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On Social Power Dynamics in Political Discourse

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 1:20.

Amy Wax, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, recently appeared on Glenn Loury’s YouTube show. Wax had ignited controversy when she declared that she rarely saw black law students graduating near the top of their class at UPenn. Critics accused her of trafficking in racist stereotypes, arguing that such remarks were likely to make her black students uncomfortable in class. When Loury asked Wax if she was repentant for her actions, she replied that she was not. Wax felt that nobody should have been offended by what she perceived to be her plain statements of fact.

Wax’s reaction is characteristic of a what appears to be a conservative reluctance to understand why right-leaning views are so unwelcome on college campuses. While I am deeply concerned about the dearth of viewpoint diversity at our universities, I think the failure to understand the “roots of leftist rage” will only exacerbate polarization and make dialogue more difficult.

I believe there are many factors behind the progressive hostility to conservative ideas, but I want to highlight two in particular. The first factor has to do with progressive beliefs themselves; the second, and perhaps more important one, has to do with social power dynamics.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that progressives are primarily motivated by the desire to help victims of oppression. Most causes of the left are thus conceptualized as problems between oppressors and oppressed (for instance, Israel as the oppressor of Palestine, men as the oppressors of women, and whites as the oppressors of other racial groups). Although this theoretical approach undoubtedly has its merits, analyzing problems in terms of oppression poses difficulties to the fostering of viewpoint diversity, because anyone who disagrees with leftist interpretations can easily be perceived to be making apologetics for oppression.

Suppose that the four following axes of oppression exist. First, there is capitalist oppression — the billionaire class continues to augment its wealth at the expense of everyone else. Second, there is racial oppression — a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and other informal and undeclared means of discrimination continue to suppress black economic, political, and educational outcomes. Third, there is gender oppression — misogyny prevents women from reaching the highest levels of political and economic power. Fourth, there is imperial oppression — the United States uses its enormous military to secure access to oil and other resources in the Middle East and elsewhere, frequently committing ghastly war crimes along the way.

For a college student or professor who interprets oppression in this way, it is going to be very grating when a conservative comes along to say, for example, not just that capitalism isn’t oppressive but that poor people are the system’s primary beneficiaries, or that discrimination is not the reason why minorities are lagging behind whites, or that American foreign policy helps foster economic prosperity, international stability, and democratic freedom. Such conservative positions as these will appear as rationalizations, if not outright justifications, for what leftists perceive to be unequal structures of power and subjugation.

On this basis, then, one might think that leftists’ frustration is incurred because they either 1) believe that conservatives support evil systems or 2) believe that conservative positions will further entrench these systems, to the detriment of society’s most vulnerable people, even if conservatives do not personally have bad intentions. But such explanations for the frustration, I believe, only partially explain its origins. While many leftists are indeed upset by conservative positions for the two reasons I mentioned, the analysis of leftist intolerance for right-wing views is incomplete without an understanding of the social power dynamics that allow leftists to get away with hurling accusations to an extent unavailable to their rightist counterparts.

Many conservatives, after all, believe that liberal policies hurt minorities and the poor in same way that liberals believe conservative policies hurt those groups. For example, Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist, has argued that the welfare state makes blacks dependent on the government and thus hampers their economic opportunities. Most economic libertarians argue that government social programs are not improving the lives of the poor. Minimum wage increases, says the right, just price unskilled workers out of the labor market; similarly rent control makes housing unaffordable. Yet, despite charging left-leaning policies with making disadvantaged people worse off, we rarely see right-wingers dismiss leftists as racist or classist in elite intellectual venues like universities, magazines, and newspapers.

The asymmetry between how the left and right engage with each other in academia and print media (whereby the former can insult the latter with relative impunity) seems, then, to have more to do with the tactics available to each rather than with either side’s principles. If the ratio of conservative to liberal professors was somehow reversed from roughly 1-10 to 10-1, I imagine that we would see vitriolic attacks within institutions of higher learning against Marxists, supporters of abortion, critics of U.S. foreign policy, and other scholars who took positions at odds with core conservative values.

Put simply, leftists make accusations of racism or sexism partly because institutional power dynamics allow them to, and partly to reinforce those very dynamics by discrediting others. Our society’s necessary and justified revulsion to prejudice makes it such that accusations of racism can tarnish entire careers. If a scholar can be successfully branded as prejudiced, then she can be readily dismissed; and this is, in part, what such accusations aim to do — to dismiss rather than to engage.

Conservatives, in turn, are forced to ask for the benefit of the doubt and to insist on the norms of civility because they tend to hold minority opinions in intellectual venues. If the right started slinging comparable insults at the left in universities or print media, it would be taken even less seriously there than it already is. It appears, therefore, that when people engage each other in print or in debate they make rhetorical decisions based on what the circumstances allow them.

Apart from seeking to redress the imbalance of opinions in intellectual spaces, I’m not sure how we can overcome these social dynamics so as to improve the state of our discourse.


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