Perhaps I should have bailed out after the first sentence: “I know many liberals, and two of them really are my best friends.” This is how Gerard Alexander, professor of political science at the University of Virginia begins his call for liberals to shut up and sit down (my words) in his Sunday Review New York Times opinion piece “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are.”
This isn’t a new drumbeat for Alexander. He’s complained before about liberals painting conservatives with a broad brush, claiming all conservatives are racist and has called liberals out for being “so condescending” to conservatives. This essay appears to be a continuation of those themes, and Alexander is hardly the only conservative to make those charges. In this most recent essay, he takes the broad brush into his own hands, labeling liberals (as a whole) as “self-righteous” while requesting that they stop talking, essentially, about human rights in absolute terms. And, he states clearly, that the price for liberals saying too much will be another Trump term. As he notes, “People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates, and parties.” So, to Alexander, the solution is simple: Liberals need to quiet down so conservatives will listen. He’s short on evidence for that claim, but he spends a good amount of time working through the sins of liberals and how their insistence on justice for more than Christian, straight, white men is hurting America.
There’s so much about Alexander’s essay that’s objectionable, but I’ll start with where I agree with him. Yes, there are insufferable liberals. There is nothing about being liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between that makes one delightful company and unerring in judgment. Humans from all walks of life can be jerks, and one only has to spend a few minutes on social media to see that play out. Yes, liberals (and conservatives) can shut down thought and conversation with a slur, and that action can lead to a negative perception of the other and that ideology. And, yes, there are conservatives who aren’t bigots. I know them, and some are good friends, to borrow a phrase from Alexander.
Alexander ruminates about free speech, and he and I certainly share the value of that on the whole (although asking liberals to tuck theirs in seems a bit incongruent with that concept), and I agree with him that college campuses should be places where ideas other than the ones held tightly before college can be heard and explored. I realize that by writing that statement, some liberal friends of mine might find themselves on edge. But, as someone who has taught argumentation to young teens for several years, someone who asks young people to explore the arguments of others and to think critically and ask questions, I bristle at the idea of these same children going to a college that tells them they can’t ask the simple questions: “Why do you think that?” and “How do you know?” Part of owning your beliefs (and then living them out) is understanding more completely and applying critical thinking skills along the way. Part of settling into an ethic of one’s own should be listening (or at least reading) to those whose ideas appall you, not so you can nod and agree or modify your belief that all humans have dignity and worth because they are human but so you can formulate arguments in return. One can’t form a counterargument without understanding the conflict at hand or the arguments made on the other side.
There is, however, an important caveat: Oppressed people have no obligation to listen to the musings of their oppressors. Women needn’t listen to rapists and abusers explain and defend their actions. Immigrants have no obligation to hear how and why they should “go back where they came from,” and any person of color has no need to stand one minute of nonsense about how they are less because they are not white. And, no, I’m not advocating finding a KKK member or neo-Nazi for coffee and hate conversation, although I’m sure doing so could be informative. ( I’m also not advocating Milo’s presence on anyone’s campus, as provocateurs spouting for attention, not actually forming arguments.) I am, however, arguing that taking a stance without understanding what others think and why is damaging to progress, and progress is what progressives are all about.
My main complaint with Alexander is with his dangerous, illogical, and damaging stance: He asks liberals to, essentially, stop speaking up and out, at least outside of the ways they have wielded “their cultural prominence in recent years,” specifically in the news and film. “Racist,” he then notes, “is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today.”
I don’t disagree that naming entire groups of people with any name, true or not, with the object of shaming, scolding, or slamming them is unproductive even if it is accurate. I don’t find my eyes opened when I’m called a libtard, Marxist, socialist, commie, feminist (oh, please, you can do better than that), feminazi (there you go!), SJW (wasn’t Jesus one?), snowflake (I’ve not melted yet), baby killer, idiot, and (wait for it) liberal. Slinging slurs don’t win anyone a friend, although slurs may influence people to break off friendships or stop conversations. No, calling names isn’t useful.
But racism is alive and well in this nation. It has been for a long time, of course, but Trump has made a sport out of spouting and spreading that hate and racism during the campaign in 2016 as well expressing his own racist tendencies in his business practices in the decades before that campaign. Who can forget his frenzied “Build The Wall!” chants at almost every rally? His base ate it up, and wall talk continues to this day. Sprinkle in a few immigration bans against people from Muslim countries, some highly disparaging remarks about people in Haiti and several African countries, absolution of alt-right tiki-torch carriers in Charlottesville, silence when black people die at the hands of angry white people, and chummy relationships with known racists, and, well, you have the picture. Trump built a campaign on hate and fear, and it bought him the presidency. And his base still eats it up and spouts it back while his beloved Fox News strokes his ego, spouts his nonsense, and otherwise fans the flames of his that base. Alexander may be uncertain about bigotry underlying Trump’s win, but I am not. Trump won on what he campaigned on: hate and fear. We, as a nation, got what was promised, and that was bigotry at the helm in order to maintain the status quo, which is straight, white, largely male, and Christian.
Calling names doesn’t solve anything, and it does build divides. But Alexander’s request that liberals quiet down and stop being divisive is eerily familiar when a system is fighting to hold back others to maintain power. Women have long been told to quiet down so people will like them more. Women have been asked to smile and nod when what is appropriate is yelling and fighting back. Women (and LGBTQ, brown, black, Jewish, Muslim, disabled, and other marginalized people subject to oppression) know what it is to be shamed and then ignored when using their voice.
So we, as progressives, as liberals, must break the silence when others are ignored in the public sphere, torn from their families, shot in our streets, denigrated for their biology, violated by those in power, herded to inferior schools, confined to neighborhoods by de facto redlining, hated for how they pray, despised because of the color of their skin, and mocked because of their dress or language. It’s about damn time, too. Silence is complacent, and, when we make the choice of silence in the face of injustice, all for the sake of politeness, manners, and maybe winning over a Trump voter in 2020, it makes us complicit in the hate and oppression itself.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.
That’s what Alexander is asking liberals to be: The white moderate. Make no mistake. There are still plenty of those to go around. But, as King notes, the absence of tension in the face of injustice does not lead to peace or equity, equality, or fairness. It does not lead to the right running to the left, ready to vote for justice. It does not lead us away from populist, racist politicians bent on maintaining their comfortable status quo. Yes, people vote against things, as Alexander notes. Voters for Trump voted against brown immigrants, against women, against their own financial interests (coal is not returning), against their own health care, and against the roots of their own religion.
It is not “self-righteous” to speak up for and about those who are marginalized in this world. It is, in Christian terms and values, the moral and good thing to do, and Jesus reminds people of this endlessly. (Now there was a social justice warrior!) It’s simply the right thing to do, religion aside (and in politics, we should be setting it aside). It is part of the long and hard path to King’s “positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
And that’s what progressives, overall, want. They want positive peace. They want justice for all. They want a better nation and a better world, one where we work together for the good of all people. Many say that 155 years after slavery is a blink of an eye in the arc of human time, but, by many measures, it is lifetimes. Too often, “But this takes time” is the mantra of the moderate, used to assure that, with enough patience, justice will come. It is indeed a mark of privilege to make that claim. King told us this, 65 years ago, from that Birmingham jail:
More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
By requesting that liberals muffle their voices, Alexander is encouraging stagnation in a nation that supposedly strives towards progress. He conflates name calling with calling foul on injustice. Yes, there is room for civility in our conversations with others about the hardest issues in this nation, but civility is the luxury of those in power. Civility has never been the sole mechanism of true progress. It is instead loud voices, strong convictions, and unyielding insistence on justice that has always brought us further along as a nation.