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How American Popular Culture Misunderstands Conservatism


We humans tend to demonize that which we do not understand, and we don’t understand a whole hell of a lot about ourselves in general, and especially about conservatives. We conservatives are consistently and perpetually characterized by American popular culture as something we’re not, and then demonized for being that something, which we’re not.  It’s absolutely infuriating.  We are presumed guilty until proven innocent.  Nearly every conversation we have with a liberal starts with us as the presumed bad guy who has to first prove his innocence before a reasonable conversation can even begin.  It’s a perpetual uphill battle.

This failure of empathy, compassion, and understanding toward conservatives is probably the greatest single cause of partisan rancor over which Americans have a significant amount of control. Some relatively minor tweaks to K through 12 public school curricula would go a long way toward increasing our general level of understanding and empathy toward one another, and decreasing some of the worst symptoms of partisanship.

A case in point is any suggestion that conservatives have less empathy or sympathy than do liberals, or are less caring or compassionate. It’s simply not true. In fact the opposite is true. In a moment I’ll unpack why, but I want to start out by saying the following:

  • Conservatives are human beings. We love and laugh, and mourn and cry. We are good people with good hearts who love our families and care for our communities. We feel pain when we are injured.  We feel sadness, empathy, and compassion when we see misfortune in others.  We feel heartbreak when friends, loved ones, and others suffer.  We experience the binding moral foundations as feelings and instincts of respect, admiration, thankfulness, and even love, toward institutions, traditions, social structure, the rule of law, without which human cooperative society is impossible and descends into chaos, anomie, and anarchy.  We DO NOT experience the binding foundations as demands or rules to be imposed upon others. To us the moral foundations feel like “I’ve got your back, and I know you’ve got mine,” trust and respect, and NOT like “Do as I say!” We feel a debt of gratitude to the public servants who protect and defend us, and to those who care for us in times of hardship.  We desire, and work hard to create, a healthy, happy society that cares for its poor and disadvantaged, and which offers liberty, equality, justice, and fairness to every citizen without regard to race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or ideology. I’m reminded of a few lines from Shakespeare by the character Shylock, who says in defense of people like himself: “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us do we not die? If you tickle us do we not laugh?”
  • As an owner and operator of a conservative brain, and as a person who lives inside the world it creates for me, and as a guy who gets teary eyed at Hallmark TV commercials and is happy that movie theaters are dark so people around me are less likely to see me wiping my eyes at emotional scenes, and who has had his own share, as everyone does, of hard times and heartache in his life, it is infuriating to me that I am so easily dismissed as lacking compassion. In my heart of hearts I know that’s just wrong. But how do I communicate that to liberals? It’s difficult.

So let’s get to the unpacking.

It’s true that every individual person lives in their own moral matrix, or ideological bubble.  But it’s also true that society is filled with bubbles; and bubbles within bubbles. The congregation of a church, for example, or the members of the local Elks club, are bubbles that exist within the larger bubble of the town; and the town within the state, and so on.

American popular culture is itself sort of a super bubble within which all the other bubbles, including liberalism and conservatism, Republicans and Democrats, swim like schools of fish in a common sea.

Never underestimate the power of the bubble of American culture, or of bubbles in general, to influence how we perceive and react to the social world.  Below is The Mike Romano story from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. Afterward I will unpack the relationship between this story and the topic of empathy [bold emphasis added].

“1. 

Mike Romano was born in 1950 and raised in Milwaukee, the youngest of four brothers.  His dad was a handyman who fixed plumbing and heating fixtures. His mom had a commercial art degree; she stayed at home to raise the boys, taking jobs from time to time to pay the bills.

Romano had a temper.  In high school, when he was 18, he got into a fight and threw a guy through a window. Afraid of what would happen in court, he enlisted in the army. He figured he was going to be drafted anyway. The court let him go.

Romano eventually ended up being assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam, an elite and well-respected unit of paratroopers. The soldiers of the 173rd had an open secret, however: rampant drug use. Others nicknamed them “jumping junkies.” Coming into the military, Romano had no real drug experience. He tried to keep his nose clean with the jumping junkies.

A few months after he arrived in Vietnam, a Claymore land mine detonated near him, and he was struck in his right hand, forearm, and foot.  He was taken to a hospital in Camron Bay for recovery. That was where he first tried opium.

