The conspicuous contempt exuded by some of the progressive left isn’t winning hearts or minds.
Progressives say we want to win elections and shape the future of our country. We say we want to create greater equity and broad prosperity, and we worry that climate change may swamp the whole boat. But honestly, when we talk about (or to) people who disagree in the slightest, we sure don’t act like a better future is what we’re after. We act instead like people who have given up—who have so little hope of bringing others along that we can dump on them without consequences. We act like the married person who says they are trying to fix things but who in their heart has abandoned the effort and settled on divorce and now only talks with friends who agree that the soon-to-be ex is horrible (and always has been).
When Hillary Clinton made the comment that took her down, she was trying to say that most Americans on the right half of the political spectrum aren’t deplorable. Right-wing media edited and spun it the other way—with enormous impact—because people hate being sneered at. We hate, hate, hate it! Having someone see you as deplorable is a deal breaker. It creates a rift that may never be bridged. Marital researchers at the Gottman Institute discovered that even subtle expressions of contempt can predict which relationships will end badly. How is it, then, that activists who claim to be invested in the future, who think our causes are worthy, who say people should donate and volunteer and vote our way, have adopted the posture of denigrating, deriding, and even dehumanizing anyone who doesn’t think exactly like us? As a recruiting tactic, telling people they are stupid and immoral is an epic fail. A mean-girls strategy may pull people into line if they are already in your orbit, but from the outside it is repellant.
Let’s be honest.
Since the time that Clinton’s words were twisted so effectively to foster resentment and deepen America’s political divide, things have gotten only more fractious. Fox-clone media and self-interested politicians own the bulk of the blame for this. But while I find right-wing postures and priorities and lying and the whole MAGA phenomenon to be horrifying, we progressives often make things worse instead of better. We pretend, when they sneer and call us woke, that they are just hating our awareness, compassion and diversity. We pretend not to know that with good reason the word woke now connotes—even among many on the left—smugness, sanctimony, an attitude of intellectual superiority, and an eagerness to impute the worst possible motive to anyone who disagrees. We pretend not to recognize that we regularly use words like white and Christian and male and straight as slurs, as ways of conveying that a person is less of a person to us, and more of a symbol, and that we aren’t really interested in their thoughts or fears or pain or dreams. We spend time in activist spaces and online forums trash-talking and othering whoever isn’t in the room. And then we say they should join our movement.
It shouldn’t take a psychologist to say this, but few people, regardless of race or sex, have so much spare mental health and resilience that they can afford to join clubs that shit on them. Any cadre of Mormon or Evangelical missionaries could tell you that’s not the way to win converts. Wait a minute, you might say. Don’t Christian missionaries tell prospective converts that they are sinners from birth, “utterly depraved” in the words of John Calvin, and in need of salvation? Yes, they do. But they also pair that with instant absolution.
To be clear, I’m not a fan of religious missionaries. We are talking about people whose worldview requires them to treat questions as hooks and relationships as a way to reel people in. Missionary work, in other words, is a long way from actual deep listening and mutuality, from risking that the other party in a conversation might change you. Instead, missionaries often fake humility and interest and friendship or cultivate these interpersonal dynamics in a way that is conditional and has an ulterior motive—a harvest of converts. (Yuck.) But much of the time, we progressives can’t even seem to get that far.
What is going on?
I think that a lot of progressives feel deeply hopeless about a better future, which is why many have seemingly little interest in constructing a theory of change. When people have confidence in their ability to figure things out, they set reachable goals and work on getting from Point A to Point B. By contrast, when people lack hope and confidence, they tend to shoot for the sky—I’m going to be a rock star, a race car driver, an astronaut, a billionaire—but they take few steps toward those goals. That is because trying to map a path from A to B would surface the huge chasm of unreality that lies between where they are and where they want to be. There is a huge chasm of unreality between where progressives are and where we want to be. And it is filled with the lives and loves of people who are different than us.
I’m not talking about the usual checkboxes—race, immigration history, sexual orientation, and so forth. I mean people who, at least right now, have different fears and worldviews than we have and, consequently, different ideas about how to get to a better future, people who aren’t a part of our club and who think they wouldn’t want to be a second-class member.
Satisfying snark kills hope.
Posting snark and righteous memes on social media to an audience of folks who already think like us and denigrating those who “get it wrong,” or focusing our ire on words and symbols (which are easier to change than are conditions in the physical world), may help fend off despair temporarily. But in the long run, cynicism about the past and despair about the future are self-reinforcing. For example, some idealists see gaps in racial equality and deny that the Civil Rights movement made any real progress. One frustrated friend in college commented that things are no different now than they were under slavery. This kind of story, one that treats slow or incomplete change as inconsequential, one that erases the efforts and triumphs of past generations and flattens the moral arc of American history, also flattens the future. It beats down the hope that our own actions matter. It makes people more emphatic and absolutist in their demands for change but also less able to tap into the curiosity and empirical analysis and passion and stamina that can solve problems and improve lives in the real world.
