Three Languages for Avoiding Discussion
the weak spots of conservatives, progressives, and libertarians
In a previous post, I riffed on Marc Andreessen’s idea that the most serious problem in any organization is the one that cannot be discussed. Although conservatism, progressivism, and libertarianism are not organizations, perhaps the same insight applies. What do members of each tribe wish not to discuss, and what does this suggest about the weakness of each world view?
Start with libertarianism. I say that libertarians use rhetoric that treats liberty as opposed to coercion by the state. Libertarians denounce those who disagree with them as statists.
I think that what libertarians do not want to discuss is the topic of social cohesion. They (we) take it for granted that you can have a society with minimal government and plenty of social trust and constructive norm-following. We assume that conflicts will be settled peacefully by private actors. I don’t think that we pay enough attention to the nature of conflict and why disagreements over values and competition over status have so much emotional salience that our ideals are unrealistic.
Conservatives use rhetoric that treats civilization as opposed to barbarism. Conservatives denounce those who disagree with them as being on the side of barbarism. So if you sympathize with Hamas, a conservative will be appalled, because the latter’s conduct can easily be described as barbaric—raping women, kidnapping children, beheading babies, and deliberately maximizing the danger to the lives of their own civilian population.
What conservatives do not want to discuss is the history of social change. In hindsight, a great deal of social change seems good. Most people believe that it was good to outlaw segregation, for example. Most people believe that giving women equal rights with men is fair. But if you look back in history, conservatives opposed such changes. That is awkward for conservatives, because it raises the question of whether their current opposition to social change is misguided.
Conservatives like to say that “It all started to go wrong with ____.” But they disagree on how to finish that sentence. Some say it was the 1960s, some say it was FDR, some say it was the early Progressives, and some go all the way back to John Locke. Without clarity about what they believe about past social change, conservatives cannot establish the credibility of their opposition to contemporary social change. What conservatives are reluctant to discuss is what went right with social change up until the point when they claim it all started to go wrong.
Progressives use rhetoric that treats certain groups as oppressed and other groups as oppressors. They denounce those with whom they disagree as oppressors, using labels like “racist.” Progressives do not want to discuss alternative explanations for differential outcomes. They do not want to discuss how genetics, evolutionary psychology, or cultural differences could be causal factors. When Freddie deBoer observes that education cannot overcome differences in innate ability, he is way off the progressive reservation, even though he shares progressives’ egalitarianism. Because most progressives are unwilling to have such a discussion, their ideas of social justice strike the rest of us as being based on some combination of fantasies about how society works and resentment of others’ success.