[In Brief] On “Smug” Liberals

Sometimes I see conservatives derisively claiming that liberals/feminists/progressives are just “smug” and self-satisfied, that we hold the opinions that we hold because it gives us some sense of self-righteousness, that we do it in order to feel like we’re better than everyone else.

I find this bizarre. I, for one, was considerably more smug and self-righteous when I was a far-right conservative than I am now as a progressive feminist.

Yes, I think I’m right. No, I’m not a relativist when it comes to human rights and social justice. I’m right, and the belief that certain people should be denied rights is not equivalent to the belief that they should have those rights. No, I’m not going to do what women are supposed to do in our culture; that is, hem and haw and say “well of course all opinions are equally valid” and “I mean it’s just my opinion and I could be wrong” and whatever. Nope, I’m not wrong. Sorry.

But I’m not saying this in order to feel superior to you. I’m saying it because that just happens to be what I believe.

I don’t feel self-righteous about my political views, but I do feel proud, and it has nothing to do with you, hypothetical person who disagrees with me. I feel proud because I care about people. I feel proud because when people read my writing and see the stickers on my laptop and the books on my shelf, they know that I’m someone they can come to. Someone who won’t tell them, “But come on, that’s not really racism” and “Don’t you have more important things to worry about?” and “I’m sorry you got raped and all, but why’d you go out wearing that?” and “You and your boyfriend did what? That’s disgusting.

I feel proud because I still remember the alternative: that festering sinkhole of judgment I lived in, in which I thought of some people as “those people” and meticulously drew lines in the sand to separate myself from those people.

I feel proud because I am absolutely, positively fine with being told that I have “privilege” and that my life has been easier than many other lives for reasons none of us control. I’m not fine with the fact that privilege is a thingI mean, but I don’t get defensive about being called out on it. Not anymore.

I feel proud because I think–I hope–that my friends would feel comfortable letting me know if I’ve said something that marginalizes their race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identity. I feel especially proud of that knowing that I have not always had friends whom I would feel comfortable telling that.

I feel proud because I don’t think that my personal morals should have anything to do with the law, which means that in my ideal society, people who disagree with me on just about everything would still be free to live as they choose (provided, of course, that they do not impose on the rights of others).

I think those are all things to be proud of. It’s fine if you don’t, but don’t assume that my politics have anything to do with making myself look better than you. That’s something I couldn’t care less about.

Now, as for liberals who actually behave smugly towards conservatives, two points: 1) Rude people exist within every conceivable political orientation, and we can all agree that they are bothersome; and 2) they’re probably not being smug simply because you’re a conservative.

They’re being smug, specifically, because you believe they shouldn’t be able to marry their same-sex partner whom they love, or that they should be forced to carry their rapist’s baby to term, or that their children should learn insufferable nonsense rather than the theory of evolution in school. 

I would say, in those cases, that smugness is quite warranted.

Why I Criticize Liberals and Not Conservatives

For someone who identifies as liberal and progressive, I certainly spend an odd amount of time criticizing fellow liberals and progressives. Unlike other bloggers of my general type, I don’t do all those muckraking-type posts detailing the latest scandalous Fox News segment or hypocritical Republican politician’s speech. Instead, I prefer to rip on people that I mostly agree with. Why is this?

Several reasons. First of all, getting my panties in a wad over some stupid conservative comment takes very little intelligence, and I prefer to utilize my intelligence as much as I can. The typical liberal kvetch-post usually goes something like this: “Well surprise surprise! [Insert Republican candidate here] gave a speech in [insert small conservative town here] yesterday and claimed that ‘good Christians’ should not allow gay couples to go to prom! It never ceases to amaze me how vile these Republicans are!” Or: “Last night [insert Fox News talk show host here] claimed on his show that people on welfare are ‘dirty rats pilfering our hard-earned money.’ Perhaps he should try living on welfare for a while!”

Okay, I exaggerate, but hopefully you see my point. It’s just that it takes no mental energy whatsoever to criticize people and ideas that are so ludicrous. For instance, today in Salon: talk show host Sean Hannity thinks Sesame Street is an attack on “family values” (whatever the hell that means these days), and Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) apparently thinks that the US should support Israel so that the Jews can rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and Christ can return. Um, okay.

Now, what Salon (and the liberal blogosphere in general) does with their time and webspace is their own business, but one has to wonder why so many intelligent writers would would want to waste their energy railing against the likes of Hannity and Bachmann and the rest of that entire cadre of shockingly brainless people. Because, really, what is there to actually say about the two links I just mentioned, aside from the fact that they are really stupid?

Meanwhile, most of the intelligent conservative perspectives that I’ve encountered unfortunately involve economics. For instance, Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, refuses to implement a living wage for workers in dining halls, housekeeping, and etc. because he thinks this idea is economically unsound–and he’s a well-known, respected economist. No matter how much I’d love to see a living wage on campus, I can respect his opinion.

However, one little problem–I know absolutely nothing about economics, and I am prevented from learning more by the fact that I find it insufferably boring. So not only am I completely unqualified to even try to argue with the likes of Dr. Shapiro, I also have little desire to do so. (Likewise, it seems, with most liberals. The Living Wage Campaign at Northwestern, for instance, has insisted on using passion and emotion to fuel its arguments, even though President Shapiro, when asked what would convince him to implement a living wage, answered, “Good arguments.” Meaning, of course, arguments that are evidence-based and rational.)

