On The Growth In Political Intolerance; Or, The Days of Rage

As we all know, one of the results of the rise of social media is that people are able to communicate their political views more often, in fact continuously, to their friends and acquaintances. We can leave aside that most of this is utterly inane, most of this is virtue-signaling, and little of it is helpful in reaching common ground. My focus here is on a subset of such discussions—those among highly educated, intelligent and rational people who have personally known each other for a long time. We can call these people the “Rationals Known To Each Other,” or “RKTEOs.”

My premise is that political intolerance in this subset has exploded since Trump’s election. Prior to the election, RKTEOs, wherever they fit on the political spectrum, were generally able to have interesting, useful conversations. Sure, quality varied, and social media tends not to encourage deep thought, but such conversations seemed a useful exercise, particularly in the new circumstances leading up to this election, which spawned interesting thoughts (and, for me, clarified my own thoughts, which is my main purpose in engaging in such dialogues). My secondary premise, based on personal experience, is that the vast majority of this increased intolerance is found among liberals.

Immediately after the election, a significant (but still minority) segment of liberal RKTEOs seems to have become completely unhinged. The spur for my consideration of this has been my defriending by two people I have known for a quarter century. One was offended that I dared to suggest that Trump did not have many of the negative behaviors ascribed to him by the use of labels, and by my suggesting that evidence was in order. The other, yesterday, was more complex, as I describe below. By “defriending” I technically mean on Facebook, but in this context, that action necessarily implies actual defriending, which is necessarily bilateral in effect, though initiated solely by one party. That is, at this point, I’d throw these two people a life preserver if they were drowning, but not much more, since their behavior strongly indicates bigoted hatred for me and all who think like me, whether they formally admit it or not. Which is too bad, but feelings are overrated, and anyway beside the current point.

Now, one should be careful when evaluating social relations not to think, in the words sung by Richard Thompson, “I do everything I’m supposed to do; if something’s wrong, then it must be you.” I admit that I have a tendency toward aggressive (though highly rational and tightly structured) argument, and I am loathe to take prisoners, especially when people substitute emotions for facts and logic. But this is not news, and anyone who spends time in political discussions with me has known this for decades, as well as that I follow the conclusions to where the reasoning leads. Therefore, despite Richard Thompson, I conclude that post-election behavior shows not a change in me, but in others. And that change is a significant increase in rage and hatred by (some) liberal RKTEOs against those who don’t think like them.

Why, though? This fascinates me, for I think it says something about the future of our society. Let me try out some thoughts:

1) For a quarter century, and rapidly accelerating in the past few years, liberals have convinced themselves that they are “on the right side of history” (a commonly heard actual usage, from President Obama on down). This necessarily implies two things: that their continued and ultimate victory is inevitable, and that those who disagree are on the wrong side of history. As long as things continued on that path, the only problem was how best to bring opponents around, and to prevent them from delaying the inevitable. A comfortable feeling of superiority was their birthright.

But somewhere along the way, on November 8, history took a wrong turn, and it left liberals behind, or at least off the path, tangled in the briars. This is an existential crisis for anyone who has built his life, or his political views (and liberals more often than conservatives conflate the two), around the idea of inevitability. One response is to examine one’s beliefs, reasoning and conclusions, and to try to find out where you were wrong (and where you were right), and, if you desire a particular political program, how to regroup and achieve that by convincing voters in the existing system. The other response is to scream in rage, question nothing in your beliefs (in fact, regard them as wholly confirmed), claim illegitimacy in political results—and, most importantly, ascribe evil to those who have politically beat you. I think we know which liberals in general have chosen, much to Trump’s ongoing benefit, though RKTEOs mostly have chosen more wisely.

2) However, you would think RKTEOs would be wholly exempt from this—they are, by my definition, highly rational and personally known to their interlocutors. I think they largely would have been exempt, in the pre-social media world. In that case, especially with those geographically separated, social interactions would be relatively limited, and would not necessarily touch much on politics, since good manners dictate not mainlining politics in person, unless both parties are interested, and can sense if the other person is interested in continuing a particular dialogue. But social media encourages political discussions in isolation, without social cues, so it is perhaps inevitable that if the level of rage and hatred on one side increases, it will spill over even to the highly rational.

3) A related aggravating factor is that conservatives are feeling their oats, which can shade into triumphalism. Doubtless sometimes this takes the form of being impolite, and the effect is exacerbated for liberals by its being a totally new thing and therefore hard to explain otherwise than as bad manners. For a long time, among the cultural elite that most RKTEOs inhabit (for let’s be honest, today most are liberal, or non-political), conservatives held the position of the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters. They were there to lose, and to act as foil to those who were, and always would be, in the ascendant. This was, and is, especially true of social conservatives. They, therefore, would pull their punches, knowing that to push a point too far or too vigorously was Not Their Place. That’s ended, and it is doubtless very frustrating and unpleasant to many liberals.

