A couple of weeks ago, when I attended the annual meeting of the Georgia Sociological Association, I ran into a familiar challenge. It was discouraging, but not overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong; I love the organization and most of its members. Nevertheless my colleagues left-leaning attitudes can be discomfiting.
Let me explain. This year I came in a bit late to a workshop on applied sociology. Those in the room were already discussing the best ways to bring social activism into the classroom. For them, this meant figuring out how to promote social justice.
Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, but this is not my style. All too often, I am a provocateur. And so I raised my hand and suggested that many liberals tend to be self-righteous. In doing so, it was as if I had thrown a bomb into their midst.
All of a sudden everyone rose to his or her feet to tell me I was wrong. The decibel level rose to unseemly heights for an academic gathering, as I was vigorously instructed about the error of my ways.
My response was that the vociferousness of their reaction proved my point. Had they not felt threatened by the potential truth of my words, they would not have been as emotionally aroused.
Of course, no one heard what I said. They were too busy making certain that I was not allowed to continue my remarks. In other words, self-righteous people do not want to be confronted with their self-righteousness. Just check-out the mainstream press.
In sociology, the left-leaning consensus is so all-encompassing that people regularly expect their opinions to be reinforced. So frequently is this the case that they regard dissent as evidence of a mental shortcoming.
Mind you, most of us think we are right. We do not welcome criticism because we are sure it is undeserved. Whether we are liberal or conservative, we would not believe what we do if we did not assume it was correct.
Nevertheless, there are degrees of certitude. Some people are far more rigid in their viewpoints than others. As it happens, many liberals and progressives are today especially inflexible in their perspectives. They seldom brook principled disagreement.
To hear some leftists tell it, they are never wrong. Whenever one of their programs fails to live up to the advance billing, they blame it on the opposition. Whether this pertains to the economy, foreign affairs, or Obamacare, it is conservatives who obviously prevented success.
As far as these progressives are concerned, every social problem is created by privileged oppression. Some elite group has selfishly harmed the poor, minorities or women. The proper corrective is therefore to counteract these bad guys. Often this entails purging of them from the community.
Those, who are so convinced, are blind to the myriad complications of human endeavors. They do not see the subtleties. Be they proponents of social justice or religious fundamentalism, they cannot accept alternate explanations.
Oliver Crowell, when he was disputing with the Scottish Presbyterians, declared “I beseech thee, in the bowels of Christ, think you may be mistaken.” Of course, his opponents came to no such conclusion. The result was a war that left Scotland badly damaged.
Crowell, on the other hand, although he could be stiff-necked, was frequently prepared to modify his course as the circumstances demanded. This made him effective on the battlefield and in Parliament.
Being ready to imagine that others have a valid point is essential to correcting our errors. We don’t have to agree with these folks, but there is generally a reason they believe as they do. Being prepared to recognize this often enables us to see where our own position might be strengthened.
Nowadays the extent of our collective confusions is such that our anxieties have stimulated a rash of moralistic posturing. Many of us are not sure of the answers so we conceal our discomfort by pretending that we know everything anyone needs to know. This is a dangerous form of self-delusion.
Strong people can accept their limitations. They can live with their inability to understand or control events. This furnishes them with the flexibility to roll with the punches. Too bad political suppleness is currently in short supply.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University