Friday, March 19, 2010

Well-Meaning Opposition

On another site (which I may add to my sidebar) I have had several discussions, not always cheery, with a well-meaning person. We have not always disagreed, but her assumptions are church liberal. I have little doubt from her personal information, thinking, and style of presentation that I would like her in person very much. She is clearly the sort of person I would want in my class for adult Sunday School, or even teaching it.

I draw a distinction between people who think they mean well and those who actually do. None of us means as well as we think we do of course, but in some folks the divide is very great. Their moral certainty makes them dangerous, and we can sense almost by feel or by smell that there is a self-righteousness that bears watching. This person seems well into the other side of the spectrum. She does generally mean well, and statements she makes which are weighted with self-righteousness turn out to be ideas not fully thought through, rather than the conservative fantasy of those who primly think they know what is best for the rest of us.

Though I believe the one inevitably turns into the other, there is no use regarding everyone on that road as far advanced on it. Most decent liberals we know fall into this category, and these are frankly amazed that anyone would suspect them of ill-will simply because their ideas taken to extremes (in their thinking; In mine it would be followed to it's natural conclusion, and we're halfway there already) can cause problems.

But it's good to have them, because they cause me to ask why nice people say such awful things.

The tone of moral earnestness stems from their belief that their goals are unquestionably good things (see Peace; Universal coverage; Recycling) requiring only that we summon the moral will to do them. Their first response is to employ the many tactics of moral persuasion to get others to come along. They try to inspire us to be better, to reassure us that it won't be so painful, to draw on our sympathy by means of anecdote. More sternly, they might try and guilt us or shame us into going along. They don't necessarily want to go around making people do the right thing. They would prefer not to. But then they look at those suffering under injustice and don't want relief to them delayed, so they ease over into government nudging, bribing, cajoling, and arm-twisting.

When they see us they see people who just haven't gotten the moral imperative that these things must be done, be it government health provision, carbon reduction, civil unions, or extending unemployment benefits. At its worst, this attitude is that of the anointed, of those who have attained, or become enlightened. But most of these folks aren't there - yet. They rather generously see others as much like themselves, needing inspiration and encouragement to do the right thing. Just dig a little deeper. It's better for everyone. We'll all be happier.

The owner of that site, BTW, is very much like this. He is a sweet and generous person, humble in mien. He is a minister, and comfortable with the role of moral persuasion in spiritual matters, which he just naturally takes over into social and political discourse. He would disagree with many of the specifics of John Lennon's "Imagine," but the final lines would move him.
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
Perhaps someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one.
Here's the sticking point: there seems an inability to back all the way down the road and re-look at the question Is this the right thing to do? Failing that, they are locked endlessly in the impression that ours is a moral failing, that must be addressed on moral grounds. They assume we must not like universal coverage only because it is too expensive; that we are reluctant to extend citizen's rights to detainees only by failure of generosity and justice. They can't think of other reasons. When we say something else they think we are just rationalizing, and are really just fearful and morally flawed.

Thus the things they say are horribly insulting and accusing. They are not generally horrible and accusing people, and are hurt when they are called on it. We must have misunderstood their intent or meaning. Longtime followers of this site know that this is where village idiots come in, and why I aspire to be one. When you are accusing others of evil motives, that is in itself reason to backtrack as far as need be to make sure you have understood.

It is fair to ask whether this unwillingness to backtrack is not a sort of intellectual sin, or a moral cowardice of its own. Often it is, and I have been strident over the years that any progressive's refusal to consider that such a thing is even possible tells me when I am onto something. Once the door is opened to the possibility that these supposedly moral stances are suffused with more primitive tribal values, or class values, or mere fashionableness, there is going to be pain in store for any of us who walk through. But when they hear "fashionable" they think that's not me, I'm anti-fshionable; "tribal," they think no that's ethnic, racial or sexual - I don't have those prejudices. That there might be a deeper tribalism, a deeper fashionableness, does not enter their minds. They can easily reject the superficial meaning, and so are well-defended against the deeper one.

