Kevin Drum responded to my ruminating about guilt and shame and how they trip up liberal causes.
It’s human nature to get defensive when you feel guilty, and it’s hard to recruit defensive folks to your cause. If this were only an occasional problem, that would be one thing. But let’s be honest: We really do rely on guilt a lot. You should feel guilty about using plastic bags. About liking college football. About driving an SUV. About eating factory-farmed beef. About using the wrong word to refer to a transgender person. About sending your kids to a private school. And on and on and on.
We all contribute to this, even when we don’t mean to. And maybe guilt is inevitable when you’re trying to change people’s behavior. But it adds up, and over time lefties can get to seem a little unbearable. You have to be so damn careful around us!
Without trying to join this conversation, two hours later Hamilton Nolan at Gawker illustrated Kevin’s point about well as anyone can.
Whenever an unarmed young black man is shot dead by the police, white conservatives determined not to feel guilty flock to one news source for their absolution: National Review.
Now the Gawker media empire has a brand that puts a noticeably liberal red meatish spin on news bits. They also break original news, notably Deadspin in particular, but most of the time they blog the news with the same mix of snark and context that Balloon Juice readers know well. So I really don’t want to single out Nolan for criticism here. I agree with his stuff and I like his style. His pitchforks attitude towards the rich and privileged would fit right in here. But I do think this example of Kevin’s point should inspire some reflection.
Should white conservatives feel concerned and outraged by what happened in Ferguson? Of course. We all have good reason to expect grownup behavior from cops. But guilt? Yes white conservatives all benefited from their low melanin count, but white liberals benefit just the same. I really don’t know if conservative politicos armor and empower the police any more than ours do. Bill Clinton certainly approved and those of us who will soon go glossolalic for Hillary should ask ourselves how much we really think she will challenge the police-military-industrial complex.
It seems to me the main difference is that liberals feel guilty about it and conservatives don’t. In fact it seems to me that guilt could be both necessary and sufficient to explain far ends of the liberal-conservative axis. A conservative who can feel guilt-at-a-distance is by definition persuadable (cough John Cole) and a liberal who feels none is a little suspicious. A conservative would say that liberals carry crosses around for no good reason; a liberal would respond that a conservative must be a sociopath, a sadist or overacting to hide the guilt he does feel (cf. the rabid, closeted homophobe). To be perfectly honest a creature of pure logic would choose liberal positions on some issues and side with conservatives on others. Those of us who stake ourselves to a ‘side’ do it at least in part because of what we feel or we choose not to, pretend not to or cannot feel.
Kevin is right to muse that we lefties should think twice about leaning on guilt. It can easily become a crutch and a cheap shot. Jesus loved the poor and he probably would arrive black in a shit neighborhood if he showed up today but the guy also loathed self-righteousness. It takes patience to talk with rather than at but it pays off in the long run. Put another way Rachel Carson persuaded, Ed Abbey hectored. One of them created an almost unstoppable unity of environmental consciousness in America, the other divided the movement and tarred it with groups he inspired like Earth First! and the (alleged) ELF.
I consistently find Drum among the most persuasive writers in blogs. It seems hardly a coincidence that he would use my short bit to ask whether we liberals hurt ourselves by swinging guilt like a club. Or take another group that often convinces me of things I do not already believe, American Conservative. Like drum they tend to stick to good faith (and often hard-earned expertise) over easy moral frames. Naturally I do not believe speaking with instead of at will make conservatives liberal or vice versa. Not many people will invert their most fundamental characteristics because you asked them. On the other hand I doubt that many of us either congenitally feel intense guilt or violently resist it.
Take Ferguson forexample. You hear a lot of white St. Louis defending the cop. Do that many people hate and fear black people? Some yes, but all? Probably not. Probably not even an electorally significant fraction. That KKK fundraiser fell apart because the hate community just can’t find that many people willing to associate with their embarrassing mess. I am convinced that most find excuses to ignore Ferguson not out of hate but because the alternative is shame. Whether the shame is appropriate and justified, we will not solve human nature by ignoring it.
People with no reason to buddy up with fossil fuel companies still turn their back on global warming in part because they feel like environmentalists will keep hectoring them until we all live in grass huts. This comes up a lot, and not all of it is smokescreening or trolls. I know plenty of enviro movement Abbeyites who talk this way. Bad faith assholes nutpick these guys and amplify their message, but they do that for a good reason. It works.
Before I get permanently branded as an absolutist, even my paragons gladly shame someone when any regular person would agree that shame is deserved. There is a world of difference between making regular people feel like they’re walking a minefield of liberal sensitivities and calling out Mitt F*cking Romney (his actual middle name, in the opinion of many) for stepping all over Benghazi before the bodies were cold.