He quickly became hooked, like so many others around him.  Even when he transferred to other hospitals, his supply wasn’t interrupted. He mostly smoked opium-laced joints, but it was also easy to find liquid opium and even opium chewing gum (not to mention other drugs, such as LSD and marijuana). His addiction continued to torment him throughout his thirteen-month tour of duty.

Romano’s fall into drug use was a typical story during the Vietnam War.  The White House was so troubled by reports of drug use among soldiers that it commissioned a study to investigate the scope of the problem. The results were disturbing. Before the war, the typical soldier had only casual experience with hard drugs, and less than 1 percent had ever been addicted to narcotics. But once in Vietnam, almost half of the soldiers tried narcotics, and 20 percent became addicted. Demographics did not predict who would become drug users in Vietnam – race and class were irrelevant.

The drug use started early. Twenty percent of all users started in their first week in Vietnam, 60 percent within the first three months. Oddly, drug use did not seem to be triggered by trauma. The researchers found no statistical relationship between drug use and the difficulty of soldiers’ assignments, or the danger they faced, or the death of friends. Unlike most soldiers, Romano started using opium because he was injured. For most soldiers in Vietnam, drugs were simply a fact of life, a part of the culture.

Government officials were terrified by what would happen when thousands of drug addicts began to return to America.  Military and civilian leaders worried that the country’s drug-treatment programs would be flooded, stretched far beyond capacity. They worried that the vets might not be able to hold down jobs, that they might turn to crime.

Mike Romano was one of the people the officials were worried about.  When he finally boarded his flight back to the United States in 1969, headed home to Milwaukee, he smuggled back with him a stash of opium-laced joints.

Then his life began to change.  A week or two after his return home, he was driving with friends in town when he saw a girl he’d known in grade school. “Stop the car!” he said. He chased her down. She was working as a counter girl at a nearby drugstore. “I thought she was very beautiful,” said Romano.

The two started dating.  She caught on fairly quickly that Romano was an addict, and she put pressure on him to stop. He tried to quit a few times, but each time he started to feel sick as withdrawal pains kicked in, and then he’d begin using again. Meanwhile, he started work – construction and house painting and other temporary jobs – and he started taking art classes at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He got a job there designing promotional posters for bands who played at the student union.

After a few quit-and-relapse cycles, he began to wean himself off opium, and within about a month he was clean.  He hasn’t touched opium since. What we see in Mike Romano’s life seems like an almost impossible change story: an opium addict who recovered. Mike Romano was one of the lucky ones.

2.

Or was he?  White House researchers continued to investigate the drug problem among returning soldiers, and a puzzle started to emerge. Following up with the troops who returned home, the investigators called them eight to twelve months after their return to ask about their ongoing drug use. During the war, 50 percent of soldiers had been casual users, and 20 percent had become seriously addicted, meaning that they used drugs more than once a week for an extended period of time and experienced withdrawal symptoms (chills, cramps, pain) if they tried to stop. But when investigators conducted follow-up, what they found blew their minds. Only 1 percent of the vets were still addicted to drugs. That was essentially the same rate as existed before the war. The feared, drug-fueled social catastrophe had not occurred. What had happened?

3.

People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in. We all want to wear the right clothes, to say the right things, to frequent the right places. Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious, sometimes in surprising ways.

Imagine that your job was to design an environment that would extinguish drug addiction.  You could take drug-addicted U.S soldiers, drop them into this environment, and feel confident that the forces within it would act powerfully to help them beat their habits. Think of this environment as an antidrug theme park, and assume that you can spend as much as you want to construct it. What would your theme park look like?

It might look a whole lot like Romano’s neighborhood in Milwaukee.

You’d want to surround the former soldiers with people who love them and care about them – and who treat them as the drug-free persons they once were.  You’d give them interesting work to do – perhaps designing posters for rock bands – so that their minds would be distracted from the joys of opium. You’d create well-publicized sanctions against drug use. You’d keep the drug economy underground, making the former soldiers sneak around to obtain and use drugs. You’d make sure their girlfriends gave them a hard time about their drug use. You’d set up social taboos so that the soldiers would feel derelict, even pathetic, if they kept using. You’d remove the contagious drug-using behavior from the environment – no more addicted soldiers around – and replace it with contagious drug-free behavior. And you would provide rich environmental cues – sights, songs, food, clothes, and homes – that remind the former soldiers of their prewar, drug-free identities.

