November 18, 2004

Six Degrees of Condescension

I’m working on a point-by-point overview of some of the interesting and useful arguments in the post-election discussions that I’ve read, but before I get there, I want to address the accusation that some readers have made, either in their own blogs or in emails to me, that I’ve demonstrated a condescending attitude towards Bush voters in general or specific groups of Bush voters in particular.

Some of that complaint may have some teeth in it, but some of it seems to me to misunderstand the meaning of the term “condescend” or to be based in a serious misreading of my own arguments, even the most extreme or passionate of what I’ve written recently.
Let me run down what I’m seeing.

1) From what I can see, “condescend” for a small handful of critics seems to mean, “You disagree with me”. Yes, the Republicans won the election, and the right-wing is in the majority. For a select few—I really want to emphasize that this doesn’t seem to me to be the common sentiment—that seems to me that any strong continued objection, criticism or dissent offered by the losers (who are after all a very, very large minority faction) is by definition illegitimate and “condescending” to those who stood with the majority. Why? Because to continue to believe that your own views are correct when they have been repudiated by 51% of the voters is to believe that the majority is wrong; to believe in one’s own rightness in the face of the will of the majority is to believe one is better than the majority.

This sentiment I don’t feel much obligation to engage further, given how silly and profoundly anti-democratic it is. Am I therefore condescending to those who hold this view? Oh my, yes, absolutely.

2) For some critics, it seen to be condescending if someone else argues that their actions can be explained in any other way than they themselves would explain those actions. In this instance, let’s say a Bush voter explains his vote by saying that he made a careful, pragmatic, well-reasoned assessment of the likely governing competency of Kerry and compared it to Bush’s established record and then concluded that Kerry poses more danger than Bush has so far. If he then reads me saying that Bush voters made their decision based on moral values, or because they have red-state economic resentments, or because they’re not thinking clearly, or because they aspire to majoritarian tyranny, the response is that I’m being condescending.

This complaint is worth taking seriously, but I want to pick it apart a bit. First, some of these criticisms of my writing on these topics are based on misattributions of my various characterizations of Bush voters. I’ve been pretty careful, even at the height of my anger and frustration, to qualify those characterizations. When I said that some Bush voters are stupid, some Bush voters are intelligent but horribly given to rationalizations and inconsistency, and some Bush voters aspire to “capture the state” and lock in a structurally permanent majoritarian tyranny, those are three subsets that do not describe the whole. If you read that and say, “I’m a Bush voter, and none of the above”, then fine. I didn’t describe you. If you don't think you're stupid, unprincipled, or an aspirant tyrant, then feel free to exempt yourself from the characterization. Exempt your spouse and your parents and your friends and your neighbor while you're at it. Perhaps I didn't talk about you because I don’t think your logics or reasons for voting for Bush are in the most significant subset of Bush voters either numerically or they pose no systematic larger danger that I feel called upon to criticize.

The same would go for my arguments about “moral values” voters, red-state voters, or “soft libertarian” voters. None of those categories covers the entirety or maybe even the majority of those who voted for Bush. They’re imprecise, loose, and problematically generalize about a tremendous variety and diversity of motivations for voting a particular way. A particular reader is not obligated to see himself as described by any of those generalizations.

There is a deeper problem here, however, and at least some of those who have responded critically to my writing would have to indict themselves as well in the complaint. The deeper issue is, “Can we ever analyze why people act the way they do in ways that are not part of their own self-conception or explanation of their actions?” From what I can see, at least some of those who complain of condescension are essentially saying that it is impossible or illegitimate to do so, that it is always condescending to attribute motives or explanations to social action that it does not offer for itself.

It is possible to defend that extreme position. From time to time, it’s an argument that crops up in anthropology, for example. A less extreme version of the general position is actually quite common, and I tend to favor it myself: that it is at least always important to try and understand how different individuals and groups interpret their own actions and practices in the terms they themselves offer, and to engage those explanations when offering a contrary or divergent explanation of their underlying motives or intentions.

That’s a place where I’ve fallen short in recent writings, and where I think many of those opposed to Bush have fallen short, sometimes greviously so. So yes, it’s important for me to stop and listen more attentively to what diverse Bush voters say about why they acted as they did. Let me stress again, though, that at least some of the critical respondents are making the same error they accuse me of, by conflating the rationale for their own electoral decision with the entire class of people who voted the same way. I’m particularly struck by the number of libertarian or security-minded Bush voters who seem to believe that their own rationale was widely shared by virtually all other Bush voters, and that any criticism of Bush voters that is not focused on libertarian or security issues is therefore “condescending” in its misattribution of motives.

If you accept the strong or extreme version of this complaint, you’re basically saying that all social analysis, liberal and conservative, is by definition condescending. If so, I only ask you to have the courtesy to apply your criticism even-handedly.

3) Strong rhetorical language in the criticism of Bush voters is seen to be condescending. This is a pretty straightforward observation, and I’ll plead a limited mea culpa. When I imperiously declare a conversation to be finished, or imply that everybody who disagrees with me is a damn fool, yeah, that’s the frustration speaking. What can I say: only Eugene Volokh seems to achieve perfect equanimity. Obviously, the conversation not over, both for practical and philosophical reasons, and assuming the grandiose position of someone who thinks he can declare it over by fiat is certainly an attempt to condescend. At the same time, I won’t bend an inch on the basic point, which goes back to the first claim about condescension. I still think I’m right: a vote for Bush was a very bad decision that will have very bad consequences, regardless of whether that vote was cast stridently or in doubt, carelessly or thoughtfully. The strength of my opinion is proportional to the consequences I envision. This doesn't strike me as particularly exceptional in the context of the public sphere. It's a fairly normal kind of consequentialist reason, in fact. When you think the consequences of a given action are likely to prove extremely bad for extremely large numbers of people, you're entitled to blow your bugle and sound the alarm, and to feel scorn towards those who don't see the danger. If you do that on every single position you hold, then yes, your opinion of yourself is so high and your evaluation of consequences is so indescriminate that you effectively believe that you and you alone are worthy to decide the fate of the world. That is bad. I think for most of the issues I write about here and elsewhere, almost everybody at the table has some valid points to make, and the consequences that flow from different views are sufficiently modest that you can't justify being strident. This election is not one of those issues.

Time will tell. If I am still saying the same things ten, twenty, thirty years from now even though none of the consequences I feared came to pass, then yes, by all means, call me on it then.

4) The general attitude of anti-Bush critics towards the “red-states”, or “middle America”, or “religious Americans” or what have you, is said to be condescending, and I am said by some to share in that. I can only say that the entire substance of my writing here and my commentary elsewhere aims to avoid that sin, which I agree has been unfortunately more common than it ought to be. However, going back to point 2), it is not definitionally condescending to offer an overall characterization of “red-state” communities in the United States, even if it turns out on closer examination that a given generalization doesn’t hold that much water. If it is, then there are a lot of us—including many conservatives—who are in the docket. Feel free to poke holes in my generalizations about the red-state social world. I’ll shortly be joining you all in doing so. But that’s different than accusing me of being condescending.