So we all pretend there is no door. I have walked through the door a few times, which is why I am postliberal. But I have little doubt there are still further doors I refuse to see as well. It's human nature. There are always more doors, that both our faults and our virtues are influenced by factors we did not suspect.

To conclude, I give the reasons that non-liberals believe motivate them. All we neocons and neoliberals, libertarians and postliberals, think these are our real reasons. We may delude ourselves in this, and we may turn out to be nothing more than the shallow, selfish, prejudiced boors we are accused of being. But it would be wise to at least consider that we might actually believe these things.

1. These schemes seldom actually fix very much, they just make us all feel that we have done something about it.

2. Progressive plans have obvious benefits, but non-obvious consequences which are dire. The simple benefit to individuals is in the open; the complex cost to society is disguised.

3. "Cost" doesn't mean just money. Loss of values, culture, and character are important costs.

4. Governments making people do things has enormous negative consequences in itself.

5. When things are good for The Community, or All of Us, who the community actually is, or who "we" really are always turns out to be something less than everyone. It is always some subset that gets defined as the community, and that subset gets the entire benefit. The fluidity of these definitions hides a great deal of mischief. Always, always, play out in your mind (rigorously, ruthlessly, even with paranoia) who exactly "all of us" is.

6. These schemes always end up costing more in dollars, often orders of magnitude more over time. If the country's resources do indeed belong at some level to all of us (which I dispute, but grant arguendo), then shouldn't we all decide where it's spent?

7. Receiving material things for free is bad for our characters. The good that someone derives from our gift may be so overwhelming or necessary that we give it without further thought (and giving is good for our characters), but ignoring the downside of the equation often - often - turns out to be cruel in the long run. We know this not because we believe that recipients are morally weak, but because we know they are just like us.


Retriever said...

Great post. But, like the Elephant's Child, I am 'satiably curious...which site?

You write about something which I anguish over every day. My most beloved friend of 22 years is extremely liberal politically, and considers me a reactionary beast politically now, to the point where we have to agree NEVER to discuss politics. She is a far kinder person than I am, a much better example of Christian love, patience, all those other fruits of the Spirit. The friendship matters more than politics. But both of us wishing that the other would see things as we do...

Gringo said...

For liberals, intentions are the main thing. Their assumption is that those who disagree with them have different intentions. If I want peace, and you disagree with me, then you must be someone who celebrates rape and pillage.

For post-liberals, consequences trump intentions, most likely because we have figured out that some well-intentioned liberal policies have had disastrous consequences.

Because liberals assume that theirs is the morally superior and intellectually superior position, they find it difficult to deal with those who have left the liberal flock.

jlbussey said...

Consideration of consequences is the key, I think. There are a whole lot of people that think that mere good intentions are enough, and that the world and society will automatically just fall in line with their intentions. They either can't understand or won't admit that the world is too complex and that human beings are too diverse for there to ever be a single simple response to any action of theirs.

(Or is it that they just don't care? If they can rationalize to themselves that they have nothing to feel guilty for, then any outcome is ok?)

karrde said...

I don't think that people have reached the conclusion that good intentions will produce good results.

I rather think that they hope and believe that good intentions will produce good results.

In an entirely-unrelated-to-politics event in my personal life, I had such hopes and beliefs that a particular relationship would work out well.

It didn't.

Some years later, I realized (or made a conscious admission of sub-conscious knowledge) that the hopes were based mostly on what I thought would or should happen, and very little on the thoughts and behaviors of the other party to the relationship.

Long story short: I learned the sweet power of such hopes, and the startling results of their failure on an individual level.

People can hold such hopes and beliefs for the way an entire society will respond to their ideals. It is easier to hide, explain away, or keep on hoping that the bad consequences will just go away when things are Done Right.

And holding such hopes is an emotional investment, not an intellectual ones. Thus, it is much harder to convince such a person to change their mind.

