Sunday, February 07, 2010

Who's More Condescending, Liberals or Conservatives?

Gerard Alexander, an associate professor at University of Virginia, is sure to get lots of play with his piece in today's Washington Post, "Why are liberals so condescending?". I really hoped he could shed some light on why conservatives are far more reasonable than they appear to liberals. Instead, he makes one of weakest logical arguments I've ever heard, so much so that conservatives who cite it will be condescending to liberals and participating in a parody of themselves. I'm not sure if Alexander is in on his own joke, though.

I have great respect for my conservative friends who make reasoned arguments. More than once I've had to backtrack or concede points to them, much to my chagrin. But Alexander's arguments betray these intellectually honest conservatives by playing at the lowest kind of ad hominem exchange: "You call me a doodey-head? Well you're a bigger doodey-head!"

He goes to great lengths to show that liberals have often criticized conservatives for not being interested in evidence, then fails to provide anything but the most selective anecdotal data. He even goes so far as to say, "I doubt it would take long to design a survey questionnaire that revealed strange, ill-informed and paranoid beliefs among average Democrats." If it would be such an easy task, why doesn't he do it?

I would argue that measuring condescension isn't easy at all. Where is the line between claiming that an opponents views are incorrect and condescending to him? Ironically, one of the consistent conservative attacks against liberals is that we are too PC, too willing to see both sides of an issue, while conservatives claim he mantle of the people who can easily identify right and wrong and call it as they see it. Apparently, when they do this, it's folksy, while when liberals do it it's condescending.

Alexander even brings up Nixon and Reagan's "Southern Strategy", and subtly acknowledges that conservatives played on racial fears to get elected, but then says "survey research has shown a dramatic decline in prejudiced attitudes among white Americans in the intervening decades." This does not necessarily mean conservatives have abandoned the strategy entirely, though it certainly argues that they should. It might merely explain why Senator Trent Lot lost his job for claiming a segregationist would have been been a great president, while Senator Harry Reid gets off for complimenting a black president for weaving in and out of a "negro dialect". Conservatives called this a double standard. Is it possible that they have more ground to cover to earn back the trust of black voters than Democrats? I think it would be a more fair criticism of the Democratic Party to point out that they only did the bare minimum to position themselves as the party that was sightly friendly-er to African Americans to reel in that large voting block without doing enough to show their allegiance to them. But then, I'm an ideological liberal, not a politician who needs to get re-elected.

And that's the central problem with Alexander's piece: Without the survey data he claims would be so easy to acquire, he can make no distinction between liberal voters and liberal politicians. Politicians are in the game of persuading people, and it isn't persuasive to say the opposition is probably correct. Of course both sides claim the other is incorrect. Alexander points out criticism of "ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel", but forgets the conservative punching bag of the so-called "liberal media". In fact, he even forgets the fact that a concerted effort was made to make the term "liberal" a slur, and that Republican strategist went out of their way to try to re-brand the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party, which they found to be more derisive.

Now, I'm not arguing that conservatives are more condescending. I don't think a good poll on this would be so easy to come by (and the little, non-scientific poll on the Washington Post page is a good example of a bad way to measure it), and I'm not qualified or resourced to conduct one. But if we're going to follow Alexander's entirely reasonable advice at the end of the piece, to think twice and listen to one another, then starting the process with a selective history of partisan name-calling seems to me like a really bad way to get that discussion going.

But maybe that just sounds like more condescension coming from this liberal.

1 comment:

'abdul muHib said...

Silence frees us from the need to control others … A frantic stream of words flows from us in an attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see things our way. We evaluate people, judge people, condemn people. We devour people with our words. Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on that.

- Richard Foster
from his book Freedom of Simplicity