The Milwaukee Theme Park:  That’s exactly why Mike Romano became a former addict. When Romano relocated to Milwaukee, his environment changed, and the new environment changed him.

4.

As the Romano story shows, one of the subtle ways in which our environment acts on us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits.

When we think about habits, most of the time we’re thinking about the bad ones: biting our fingernails, procrastinating, eating sweets when we’re anxious, and so on.  But of course we also have plenty of good habits: jogging, praying, brushing our teeth. Why are habits so important? They are, in essence, behavioral autopilot. They allow lots of good behaviors to happen without the Rider taking charge. Remember that the Rider’s self-control is exhaustible, so it’s a huge plus if some positive things can happen “free” on autopilot.

To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits, and what we see with Romano is that his habits shifted when his environment shifted.  This makes sense – our habits are essentially stitched into our environment. Research bears this out. According to one study of people making changes in their lives, 36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location, and only 13 percent of unsuccessful changes involved a move.

The Mike Romano Story is not about Mike Romano.

It’s about ideological bubbles, moral matrices; what they are, and how they work.

It’s about the social environments in which we are immersed, and the subtle yet powerful ways in which they shape not just our behaviors, but even our perceptions and thoughts about the world and our place in it; of reality itself.

I next want to move from that generic understanding of bubbles to an examination of the environment of the super bubble of American popular culture, and how it shapes the conventional wisdom about conservative empathy, and how that conventional wisdom is wrong.

To do that I’m first going to back up a couple steps to look at the bubble of academic social science. From there I’ll build up again to the super bubble.

It’s well known that academic social science is the Ivory Soap of ideological bubbles: Ninety nine and forty four one hundredths percent pure…liberal.  Below are a couple paragraphs from an article by Michael Shermer in Scientific American, from March 1, 2016, entitled Is Social Science Politically Biased? [Bold emphasis added]

How does this political asymmetry corrupt social science? It begins with what subjects are studied and the descriptive language employed. Consider a 2003 paper by social psychologist John Jost, now at New York University, and his colleagues, entitled “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” Conservatives are described as having “uncertainty avoidance,” “needs for order, structure, and closure,” as well as “dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity,” as if these constitute a mental disease that leads to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality.” Yet one could just as easily characterize liberals as suffering from a host of equally malfunctioning cognitive states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naive belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence from behavior genetics that culture and environment exclusively determine one’s lot in life.

Duarte et al. find similar distortive language across the social sciences, where, for instance, certain words are used to suggest pernicious motives when confronting contradictory evidence —“deny,” “legitimize,” “rationalize,” “justify,” “defend,” “trivialize”— with conservatives as examples, as if liberals are always objective and rational. In one test item, for example, the “endorsement of the efficacy of hard work” was interpreted as an example of “rationalization of inequality.” Imagine a study in which conservative values were assumed to be scientific facts and disagreement with them was treated as irrational, the authors conjecture counterfactually. “In this field, scholars might regularly publish studies on … ‘the denial of the benefits of a strong military’ or ‘the denial of the benefits of church attendance.’” The authors present evidence that “embedding any type of ideological values into measures is dangerous to science” and is “much more likely to happen—and to go unchallenged by dissenters—in a politically homogeneous field.”

So how does that relate to the super bubble? How does is affect the conventional wisdom about empathy? The exact same way. It too is politically homogeneous.

Anybody familiar with Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 and related articles that can be found online knows that America has been self-segregating along ideological lines for decades. Seventy eight percent of the counties that make up New York City voted for Hillary. Similar numbers are true of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and a few other hot spots of liberal enclaves.

Those left wing ideological bubbles also happen to be the locations from which ALL THREE of the major muscle groups of American Pop Culture are owned and operated; the industries of academia, media, and entertainment. Those three industries are nearly as ideologically pure as is social science. The behavioral autopilot, the cruise control, the environment, of American Culture is nearly permanently entrenched in the left lane of the ideological highway.

Remember from the Mike Romano Story, “People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in. We all want to wear the right clothes, to say the right things, to frequent the right places. Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious, sometimes in surprising ways.”

And also remember that that environment is tilted strongly to the left.

