I often tell self-identified liberals to look in the mirror. I loathe hypocrisy, and therefore, I must hold myself to the same standards. It’s easy for the well-educated, socially awkward educator to get smug. We listen to people rant about stuff of which they clearly have a poor understanding, and intellectually, we know how to respond. But you know how it goes. They rant, they change subjects, they often respond rudely to a politely presented counter point, they ad hominem. This is how many an average “smug liberal” feels. They then box themselves off, and console themselves in the knowledge that they are intellectually the superiors of those “deplorables.”
Oh how easy it is for me to scoff at the “smug liberals” and console myself in the knowledge – “Liberals, you’re not as smart as you think” – as the title of a recent NYT oped proclaimed. I, too, can easily fall into the mind-trap of smug.
The Echo Chamber
I find myself in an echo chamber of “deplorables” recently, but they aren’t Trump voters. These are self-identified “liberals”. One is a professor, one a real estate sales person, and several others. You get the idea. Middle class white people who probably all voted for Clinton in 2016. I think they all know that a heretic (me) is among them. Some of them are really nice about it. One even had a little talk about my teaching position at the college, and just American government in general. One has silenced me at least once on social media for expressing a dissenting opinion on his wall. Some of them seem to take a special pleasure in taking a jab or two at Trump, or stereotyping Republicans in general, without ever asking what I think of the particular topic, and then, of course, quickly changing the topic before I respond. So, some of them are polite, at least one of them reasonably intelligent (maybe more), but some of rather rude and narrow-minded.
Regarding the rude and narrow-minded, the positions they present are so laughably bad that I’m reminded of the Winston Churchill quote:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
Get this! Apparently when a white man has power over a white woman, it’s called “white privilege”, or even “white supremacy”! Yes, that’s right! You didn’t think white women were actually white, did you?
Also, a gay white man is not really white, because gays are a minority. If you fall into any “marginalized group”, apparently your skin color changes, and you stop being white.
I say the above because I’m thinking of two clearly gay men who have skin at least as white as mine, who seem to enjoy denouncing white privilege. One of them takes special pleasure simultaneously in deriding his “red neck” relatives who live in trailers. They have light colored skin, they’re heterosexual, so I guess they need to check their privilege, right? Their trailer dwelling, scrapping to survive privilege.
Do I belong here?
I could go on, but I’m not writing this to mock these people. But rather to understand development of smug. As I sit among them, I can’t help it. I feel really, really smug, while simultaneously befuddled.
The last time I felt anywhere close to this way was about mid-Obama era. When my wife and I were dating, a Sat. late morning, we were at an Arby’s for a late breakfast, early lunch. For context, know that I had not yet had coffee, and I’m one of those people whom you really don’t want to talk to before I’ve had coffee. So she recognized a colleague, and this colleague was with her father. Her father got under my skin very quickly. He started questioning/interrogating me about everything from my religious beliefs to politics. I’ll spare you the religious part in this post. But know that I was not with it without my coffee, and it was Sat, and I was really not in the mood. But that just made him more aggressive. What finally did it was when Obama came up.* He said, “I know I’m not supposed to hate people, but I just can’t help when I see that man in the White House.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “We’ve never had such an unconstitutional President before!” So I thought I’d switch on my caffeine deprived brain as much as I could, and engage him. “What about Obama is so unconstitutional?” “We’ve never had a Muslim President before!” I’d had enough. My face I imagine turned crimson, and I just stormed off. I waited by the door for my wife as she said her goodbyes to her friend. The layers of stupidity in that last statement!
I was smug and befuddled then, and I’m smug and befuddled now. I imagine the very people who make me smug today, would have felt very smug towards that man so many years ago. I probably would have felt find among these same people at that time, and happily joined them in ridiculing the average Republican voter. But today, in 2018, I don’t seem to belong, and a few of them seem to want to make me feel out of place.
So How Do I Respond?
I’m inspired by a wonderful man, Daryl Davis. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s an incredibly brave and compassionate black man who went right among the KKK! He wanted to understand how they can hate someone they’ve never met, simply by the color of their skin. But he didn’t go among them to judge them, nor did he go with hatred in his heart towards them. It seems that even as they hated his skin color, he had compassion for them. It’s hard to have compassion for people who hate you, but somehow, he had it! Over time, he got through to them, and without ever asking them, they chose to leave the Klan, one by one. It’s amazing what love can do!
But I’m only human. I’m not super human like Daryl Davis. Like my frenemies of the echo chamber, I too, need my comfort zone. My comfort zone will never be an echo chamber. I’m a social scientist, not just as an educator, but at heart. I may be socially awkward, but I love to study socialization. As Sheldon Cooper once said of social experimentation, “It’s one of the few forms of social interaction I don’t find repellant.”
Here’s what I know so far. Some of them are very kind, and very willingness to recognize that well intended human beings can disagree with each other on major issues. Some of them would rather not listen to a differing point of view, and are quick to categorize others with tribal labels, and all of the assumed positions on different issues associated with those labels. What I don’t know is if they view the other (me) as less than human, or as “evil”, or maybe they engage a kind of cognitive dissonance where the other can be wicked on politics, and in other ways a good person. I also wonder if, in time, they are willing to consider that maybe a person who voted for Trump isn’t as terrible as they think, and might have some views on some issues that might surprise them, or if they will instead default to partisan labels and the “us or them” mentality.
As a social scientist, I shouldn’t expect a set of results. “Science” that assumes the result, and seeks that result is tainted. I’m not even sure of my methodology yet. I may be as an anthropologist, just among them, observing. I may try some things, ask some questions, maybe even have the audacity to express dissenting opinions, and see how they react. Maybe all of the above at different times.
And so, it begins. #operationmilos
* For those of you who don’t know, I was an Obama supporter, though I have my disagreements with him on some issues, as I am with Trump now
Further reading on “Smug Liberalism”:
The smug style in American liberalism is kind of a neo-classic, written two years ago as Trump was on the rise. Many, many more articles have followed echoing these sentiments.
The Myth of the smug liberal as a counter-argument to the above. It’s anecdotal, but gives an interesting perspective of a liberal who knows all about scrapping by and resents being called “smug” and out of touch with the “common man”.