Sunday, July 5, 2015

Understanding American Conservatives and Libertarians from a Budding Anthropologist's View

"One does not entertain a guest by mocking, deriding, and abusing the guest. Similarly, one does not entertain a thought or approach to knowledge by ridiculing it." - Carlin Romano

One thing I have been struck by throughout my academic career has been political viewpoints, particularly the viewpoints that I am not inclined to agree with (i.e. Conservative, libertarian).  I have read through mountains of their commentary in my many years on the internet and have come to believe that as a rule of thumb, their beliefs are usually based on oversimplifications and shallow understandings of people and phenomena.  The fact that so many Conservative-leaning websites actually try to run regular news stories about how bad Islam is and how its 1.62 billion adherents do bad things are non-starters for me;  it shows me how immature if not how savage the shared American consciousness is.

That said, I go back to the quote above.  Conservatism, libertarianism are the viewpoints of 38% of American voters, more than any other self-identified political ideology.  That, represents a significant chunk of people.  Personally, I don't get why, but I think it's a worthy endeavor to understand why.  I won't ridicule the Conservative, libertarian-leaning viewpoints.  I will make earnest attempts to understand it.

For example, some conservative, libertarian viewpoints have recently descended on the academic idea of the "microaggression."

I was actually interested in the idea of microaggressions some during my class days in graduate school.  I see people, mainly people of color, using the concept to shine a light on everyday racism to show how pervasive it is and affects every part of our lives.  Its a response to the idea that we have a "colorblind" society and/or that racism has largely been stamped out. 

One blogger takes away from it is these nuggets: 
  • "It’s the perfect ideology for a society of victims. Anything you say – or don’t say – can be considered not only a slight, but an aggression. And one’s intent makes no difference. It doesn’t matter that the neighbor in my story had no intention of giving offense."
  • "It’s easy to see the ramifications, such as sit-ins targeting a UCLA professor who dared to correct the grammar and spelling on graduate work submitted by African-American students. Mostly, people will just shut up and avoid as much contact with others as possible. Why invite hassle, punishment or legal trouble? But this does shift power from the most academically proficient to the most easily offended. This agenda clearly is driven from the departments that specialize in identity politics.
  • But after reading this literature recommended by Napolitano’s office, I’m convinced the goal is for us not to get along. If objectivity, meritocracy and equal opportunity are bunk, and everything is about “privilege of dominant groups,” then there’s no reason for my acquaintance to have made peace with the neighbor who innocently mistook him for a gardener. There would be no reason to be friends. After all, that would only mask the power relationships and class struggle.  This is laughable stuff. But it has the potential to sow deep seeds of resentment, anger and division among the students who are subjected to it. We’re toying with a macro amount of trouble here.
I have a cascade of wincings and headshakings.  I have a strong urge to caricaturize the writing.  In my humble opinion, the article exemplifies the conservative tendency towards oversimplifying human behavior. 

The writer offers a one-sided opinion that looks at only the negatives that come from looking the idea of microaggressions.   He does not appear to understand why microaggressions need to be studied nor offer any ways that microaggressions could produce anything positive.

Then the writer caps it off by offering a doomsday scenario in which everyone is silent and refuses to say anything for fear of ever offending anyone as if their everyday speech is offensive and it suddenly being outlawed.

As an Anthropologist, I feel that I have to acknowledge my wincings and headshakings (i.e. my biases), but also read the commentaries with some understanding as if I was an alien trying to understand the norms and behaviors of a "faraway" tribe on their own terms.  And just like any other modern-day Anthropologist, I feel I have a "responsibility" to the community I work with to portray them in as "balanced" a manner as possible, while acknowledging the biases at work in my assessments.

Here's what I would say:

I think the writer is pretty representative of the response of most conservative discourse, though it appears he is slightly better read than the average conservative/libertarian. 

His main feeling is that his freedom and ability to speak is being curbed.  I'd say that its not so much his ability to speak being shut down as much as it is about there being more visible push back in media, academia to what powers that be have been able to get away with for so long.

I think his reading of the topic of microaggressions fails to speak to any serious scholar on the subject.

But the writer probably would not care, as he does not seem to hold those scholar's expertise in high regard.  He notes that microaggressions [and other related ideas] originate in agendas driven by departments that specialize in identity politics, seeing them as the "most easily offended" rather than as academically proficient.  

The fact that he is writing for a conservative/libertarian blog probably limits him.  I think it leads him to deny the complex realities of what noting microggressions mean. The writer sees the idea of microaggressions as only capable of causing trouble, kinda like the way some people view guns as a self-defense tool in suburbs and cities.

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