In a movement that is about problem solving, being able to construct a multi-dimensional map of reality including potential causes and effects and unintended consequences is key. Lived experience, what philosophers call standpoint epistemology, can be part of this, but only part. We humans have many ways of discovering, learning, analyzing, and problem-solving, and if we want the benefit of this multitude, they have to be at the table. That means they have to be welcome.
We can do better.
Real world change takes bridge building, deep listening, and taking the risk that we might learn something from someone we think of as other. The following may sound odd coming from a critic of Christianity, but two Seattle ministers, Jim Henderson and Jim Hancock, have come up with the best three practices I’ve ever seen for broadening engagement and community:
- I’ll be unusually interested in others.
- I will stay in the room with difference.
- I will stop comparing my best with your worst.
Their motto is curiosity trumps certainty. And their ministry, if you can call it that, is about bridging difference divides.
There are progressive organizations that operate from the same mindset. Dream.org, founded by Black American commentator Van Jones, builds equity by making structural change at scale in low-income communities. One team works on getting incarcerated people who don’t represent a community hazard out of prison and rehabilitating them, and building alternatives to incarceration. Another works on bringing high-tech skills to inner city kids, so they won’t be left out of technical revolutions. A third works on green collar jobs in marginalized communities to ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels. They do all of this through a lens of bridge-building, finding common cause where they can, including with people across the political aisle. And it is working: Tens of thousands of people are now out of prison because of their advocacy and partnerships (including with Newt Gingrich!). Their motto is “We will work with anyone to make the future work for everyone.”
Work like this is grounded in a doggedly hopeful worldview, one that has gotten beaten down in many of us but that is worth cradling and nurturing if and as we can: People who aren’t part of our ideological circle aren’t all our enemies. Those who don’t think like us can fill in the gaps in our partial truths. Our shared humanity runs deep. There is common ground to be found if we humble ourselves to seek it, and bridges worth building. We are capable of conversations that are much, much richer than mere posturing and commiseration.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com .
A beautiful set of ideas and assessments. Almost perfect.
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I very much appreciate your encouraging words!
And then there are haters whose indoctrination started at such an early age that they are beyond reason and beyond conversation.
I was scrolling through the PNAS database for information about one subject yesterday, eugenics, and happened across information about another, indoctrination. The research paper in economics, sociology, and culture found “the extent to which beliefs can be modified through policy intervention” were significant at the K-12 school level. The authors’ conjecture is that confirmation bias, among other amplifiers, helps to push dislike into the active hate range.
“Nazi Indoctrination and anti-Semitic Beliefs in Germany,” written by Nico Voigtlander et al, 06/15/2015, applies to all minority/out groups and does more to demonstrate the reason the current incarnation of the republican party and its adherents are so overwrought about school libraries, school choice, “liberal brainwashing” and other canards that they bandy about so glibly in the news. If you control the children you control the nation.
Pew Research ought to sponsor a similar research article here in the United States. Sadly, the results would not be much different here; the names of the hate groups would change, that’s all.
Playing nicely with people who jettisoned all forms of acceptable civil discourse does not work. Sometimes being as shockingly rude or childish to them as they are to others is what is required to bring them back to reality.
Attempts at modifying public opinions, attitudes, and beliefs range from advertising and schooling to “brainwashing.” Their effectiveness is highly controversial. We demonstrate that Nazi indoctrination––with its singular focus on fostering racial hatred––was highly effective. Germans who grew up under the Nazi regime are much more anti-Semitic today than those born before or after that period. These findings demonstrate that beliefs can be modified massively through policy intervention. We also show that it was probably Nazi schooling that was most effective, and not radio or cinema propaganda. Where schooling could tap into preexisting prejudices, indoctrination was particularly strong. This suggests that confirmation bias may play an important role in intensifying attitudes toward minorities.
https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.141482211 link to journal article
Of course, but we dump people into this bucket rather indiscrimately.
Thank you, but I’ve never found being shockingly rude or childish to bring anyone around.
I understand your point and agree with you on its principles. My question is: What is our plan when that does not work? When, in fact, it has not worked in the 21st century so far due to the “culture war(s)” that started in the 1970s in reaction to voting rights, housing rights, minority rights, women’s rights, women in the workplace, and the use of birth control?
The point is some people cannot be brought around, even with patience and kindness. They are too far down the rabbit hole.
Brilliant assessment Valerie! I can see myself on both sides of your analysis. Thank you for your writing!
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I’m a high school teacher and the sheer volume of sanctimony, groupthink, and utter nonsense from a wide swath of my colleagues is almost gotten me to my breaking point. And because of top-down DEI initiatives, their tactics are being sanctioned by the district office officials. They don’t see how they are turning people off (“but they’re wrong and we are right!”) and shunning liberals like me who support their cause but disagree with their methods. And, they don’t see the damage that they’re inflicting on the students the purport to help.
I was looking for “How we borrow victimhood to gain status” but couldn’t find it.
Anyway, thanks for writing it. Lots of insights that are especially relevant today.
Love this! Thank you Valerie.