4) So, for example, yesterday I commented at some length on the thread of an RKTEO’s friend (accessible to me because he himself had commented on a posted leftist screed about Trump). The post invited comment, and was open to third parties. The main topic among us on the thread was, roughly, to what degree we expected Trump to do things desirable to conservatives, and to what degree he was “appalling,” with respect to political goals and in general (everyone agreeing that he was appalling in at least some ways). Subtle, interesting distinctions were made by more than one RKTEO. Then the thread’s owner, not known to me but a professional person of some standing, along with a friend of hers, showed up, called the thread “edifying” (by which she actually meant not edifying, but rather illuminating, in a negative sense), and they proceeded together to spew incoherent hatred, primarily in my direction. I responded to the effect that the problem with commenting on threads owned by others was that, sooner or later, the unintelligent owner shows up and beclowns herself. My RKTEO (the friend of the thread owner) instantly defriended me, and sent me a scolding message afterwards, describing my behavior as “beyond the pale” because I had been “rude to [his] friend.” He admitted no fault of any kind on the part of the thread owner or her friend, and angrily rejected the idea that any fault of any kind could lie there. All fault was mine and mine alone. I responded by message, “Too bad. It’s fine, apparently, to insult and vilify conservatives, but any suggestion of defense, or, horrors, defense via offense is ‘beyond the pale.’ It’s time for conservatives to hit back. Twice as hard. Then keep punching.” Certainly I think I was correct, but it’s not clear to me I would have taken this position eight weeks ago.

5) In my (former) friend’s mind, I think, my behavior was unacceptable for two reasons, but neither reason was my being rude, which was merely a pretext. First, in the post-Trump world, liberals must close ranks because they are afraid. It’s like a Greek phalanx in the Classical Age—each man was defended not by his own shield, but by the shield of the man next to him (to his right—causing a phalanx that was not rigidly trained to drift to the right, each man trying to get more protection). Tightening the ranks assures liberals they are right, they will prevail, and they are not alone. Considering they might be wrong, like considering that the man in the phalanx next to you may be about to drop his shield, leads to disaster. Second, even if my (former) friend could have overcome this herd behavior in his own mind, he was embarrassed to be publicly exposed as the kind of person who had undesirable friends—thus, he had to act immediately and publicly to ritually cleanse himself. Both fears breed intolerance, now a hallmark of liberals.

6) Viewed from another angle, a liberal RKTEO might strive mightily, and succeed, in continuing dialogue as before the election. However, he (an abstract “he”) would generally not feel any need to restrain, comment, or even think negatively about the discourse of his liberal friends when it consisted of naked, irrational, unhinged hatred. He would feel that such behavior was wholly understandable and did not need any defense, even if he was able to justify to himself, with effort, his conservative friend’s behavior and continued presence in a discussion. The conservative might be tolerated, by an effort that could end at any time, but there would be no need to defend, or even possibility of defending, him against the righteous anger directed his way, regardless of its form of expression.

7) I’m fine with that. Like the villain Sebastian Shaw in X-Men, I absorb attacks and they only make me stronger. I am indifferent to personal attacks. I thrive on conflict, and I cannot be meaningfully threatened in my job or personal life. But most conservatives aren’t like that. They will either retreat to their own, narrow, world (Cass Sunstein’s fear, well justified) or hide their own seething resentment and hatred.

Moreover, most socially conservative RKTEOs are legitimately afraid. They must hide their identity on any forum where strangers can see their opinions, or face real economic dangers, unless they work in an explicitly conservative political job, or are self-employed in an area not related to big companies, academia or professional firms. For example, no big firm lawyer (as I once was) could ever suggest, in any public setting, or private setting not kept confidential, that he was anything other than enthusiastic for gay marriage; if found out, his career would be over.

All this erodes social capital and comity, for people will not stand to be suppressed forever.

8) Of course, post-election hatred and rage by liberals is not at all universal. In fact, the two intolerant RKTEOs I mention here are very much the exception among my friends. But I am afraid it is a harbinger. If, as I expect, on Inauguration Day this Friday, organized violence by the Left is a major feature, accompanied by other forms of demonstrative political action (to accompany the death threats already showered on any entertainer who dares to suggest he might perform), with the common theme of the illegitimacy of both Trump and conservatism, there is no reason to believe the conservatives will not respond in kind, and we will get a downward spiral. Liberals don’t believe this will happen, I think—they believe that they are just getting history back on its proper course. But they’re wrong, and eventually, on this course, fear and loathing on the part of the RKTEO Left will be repaid, and more, by fear and loathing on the RKTEO Right.


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