As for why criticizing liberals is a good idea, that should be self-evident. I care deeply about seeing the causes I care about succeed. Sometimes, however, I feel that people are going about them in the wrong ways. For instance:

Incidentally, there are just so many types of privilege now. White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege, cis privilege, abled privilege, thin privilege, even vanilla privilege! A veritable buffet of privileges. For the record, I do believe privilege exists, in a way. But I don’t think it’s worth talking about, because bitching and moaning about it and yelling at people you disagree with about how they can’t “see past their privilege” contributes nothing useful to the larger discourse on social justice. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t. All it does is alienate people that you might have otherwise persuaded.

I’m getting really off-topic now, but another quick comment about privilege–although this is a matter of semantics, I think it’s much more useful to view non-privileged people as disadvantaged rather than viewing privileged people as “privileged.” After all, we don’t want everyone to lose privileges like not being accused of stealing, being paid fair wages, and being able to easily find the right hair care products. Rather, we want everyone to have these privileges. So rather than implying that it’s somehow “bad” that I, as a white woman rather than a black one, can walk into a store and not be followed by a salesperson, we should be implying that it’s completely wrong that a black woman would be followed while a white one would not. Different emphasis entirely. I know any progressive would agree with me on this, and yet they persist on using language that problematizes the privileges that some of us have rather than the disadvantages that others face. The privileges I have as a middle-class, cisgender white person are privileges everyone should have. The privileges that heterosexual men have are privileges that I should have. And so on.

Back to the point. This is why, in most of the posts where I’m explicitly criticizing something, I generally propose some alternatives–organizing a protest rather than personally boycotting a store, finding a healthy balance between work and love rather than sacrificing one for the other, and so on. I hope that by doing this I have shown that I do actually care about finding solutions rather than simply criticizing things. I get a lot of satisfaction from identifying ways that things are being done wrong and suggesting ways to do them better.

But bloggers who endlessly chronicle the bon mots of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are doing absolutely nothing productive. I’ve always believed that a “good blog” is one that contributes something meaningful to the world rather than simply chronicling things that piss off its author.

The Value of Disagreement

A photo from an Obama-McCain debate in 2008. Just to add some requisite humor to this otherwise serious post.

I am a liberal and I go to a liberal school. Sometimes this makes me feel happy and comfortable, because I have so much in common with others here in terms of politics. I can complain publicly about Americans’ lack of belief in climate change, or about something Glenn Beck said. I can ask my friends if they’ve seen the latest episode of the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I can rant excitedly about some famous person coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. And I can do all this without worrying that I’m going to offend someone, or that someone is going to argue with me.

But two recent incidents made me ask myself if this is really such a good thing.

One was a conversation I had with a friend about a mutual friend of ours. We’re all really close and hang out a lot, but when I suggested to one that he go have a conversation with the other, he said that they don’t really have anything serious to talk about. I asked why, and he said that they always just agree on everything and there’s little to discuss.

The other was the killing of Osama Bin Laden. When this happened, my Facebook feed suddenly exploded with such a variety of opinions that I didn’t even know existed at Northwestern. Some people were screaming “USA! USA!” Others were really happy that Bin Laden was dead, but didn’t want to celebrate so gleefully. Others were ambivalent, wondering why this really mattered, or whether or not he should’ve been shot dead. Others still were furious that he’d been killed on the spot, arguing that he should’ve been tried by the American judicial system instead. Some were religious Jews or Christians, happy to have gained this victory against radical Islam. (Unfortunately, I don’t know many Muslims, but I would’ve loved to hear their perspectives.) Some were atheists or agnostics, wishing that we didn’t have these religious wars to begin with. And so on and so forth.

Immediately, tons of arguments and debates started up. I got into quite a few myself. As a result, I changed certain parts of my opinion, began to understand other parts more clearly, and generally started articulating my views a bit better. And, also, I learned a lot about many of my friends.

After that, I started to realize how much we’re missing here in terms of political dialogue. I used to be very conservative, but back then I lived in Ohio and everyone around me pretty much agreed. Now that I’m much more liberal, I’m once again surrounded by people who share my views on almost everything. Except for those times when my friends and I start getting bitchy and arguing minutiae, I rarely get to have a good political debate.

What to do about this? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how to get more conservative or libertarian students to attend Northwestern. Like it or not, this is a liberal campus.

One related issue, however, is a bit easier to solve, and that is the tendency of people to want to shut down those who disagree. (I addressed this briefly in the previous post.) The internet makes it much easier to do this because you can literally avoid “conservative” or “liberal” websites, but I see this in play even out in the real world. When I lived in Ohio, despite being conservative, I had the uncomfortable feeling that conservatives always wanted to shut liberals up. Luckily, I didn’t have to feel guilty for long, because when I came to Northwestern I found that liberals do the exact same thing. The way we respond to alternative viewpoints is often anything but respectful and curious–it’s snarky and dismissive.

For instance, when discussing people who oppose the right to abortion, liberals like to refer to them as “anti-choice” rather than “pro-life,” which is what they call themselves. This is, in my opinion, ridiculously disrespectful. Pro-lifers place the sanctity of life above the freedom of choice, but that doesn’t mean they oppose choice. It just means they value life (and they define life as beginning at conception) more than they value choice. I disagree with this position entirely, but I respect it and can see why some people would think that way.

Similarly, conservatives will purposefully refer to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” (to highlight his “Muslim” middle name) or as the “Obamination” or as any number of other highly disrespectful monikers. Why? Why talk like this about the President of the United States just because he is a liberal?

This needs to stop. From both sides. Silencing the opinions of others benefits nobody. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong. If they’re right, then you should know the truth. If they’re partially right and partially wrong, you should take this opportunity to fine-tune your own views.

In fact, in order to put my money where my mouth is, from now on I’m going to seek out intelligent conservative blogs and read them. If nothing else, it’ll help me learn how to defend my own views better. Unfortunately, I don’t hear many conservative opinions here on campus, so I’m going to look for them elsewhere.