To drive this point home, do this thought experiment with me:

Imagine a world in which nearly every single TV news outlet and newspaper were like Fox News: ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, NPR, CNN, HLN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, United Artists, and dozens more. Imagine ALL of them leaning as obviously and strongly to the right as academic social science leans left, with all the same symptoms of one-sided word use, implicit embedded values, and interpretations.  And ALSO imagine nearly every product produced by those companies also leans left: movies, music, prime time TV shows, documentaries. Imagine the villain in every TV drama, and the butt of every joke in every sitcom and in every late night TV host’s monologue is a wacko tree-hugging safe-space loving microaggression hating liberal.   And imagine it’s been this way for decades. And imagine that for the past eight years an air of smug condescension and barely disguised disgust has wafted from the president and his party, and from his party’s nominee to replace him.   And imagine that the one and only one news network that bucked the trend and saw things as you do was vilified and demonized by all the others as uneducated, small minded, and bigoted, including by the president and his party.

If you’re a liberal, would you like to live in a bubble like that? How would that feel? Would it feel like a pleasant place to be? Would it be a “safe space” for you? No. Of course not. It would be the opposite. You’d hate it. You’d become weary, complacent, resigned, at always being the bad guy.

And ALSO imagine that, if you dared to point out any of this, or if you dared to challenge any of the ideas coming from all of those places, you were shrugged off, dismissed, as an uneducated rube and an unthinking bigot?   And your thoughts and feelings were attributed to, QUOTE “pernicious motives when confronting contradictory evidence —“deny,” “legitimize,” “rationalize,” “justify,” “defend,” “trivialize”— with liberals as examples, as if conservatives are always objective and rational END QUOTE. That would be a not so nice place to live, wouldn’t it?

Well that’s EXACTLY the Environment of the American Theme Park that we ALREADY live in, and have been living in, for decades, except the other way around. The American Behavioral Autopilot, is a powerfully insidious anti-conservative theme park.

And no, I’m not exaggerating.

It is entirely possible for liberals to grow up, live through adulthood, and die of old age without ever encountering serious conservative thought.   All they see is the caricature of conservatism that’s fed to them through those industries. Even Jon Haidt, the left’s conservative whisperer, admits that his first encounter with serious conservative thought wasn’t until he’d reached the age of forty. FORTY! And he was an Ivy-League educated psychologist! And even then, the only reason he did encounte conservative thought was because he actively sought it out for a course he was teaching and he felt some level of professional ethical responsibility to represent it fairly and correctly.

In a culture that claims to pride itself on inclusiveness and tolerance this is a non-sequitur. It makes no sense. That culture is, in fact, the opposite of what it likes to think it is.  How can this happen?

The following anecdote from David Foster Wallace answers that question:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

…The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.  – David Foster Wallace

The Super Bubble of American Culture is the water; it’s an important reality that is the hardest to see; and it’s full of banal left-wing platitudes with life-or-death importance that for the most part the liberal fish have no clue exist. Many liberal fish honestly think they’re not biased, and that they’re well grounded in reality, and that this is simply the way the world actually is.

At this point you’re may be wondering, what does this have to do with empathy?

Well, I’ll tell you: Everything.

The behavioral autopilot of western culture is dead wrong about conservative empathy, compassion, and sympathy. The fact is that the American Cultural Theme Park gets it completely backwards. It does this by defining empathy as the feeling, and importantly the object of that feeling, that is experienced by liberals. Empathy as it is experienced by conservatives is ruled out by definition, so the conclusion that liberals have more empathy than conservatives becomes a self-fulfilling property.

I bet some of you are befuddled by this. You’re thinking “What is he talking about?” Empathy is empathy. It’s in the dictionary. There’s nothing to be confused about, or misrepresented. It is what it is. He’s crazy.

To which I would say. You just proved my point. You’re the fish asking “What’s water?”

I’ll explain.

If you’re familiar with Star Trek then you’re familiar with the concept of a prime directive.  It’s a single, overriding, guiding principle that influences, “shapes the path,” as it were, of everything else. A radio commercial for a car dealer that I must have heard a hundred times after I first moved to the D. C. area in the mid nineteen eighties said:

Once you decide to be the best, all the other decisions are easy.

I’m not saying that conservatives or liberals are internally driven to be the best at something. I mean only that each seems to have a prime directive – a moral sense that situates them in the world, provides purpose, and “makes all the other decisions easy.”

