Saturday, October 21, 2006

On Liberal Tolerance

by Sara Robinson

Per Digby:

[Amy] Sullivan believes that in order to appeal to evangelicals we must not only study their theology in detail so as to understand why they follow some lunatic like Pat Robertson but we are supposed to be tolerant of what would be called racist or religiously intolerant statements from anyone else because they believe it derives from the Bible. Oy.

Oy indeed. As we've discussed here at some length: studying fundamentalist theology is almost entirely beside the point. On the other hand, studying their psychology and sociology -- which a great many people have already done -- and using that information to understand what they value and how they communicate will get us much, much farther.

Digby's characterization of Sullivan's beliefs sounds like another earnest example of the liberal conviction that "if we just reason with them and give them the facts, they'll be persuaded and come around." Huh-uh. Not these folks. They're not reality-based, remember? You can talk facts at them all day, and get nowhere. The Democrats done it for decades, and we can all see how well that's turned out for them. These True Believers eat contradictions for breakfast, and lies from their leadership for lunch. Facts mean nothing, no matter how sound they are; and trying to "understand how they think" will only make you as crazy as they are.

The key is to get them to feel your message. The recent evangelical embrace of the global warming message may have come about because Al Gore, being a product of Southern Baptist culture himself, knew how to present the issue in a way that liberals could understand intellectually -- but, at the same time, religious conservatives could feel emotionally. My friends and I were sitting there in the theater, watching those scenes down on the farm in Carthage, TN, and wondering what in the hell this had to do with anything. As hard-headed science-based types, our major take-away from An Inconvenient Truth were the charts -- especially the one with the red line showing C02 levels going straight up off the right-hand edge. But I suspect that if you asked an evanglical what he or she remembers, you'd hear about those scenes from Carthage, and the way those intimate little family stories spoke to their hearts. Gore is a very smart man, and he knows his audience well.

We register information. They register emotion. It's a critical difference, and one that should be kept in mind whenever we try to communicate with the religious right. We want PBS documentaries that give us a deeper understanding of the facts; they want melodrama that grabs 'em by the guts and makes them feel the truth (which is why Foley gets through to them in a way that Iraq does not.) Understand this, and the theology is moot.

As for tolerance: Oh, please. One of the gravest errors liberals have made over the past 40 years is our ongoing failure to ask our conservative friends the hard questions about their beliefs. We wanted to be inclusive. We wanted to respect their religious views. We didn't want to make them squirm. We were being oh so tolerant.

Well, damn it -- sometimes, people who are in error should be made to squirm a little. They should be called to account for their views, and queried thoroughly on what their agenda is for the rest of us. There comes a time when politeness has to take a back seat to the larger interests of the country -- and we passed that moment way back in the early Reagan years.

Americans on all sides are amazingly ignorant of what "tolerance" means in a country that relies on the free marketplace of ideas to sustain democracy. This is the kind of stuff that used to be taught in civics classes back in the day. For those who aren't clear on the concept, here's a review.

Free speech, in the American tradition, has always meant that you cannot be persecuted by the government for speaking your mind. The government cannot harass you or jail you for your associations, your political views, or your religious beliefs. (Or, at least, they couldn't, right up until last Monday.) It does NOT mean that the rest of us non-government types are required to hold our tongues and smile while people say things that are stupid, dangerous, or contrary to fact. In fact, it means we are duty-bound as citizens to stand up and say, as loudly as necessary, "No. That's a bad idea. And here's why."

The free marketplace of ideas is based on the premise that good ideas drive out bad ones; and that the more voices that we hear, the more choices we'll have and the better decisions we'll make. It is grounded in the belief that some ideas are better than others; and only by free and open exchange will the very best ones emerge. If that exchange stops because our vaunted liberal tolerance renders us too polite and forgiving to raise our voices against patently stupid ideas, the marketplace ceases to function, stupidity wins, and democracy decays. Simple enough, right?

It is not just wrong, but downright unpatriotic, for us to let the right wing get away with making racist or intolerant statements just because they assert that their Bible backs up such views. For one thing: there's plenty in the Bible that refutes racism and intolerance. For another: harmful ideas are no less harmful just because they're written in King James English and dressed up in Sunday clothes. For a third: it's time to stop using tolerance as an excuse for politically cowardly behavior. The stakes these days are just too high to let the right wing go about its nasty business, unchallenged and unanswered.

Various commenters seemed to interpret this as an argument that liberals don't feel emotion, or religious conservatives don't think -- which is extending my point a little farther than it's intended to go. One asked about how this fits into George Lakoff's thesis about the different family frames used by conservatives and liberals. I'd like to address both, since they're related.

The topic here is communication styles, about how you get people to pay attention and understand a message. Liberals and conservatives have very different attitudes toward information, and prioritize it differently as it comes in. One way to understand this is through Lakoff's parenting frames.

In the nuturing-parent paradigm, families are run on a fairly (not entirely) flat hierarchy, and the parent's function is to prepare the child to function on its own. In this model, everybody is encouraged to make their own decisions to the extent that they're competent to do so -- and to continue to grow in that competence.

To do that, you need information, and practice in thinking for yourself -- both of which are important gifts that the parent provides. The end result is a child who has a firmly internalized locus of control, who is competent to direct his or her own life according to his or her own lights. This is why liberals crave real-world facts and information. The more we have, the better we function in the world, and the greater our agency in our own lives.

In the strict father paradigm, families are hierarchical, since the father's main duty is to provide for and protect his offspring. In this model, the locus of control is externalized -- Dad runs everything, and the child's duty is to obey his rules without question. It's for your own good.

This model encourages Dad to maintain a greater monopoly on information. Rules and commands come down from Dad On High, who may or may not clue you in to why he's doing what he's doing. You don't need that information, because the parent's function is to make all the decisions (he's the Decider), and the child's role is to follow them without question. Too much information just leads to second-guessing, which gets in the way of the obedience that's needed to make the system work.

Followers in SF systems take comfort in not having to make their own decisions. They're happy to have Dad handle the complicated parts of the world, and value the security they feel as a result of being under Dad's care. Altemeyer's work on right-wing followers discussed this childlike emotional stance at some length. You might also take another look at Tuesday's "Another Country Heard From" post below, which discusses the emotional appeal of authoritarian religion.

Both sides use both emotion and feeling -- but they use it toward very different ends. NPs love their kids by empowering them to function as autonomous adults -- an attitude that privileges learning over sentimentality. For us, the facts lead, and we try to manage our emotions so that they fit the factual reality. SFs love their kids by providing for them and protecting them from the world -- an attitude that privileges sentimentality over learning. For them, the heart leads, and the facts only follow if they fit what their emotions tell them.

And that's how you get to this split in communication styles.

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