left. One reason most of us libertarians and conservatives can “speak liberal” is because we generally are willing to grant that our left-leaning friends have good intentions. Conservatives think liberals are often wrong, but not that it’s dancing with the devil to listen to them – or to try to understand them.
Many liberals, though, have trouble comprehending conservatives. In his studies of liberals and conservatives reported in The Righteous Mind, NYU-Stern Business School professor Jonathan Haidt found that liberals – particularly the “very” liberal – were consistently worse than conservatives at predicting how the other side would respond to various moral questions. “When faced with questions such as ‘One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or “Justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.”
This failure to “get” conservatives may be due to the liberal suspicion that selfishness and bigotry are the real motivations behind conservatism. That unsympathetic perception creates a communication blockage. If the liberal is hearing nothing more than an attempt to justify selfishness and bigotry, why continue listening? What more is there to “get”? As the New York Times book review of The Righteous Mind explained:
The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia . . . . Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.
This hostility to conservatism is apparent in almost any liberal attempt to explain it. “Conservatism is a type of motivated social cognition,” explains Salon magazine, “that by its very nature is hostile to members of groups on the lower runs of the social hierarchy.” A PolicusUSA headline declared in 2013 (ie, pre-Trump) “Today’s Republicans are Yesterday’s Fascists.”
Writer George Lakoff, in an article entitled “Why the Conservative Worldview Exalts Selfishness,” explains that conservatives believe being rich is a reflection of moral superiority, while poverty is a sign of morally inferiority; in other words, that the poor deserve their poverty. Which is an argument I’ve heard before, but never from an actual conservative.
Maybe he didn’t intend to be taken literally, but prominent New York theater critic Michael Feingold (formerly of the Village Voice) has this to say about Republicans:
Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet . . . . Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.
These angry liberals think they do “get” conservatives: Conservatives are selfish bigots. This perception not only stands in the way of comprehending conservatives, it leads almost inevitably to the current nationwide “shut down conservatives” movement. It is why libertarian writer Charles Murray was shouted down and roughed up at Middlebury College in 2017, and why colleges continually “disinvite” such speakers as columnist George Will, writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and anyone else who deviates from the liberal narrative.
In fact, most libertarians and conservatives care about the poor, about minorities, about the environment, about education. There are non-selfish, non-bigoted, non-stupid reasons for holding conservative views. Most conservatives are decent people with whom liberals are simply in disagreement. It would help if at least that much was understood.