For liberals, it seems to me, the prime directive is the way they experience empathy, compassion, and sympathy.   From where I sit it seems to be something bigger, deeper, more all-encompassing, than merely just the moral foundations of care and fairness.   It’s a tendency to identify with, and focus on, the individual person in any situation. It’s the feeling of heartbreak or sadness or sympathy one experiences when one sees or thinks of individuals who are suffering. It’s a strong, natural, instinctive desire to reach out and calm, sooth, salve the wounds, and protect those individuals, and by extension all individuals who suffer, and by extension from that, all suffering. It is ALSO a strong, sometimes passionate desire to make the cause of the suffering go away. Often the word “empathy” or the word “compassion” or the word “sympathy” is used to refer to the liberal prime directive; the liberal moral sense.   The prime directive seems to be all of those things rolled up into one, but the words themselves have meanings that are separate and distinct from one another.   I think this muddles, obfuscates, our understanding of liberalism, and to the concepts of empathy and compassion as well.

The conservative prime directive includes all of those same feelings, to the same degree. It is self-serving and fatuous for liberals to believe it doesn’t. The real difference between liberals and conservatives is the object toward which those feelings are felt. For conservatives, the object of their empathy is NOT just the individual, it is also the family unit; the cohesive whole; the neighborhood; the community. It is NOT the just the bees, it is the bees AND the hive, without which the bees literally cannot survive. The object of conservative empathy is The Milwaukee Theme Park, the behavioral autopilot, the moral fabric of our shared humanity. Conservatives are “incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in.” The object of conservative empathy, or compassion, or sympathy, is not the individual, it is social capital.  

The definition of the word empathy is actually narrower than the way it is generally used by liberals to describe themselves and demean non-liberals. Empathy is NOT the feeling of sorrow or heartache one feels when one sees suffering in others, nor is it the urge to reach out and help others or to relieve their suffering. Empathy, rightly understood, is the ability to get inside the head of another person. Here’s how it’s described by Wikipedia:

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feelings with the heart of another.[1] There are many definitions for empathy which encompass a broad range of emotional states. Types of empathy include cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and somatic empathy.[2]

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion Haidt describes a study in which he tested exactly that. He asked conservatives, liberals, and moderates to answer survey questions about social issues, and then to answer still more questions as they thought the other would. In other words, he tested “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference.”  He tested empathy.

Here’s how he summarized his findings:

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.

The truth of the matter is that cognitively, emotionally, and somatically, conservatives have MORE empathy than do liberals, and the more liberal one is, the less empathy one has.

What follows is one quote from a related academic paper, and three quotes from The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

Liberals Think More Analytically (More “WEIRD”) Than Conservatives ( here )

“The moral domain is unusually narrow in WEIRD cultures, where it is largely limited to the ethic of autonomy (i.e., moral concerns about individuals harming, oppressing, or cheating other individuals). It is broader – including the ethics of community and divinity – in most other societies, and within religious and conservative moral matrices within WEIRD societies. (page 129)

Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. (page 113)

Psychopaths seem to live in a world of objects, some of which happen to walk around on two legs. (page 72)

And what’s more, compared with liberals, conservatives ALSO have a superior grasp of human nature. Haidt said as much in so many words in his appearances on the Colbert Report and Bill Moyers TV shows. You can find them online and watch for yourself.   He says the same thing indirectly in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, in sections called “The Left’s Blind Spot” and “The Conservative Advantage.” This is arguably one of the most significant findings of his life’s work.

The notion that it’s the other way around – the idea that liberals have more empathy or compassion than do conservatives – is exhibit A in the pantheon of lies that if told often enough become the truth, especially since nobody in the left-wing controlled bubble of American Popular Culture Theme Park who questions any of this is ever taken seriously, and instead is more likely to be ridiculed by the behavioral autopilot of that culture as mean, ignorant, phobic, bigots.

And finally, what’s true of empathy, compassion, and sympathy – namely that the conservative versions of those attributes are unfairly and inaccurately characterized by liberals and by the prevailing culture (which are for all practical purposes the same thing) – is also true of bigotry, science denial, anti-intellectualism, and all the other labels that liberals unthinkingly slap on conservatives. Those labels are textbook examples of the liberal pot calling the conservative kettle black; they’re psychological projection. The anti-Trump, anti-Milo rioters, with their pitchforks and their torches, committing their mini Kristallnachts across the nation, are raging against a monster under the bed that exists almost entirely in their own head and hardly at all in reality. They are the real haters in modern American culture; Hatred that’s born of bigotry; bigotry born of ignorance; ignorance born of a moral mind equipped with only about half of the evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception, understanding, and imagination; and exacerbated by the nearly purely left wing K-12 education system.

