Sunday, April 30, 2017

The End of Grading Conservatives on a Curve

The controversy over noted climate change denialist Bret Stephens' hiring by the New York Times appears to have taken the Grey Lady by surprise. They've quickly fallen into a stock set of responses regarding the need to hear "alternative points of view" and the importance of providing a range of conservative voices to match the liberals on their editorial page. Under this framework, persons protesting Stephens' appointment are symbolic of liberal intolerance; the inability to even stand in the same (virtual) room as persons who don't agree with them on every issue.

I do think we are seeing the end of a sort of liberal tolerance here. But it's not the tolerance that the NYT editorial board has in mind. It's the end of an era where liberals tolerate grading conservatives on a curve.

For the last several decades -- really as long as I've been politically aware -- liberals have been required to simply accept mediocrity out of conservatives. Mediocrity in science -- as when Stephens spitballs at widely accepted data, not for scientific reasons, but simply because it doesn't match his politics. Mediocrity in argument -- as when a prominent writer at one of the top "intellectual" conservative outlets excreted Liberal Fascism and then had the gall to promote it as "a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made  in such detail or with such care." Mediocrity in temperament -- as when conservative temper tantrums are accepted as simply a fact of political life; the responsibility of Democrats to dissipate by playing better babysitter.

There's no sin in mediocrity, of course. The problem is that it's coupled with a pervasive sense of entitlement. This mediocrity is supposed to earn them respected academic posts, earn them prominent editorial positions, earn them airtime on prestigious networks, earn them attention and thorough consideration. The problem isn't that liberals are asked to engage with good conservative arguments -- they should (although they in fact rarely are). The problem is that liberals are supposed to just close their eyes and agree for the sake of the camera that a terrible conservative argument is a good one; a thoughtful one; a demands-deep-consideration-and-serious-inquiry one. It's the political equivalent of social promotion. It's participation badges for Boomers and Gen-Xers.

And if you challenge that entitlement? Well, suddenly the right finds its post-modern streak. Can we really can know what a "good" argument is? Who's to say what is or isn't "true"? It's no accident that the straw that seemed to break the camel's back was Kellyanne Conway's blithe assertion that the White House was simply providing "alternative facts", and that a fair and just media shouldn't adjudicate the matter. It represented the explicit articulation from the right that merit no longer mattered -- and liberals were obligated to accept it as the apogee of liberality. "Reality has a well-known liberal bias" indeed.

We're finally seeing a revolt. A world where one of the two major parties can simply claim an exemption from standards of argument and deliberation is what gave us a birther as president. It's not about intolerance towards different opinions. Those objecting to Stephens have been rather clear that they don't object to alternative opinions, but they absolutely object to alternative facts. An alternative opinion may be good or bad -- it depends on how well-reasoned and supported it is, the degree to which it engages with the best possible arguments on the other side, and other such considerations. Good alternative opinions are a great virtue in political society. An alternative fact -- when it comes from a politician or writer -- should never be thought of as anything more than being bad at your job. If enforcing that standard lands harder on contemporary conservatives, that should be a sign of their weakness, not of the injustice of meritocracy.

The New York Times is not an open-mic night. Being employed there -- whether as a journalist or as an opinion-writer -- should be a mark of outstanding talent. Their editorial team should consist of those rare souls -- of any political persuasion -- who can make solid, lucid, provocative, compelling, well-warranted arguments in an accessible form. We can obviously argue amongst ourselves about which NYT columnists do or don't meet that criteria. But what's distinctive about Stephens is that his place at the Times is explicitly justified and defended on the grounds that his mediocrity of scientific thought is actually the virtue of political disagreement. That degrades science and, in a better world, would degrade conservatism as well.

To be crystal clear -- no governmental or quasi-administrative entity (like a university) should ever ban any speech (good, mediocre, bad, controversial, racist, or otherwise). Those on the left (and they tend to be more left than liberal) who support censorship, disruption, or violent retaliation against persons for their speech deserve naught but scorn. And beyond legal entitlements, liberals should be exposed to and consider good conservative arguments, and vice versa. I've learned a ton from reading, e.g., Clarence Thomas and Robert Nozick; among my earliest blog sources were the right-leaning Volokh Conspiracy and Daniel Drezner. I'd be worse off if I wasn't exposed to them, because they are all outstanding thinkers even when I disagree with them. Anyone who can't conceive of an ideological adversary who is nonetheless capable of making great "alternative" arguments isn't thinking hard enough.

But the reaction to Stephens and his ilk isn't about juridical rights or some sort of blind antipathy to foreign points of view. It's a much more simple and straightforward matter of deliberative virtue. The only persons suggesting that the attack on Stephens represents an attack on all conservatives are those who think denial of basic scientific consensus is inherent to contemporary conservatism. It's their culture! How dare you impose your "truth" on the Other? Again, who is patronizing who here?

Enough is enough. Conservatives are not infants and it is no mark of respect to treat them such. They are perfectly capable of elevating their game. Maybe it will sting for a while. But both the right and the left, and America, will be better for it.

UPDATE: Just to gather up some sources to confirm my sense that this is a trend:
New Yorker fact checker Sean Lavery on how he'd handle Bret Stephens: "By all means publish Bret Stephens. But edit and factcheck him too. If his argument can't pass muster or the piece can't be fixed: goodbye!"

Jon Chait on how conservatives are shocked and angry that the media is finally accurately reporting that the Republican proposal for regressive tax cuts which primarily benefit the rich is a regressive tax cut which primarily benefits the rich.

Philosophy professor Jonathan Stokes on no longer letting people conflate the right to express an opinion with the right to have it taken seriously.

And finally, Matt Yglesias on Sebastian Gorka reportedly leaving the White House:

1 comment:

John said...

You probably should link to the actual Bret Stephens article so that readers can easily view the offending article.

This post reminds me of something that happened during my PoliSci 101 class at college. Apparently one of the conservative students got a crappy grade and anonymously complained. The teacher would constantly fawn over a Swedish foreign exchange student and all the socialist policies there, so he thought the teacher was biased. While the teacher probably was biased in some way, the conservative student who I thought was the one who complained made some of the dumbest arguments I think I heard in any college class.

That being said, I really can't get on board with the bulk of your article.

So much of political opinion rests on values rather than good argumentation. From a Jonathan Haidt/Righteous Mind perspective, someone on the left probably values things like fairness or care highly, while someone on the right might favor loyalty and sanctity. People then concoct stories and arguments to convince themselves that this is the right way of thinking.

For instance, consider the conservative in my PoliSci 101 class. The dumbest thing I recall him saying was in response to the teacher asking about the opinion of Attorney General John Ashcroft. He had said something to the effect of he seems like a good guy and I trust him. He completely ignored what any of the other students had said about Ashcroft's policies and only really cared about the guy's personality. In retrospect, it was very ingroup, supporting the white Christian Republican like himself. He also displayed a lot of respect for authority.

I'm sure a smarter Republican could have come up with a much better defense of Ashcroft. However, it never would have convinced a single liberal in the class. What would the smart Republican argue? He would argue that X and Y and Z policies supported by Ashcroft are good. And why are they good? The Republican would say law and order are important and reduce crime and A and B and C. These are values. And the liberal would complain that the policies have problems D and E and F. And it would turn out that they value law and order, but they also care about some other values that the Republican considers less important.

And who is right and who is wrong? I don't know.