Not to say that non-reasoned ideals are not to be found in any other portion of the political spectrum or social thought, but that this particular strain is so dominant and so resistant to contrary evidence.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

karrde, the power of hope - even, perhaps, the brain chemistry of it - is something I have overlooked in my theorizing. I have touched on related items, but not hope itself as a phenomenon influencing belief. Thanks. This will bear thought.

foxmarks said...

The opponents you describe lack integrity. That accusation would likely shock and offend them as much as any.

But integrity requires a deep and full examination of the choice. One must discern the right and the wrong of it. Not just the right.

There is no personal risk or cost to imagining. They are not invested in the actual outcomes, as you highlight.

No discernment, no risk, no integrity. Only a fa├žade.

They may be fun to pal around with, but they are simply not good people. The are, in essence, pre-moral. If you want to be generous and maintain your own fantasy to get by in regular life.

But I contend they know what making moral choices entails. They simply dodge the ugly process of choosing.

Their kindness is a garment. They are hollow men.

Anonymous said...

A great deal of the problem is the product of short or distorted memory. Without our own memories and relying entirely on the official memory (the media)we are unable to see that there is no less hunger now than before there were food stamps, that people got medical care before there were Medicaid and Medicare, and will now proceed to forget that people receive health care now, before Obamacare.

Michael Adams

JackD said...

I recently wrote people were in favor of the bill because "[they] mean well and are earnest. But if meaning well and being earnest were good qualities by themselves we would give civics awards to stalkers."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

JackD, I think a lot of folks are going to steal that line...

Anonymous said...

I have 3 teenaged sons. If they would only get up the second time I call them (I give them a warning wake-up and then call them 10 minutes later)take turns in the bathroom like I've asked them, leave their backpacks by the door where they're easier to find and refrain from driveway arguments over who has 'shotgun', well, they might actually get to school on time one day in 10. I've been told that a good mother doesn't force her priorities on her children. After all, who I am to dictate my routine, best to allow them to find their own way. What kind of mother yells at her children blah blah blah
I get in the car and whoever is in there when I close the door gets to ride. Otherwise they walk. Guess I wouldn't make a very good liberal...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

foxmarks, what you say is true, and I have said as much in other places. I draw back from expressing it with such vigor for one large reason: it is true of all of us, and if I cannot think of a way in which this applies to my politics, I'm sure something will show up to illustrate that I have done the same thing in how I treat my friends; if not my friends then my family; if not my family then my coworkers. In the Lenten season I am especially aware that my strongest accusations have a way of creeping back into my own cupboards.

mr tall said...

Superb post, AVI!

Karrde’s response is also right on the money. When I talk to my liberal friends about political issues, and we're getting nowhere, I sometimes try to get the conversation steered around to what I think is the essence of the chasm between our views: that is, what we think about human nature.

Liberals become uncomfortable but attentive, I find, when a conservative starts arguing from the premise that we human beings are deeply flawed – sinful, if you’re talking to another Christian – and cannot be trusted to do the right thing in practice, no matter how well-designed the political system or program in question might be in theory. But liberals have not only hope and belief, they have faith: faith in human beings’ innate desire and ability ultimately to do what’s best for ourselves and others. When you say, as a conservative ‘Look, the ancients didn’t believe this; the Biblical witness explicitly states the opposite; there is proof unending in history that it’s simply not true’ – well, then at least you’re talking about something broader and deeper than the details of the latest great and good scheme to emerge from the cesspits of the current congress.

It doesn’t always work, of course, because for a liberal to agree that human nature cannot be improved, much less perfected, by our own efforts, is to say that either the situation’s hopeless, or that some greater power is required. At least if you’re dealing with a liberal Christian, that last point can provide a common platform from which to go on with the discussion: how does God act in our world? Is He really going to redeem it through human efforts (however inspired and ‘God-aided’ they might be)? Is it possible that trying so hard to rely on our own efforts diverts us from our radical contingency and dependence on Him? And so on.

Keep up the great work here – this blog is an oasis in my day!

Anonymous said...

To middleagedhousewife
You're probably right. You wouldn't make much of a liberal, but I'll bet you are a damned fine mother. Your kids are lucky to have you...even if they don't know it now.