Practically speaking, without the binding moral foundations one is left with no logical, cognitive, alternative but to conclude that people who think differently must be, can only be, afflicted with some sort of social or psychological disorder. And when one “knows” in this way that people who think differently are thus afflicted, one feels not only justified, but morally obligated to do whatever it takes to “resist” such people and deny them access to the reins of power, including violence if necessary.

As Haidt says in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.

If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

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. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; 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)3

One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds.

So here’s a pledge for anyone interested in having an honest and open dialog with conservatives:

I promise, for the rest of my life, that never will I ever – in thought or in spoken or written word – attribute conservative or republican viewpoints to a lack of empathy or compassion; or to bigotry in any of its forms, including racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia; or to the denial of science, or to anti-intellectualism; or to authoritarianism in any of its forms, including fascism, or Nazism; first of all because it would in all likelihood be an unwarranted ad hominem attack of the person rather than of his or her actual ideas, but more importantly because it says far more about me, and my own lack of empathy, understanding, and tolerance toward others, and my own inability to think beyond the tired dogma of banal left-wing platitudes about non-liberals than it ever can say about them.

If you take this pledge and stick to it then you’ll be forced to think outside the box of the left wing bubble about conservatives. You’ll have no choice but to at least try to imagine that conservatives might be real people with good hearts who are motivated to do good, and who actually want to help foster a better world. And if you admit THAT possibility, then you might even find yourself understanding them, and having REAL, ACTUAL, empathy toward them.

And THEN, you can have a REAL dialog.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “How American Popular Culture Misunderstands Conservatism

  1. An excellent essay, concisely summarizing much of your thought in previous posts.

    I am not now, nor have ever been a conservative. I used to be a liberal, born to a pink-diaper mother and an urban working class father whose upward mobility was enabled by the Navy and WWII. For the past 40 years I’ve been a libertarian, libertine Whig who has spent most of her life in the left urban bubble, so my viewpoint is a bit unusual. Despite my background, I’ve had more than most liberals’ share of encounters with conservatives, not to mention deliberately reading a lot beyond the bubble. I’m also a trained debater, so have practiced the art of taking a position that I disagree with and arguing the case.

    Even though that’s not my ideal preference, in the current dire political situation, I find myself allied with the nationalist, anti-globalist, populist right. This includes a real sympathy for Christian social cons, with whom I differ greatly on certain issues (I’m not a believer and my preference toward individual Liberty trumps Authority and Sanctity). It is one of the ironies of the current situation that the left has won the real civil liberties issues: race, sex, drugs and personal expression, but is blind to how that success has propelled them into illiberal, anti-liberty authoritarianism (of which they are completely unconscious – hence the counterproductive demonstrations and riots). This combines the worst aspects of hand-me-down Marxist post-modern theory and an adolescent attitude of rebellious entitlement completely out of tune with their current cultural hegemony. They are the most privileged class in human history, yet cling to their outdated sense of righteous victimhood, and have become intolerant because they are in power but still terrified of their nightmare projections.

    The distressing thing is how much harder it has become to reach across the divide since the election. In November, I had hopes, but the reaction on the left has dashed them. On the one hand, the childish hissy fits and paranoia that make the news just show that it was past time the keys were taken way from Team Blue for a while; on the other hand, liberals/progressives are so in thrall to a poisonous leftist ideology, and so unaware of their cultural bubble, that it is more difficult to reach them than ever.

    I’m afraid your pledge is a bridge too far for even the more open lefties of my acquaintance at this time. I’d settle for an honest effort to put aside their prejudices for the sake of argument, but I’ve had too many encounters where that’s simply impossible, because they are too deep in the emotional trip to be susceptible to reason, or even to have any insight into what they might be doing wrong. I am constantly tempted to just browbeat some people (I mean, get a grip!), but am profoundly aware, in a visceral way I never was before, that they are not living in the same reality I am.

    Like

    Posted by Sigdrifr (@Sigdrifr) | February 12, 2017, 11:04 am

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I Support Viewpoint Diversity

www.heterodoxacademy.org

A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.

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Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Moral Foundations

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