I agree, Plus, isn’t this a little like hate the sin but love the sinner. You gotta really show some love for people…all people. You know, straight white guys are feeling kind of attacked and defensive. So are a lot of different groups of people. Lately, I am trying to focus on what is good in people instead what I don’t like about people. Of course,, some people are so unlikable. I also don’t seem to feel the need to get everyone to be on “my side”. I’m getting too old for that. You get more done with a soft kind word sometimes. I know a white girl 20 years ago that had the crap beat out of her by the cops. Maybe all lives do matter. But let’s not say that to dismiss black Americans concerns. Let’s acknowledge the shortcomings in our police forces and strive for accountability in police work. Being a good influence is important…not being a sanctimonious ass. Just a few random thoughts. It isn’t easy being an American right now. We have some growing to do.
I’ve tried posting my reply but for some reason it doesn’t appear to be accepted. I’ll try again. Here goes:
“Bridging the divide” is an extremely difficult task. In fact, I think it may be more difficult than trying to “reach out “ to a fundamentalist of any stripe to give just a nanosecond of thought to the absurdity of their religious conviction because by the time someone in life has achieved a totally brainwashed condition after years of mental conditioning, there is practically zero chance of them recovering.
Through many years of hard-core experience (I’m now 76) I’ve found that there exists only one way to deal with people who believe that their gawd has laid out the rules for everyone to follow and if you’re not abiding to those rules then you’re nothing but a sinful heathen, probably even a “pedo.” What is that one way, you wonder? Smile, move your head in a vague sign of understanding, wish them a good day (use the word “blessed” if you wish to leave them with any positive thoughts about you), then turn around and run in the opposite direction.
I live in an enclave where many of my neighbors support stripping women of the rights to their own bodies, totally outlawing abortion, making voting harder for people of color and young people, etc. all the while proudly displaying American flags along with their tRump 2024 flags and “all lives matter” yard signs.
There is no “reasoning” with these types and there is precious little hope that any progress can be made to overcome that gap regardless of the tactics you might employ or the strength and duration of your effort. They have a mental block that is simply impenetrable. Your time and effort is much better spent organizing the relatively sane and reasonable to get off their lazy asses and vote these people out of legislative office and elect sane and reasonable people to govern the country.
Below is a perfect example. This is probably the very best you expect with these types of individuals.
” ‘There is no “reasoning” with these types and there is precious little hope that any progress can be made to overcome that gap regardless of the tactics you might employ or the strength and duration of your effort.’ ” …………………………………………………………………Yes, but they eventually die. While others may grow up to take their place, many will not. Hence the decline of religious affiliation. A social evolution, if you will. Stick to your guns (if I may use that analogy) and slowly they come, kicking and screaming, into modernity. In many cases the ‘previous’ modernity. Bring up the rear, so to speak.
I was never a confirmed pessimist. I always carried a smidgen of hope that someday before I perished that I would feel a sense that the US population was always learning from their life experiences and because of their respect for knowledge, fairness in dealing with our compatriots, tolerance for the lifestyles of others, etc. that we would reach a degree of social cohesion unparalleled in our experiment with democracy, if not in all of human history.
But, after having being an eyewitness to the batshitery of thought spanning several generations now, I’m nearly convinced that the gig is up. At this very moment in history nearly everyone in this country holds in their hands the key to a world of knowledge. All of it instantly accessible to anyone via their smart phone. Yet the level of ignorance and illiteracy is at an all-time high, and getting worse. Nearly 60% of our population barely reads and writes above the 5th-grade level. Instead, obsession with TikTok, sports, movies and communicating via text messages in emoji glyph are all the rage. And when they’re not doing that they’re ambling about the supermarket like zombies, phone glued to their ear asking what brand of baked beans is better than another.
Jefferson was prescient: Democracy needs an informed and educated electorate to survive, he said. Based on that assessment I think we can conclude that we may be approaching extinction. This electorate has become too stoopid (sic) to pull itself up by it’s own bootstraps. It’s very disheartening.
I understand the feeling, but if you look further back than a few generations there is major positive social evolution. Perfect, no….not by a long shot, but still forward movement. Even since my childhood of the 1960’s (I’m 65) there has been major social improvements (IMHO). I think there is a fair chance we will evolve to a better, more prosperous civilization as the decades go by; granted, it may not happen in our lifetime, The downside of that evolution may be the loss of live in millions from….who knows what, but that is our history. Plus I have grandchildren…I have to participate in some manor.
Down with snarky negatives. Yes to dogged hope! Thank you for this valuable reminder and these:
“We will work with anyone to make the future work for everyone.” – Van Jones
“Curiosity trumps certainty.” – Jim Henderson and Jim Hancock
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I did truly take your comments to heart. But many hard-right Republicans today are averse to endorsing a 2024 Trump campaign only because they want to win the election any way at all, and they don’t think Trump is the best candidate because of the baggage he brings with him. But it’s not the baggage they care about in the least, just the prospect of winning, even if it is someone far worse than Trump.
It’s all well and good to talk about patience, good will and seeing the other side’s points of view, but let’s face it: if Hitler were somehow reincarnated as the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, America’s hard-right base would support him unequivocally. I don’t see how or why progressives should make an effort to understand this. The Republican Party must be not only defeated but utterly destroyed by any means available, and even as a devout Orthodox Christian I fully endorse this stance.