Tuesday, May 18, 2004

talking past each other

Have you noticed how the left and right are talking past each other on the Abu Ghraib prison incident? The left thinks this incident has tarnished the US and put to shame our (meaning the right's) pretensions to moral superiority. The right thinks that this is a relatively unimportant incident and that if anything, it validates the strength of US institutions. Why two such disparate views on a single event? It's not just propaganda; this difference is directly traceable to two different world views. It's the same difference in world views that causes the left and the right to each view the other as morally arrogant and racist.

The difference in a nut shell: the left believes that the measure of a society is how well it produces good people. The right thinks that the measure of a society is how well it controls bad people. To the left, if a society has bad people that need to be controlled, then it is a failure already. To the right, society has little impact on how good a person is, it can only control their more harmful actions.

When a leftist says that American society is no better than, for example, Arab Muslim societies, what he means is that American society does no better at producing good people than does Arab Muslim society. And he's generally correct. If there is less brutality and cruelty in America than in the Middle East, it is only because American law and social customs keep it under control better. It's still there under the surface, and in the right circumstances it comes out. When leftists say that Abu Ghraib is revealing, what they mean is that this demonstrates the existence of that underlying current of evil --a current that exists as surely in America as anywhere else.

Again, the left is correct. What they fail to understand is how utterly obvious that fact is to conservatives. Of course there are brutal and cruel people in America. Of course some of these brutal and cruel people are in the military. Of course even otherwise good people sometimes do evil things. None of this shocks the right, or even seems worth remarking on. That is why conservatives misunderstand what the left is saying. When a person says something utterly obvious, you assume that they mean something else by the remark. If you ask a friend how he likes your new car and he says, "Well, it's red." You assume he doesn't just mean to tell you the color of the car. And when the left constantly points out evil things done by Americans or the American government, the right is inclined to react similarly, looking for the meaning in these obvious and trivial statements.

The left suffers from the corresponding misunderstanding. Conservatives judge societies by what happens in them, not by the goodness of the people in them. Since there is manifestly far less brutality and cruelty in American society than in the Muslim Middle East, this is all the evidence that is necessary to prove that American society is superior. Leftists are shocked by such a judgment because what they hear is that Americans are superior to Arabs. They hear racism and moral superiority. But the very standard that conservative use to judge the two societies presupposes that Americans are not morally superior to Arabs. If they were, then all the differences could be explained by the fact that Arabs are simply more brutal than Americans. Conservatives reject this explanation out of hand, and that is why they conclude that American society is better than Arab society. American society manages to control Americans who are by nature just as cruel and brutal as Arabs, much better than Arab society controls Arabs.

The left, since they think that the goodness of people is controlled by their society, tends to judge groups. The Crusades show how war-like Christians are. Occasional isolated incidents of racism show how racist white people are. A tiny number of abortion clinic bombings show how dangerous fundamentalists are. Abu Ghraib shows how brutal American soldiers are. This sounds extremely bigoted, narrow-minded, and racist to conservatives. Every group is going to have bad people in it and you can't judge a group by it's worst elements. But what the leftists mean, I conjecture, is that the existence of a few bad apples condemns the entire tree because a good tree does not produce bad apples. They don't mean by this group condemnation to condemn all the individuals in the group; rather they mean to condemn the group as an institution. They mean that an institution that produces such people needs to be changed. It's a ludicrous view, but it isn't really bigoted in the usual sense.

The conceit that they can change people is also the reason that the left seems morally arrogant to conservatives. To a conservative, people make their own moral choices for incalculable reasons. And once a man is set on a moral course, no other man is likely to change it. The left doesn't see it this way. To the left, the human mind is a computer that takes inputs and produces outputs. If the inputs are frustration, want, and suffering, they will deliver outputs of violence, cruelty and brutality. Correspondingly, if you want to prevent violent outputs then you simply change the inputs. That's why leftists fear movies about the suffering of Christ or pastors who say that homosexuality is a sin. They fear these inputs will trip a switch in some hapless mind that sets someone to violence.

The right sees these arguments and finds them patently offensive for treating human beings like robots. It seems morally arrogant to always presuppose that you can manipulate others to see things your way. And when the left wants to make violent people happy in order to turn off the "violence switch", the right sees appeasement. But it's not really appeasement, it's just pathetically poor understanding of human nature.

This view of the left is also what compels them to piousness on issues of conflict. If someone is violent, it is because someone failed to adjust the perpetrator's inputs properly. So conservatives act to control the worst elements of human nature and leftists sniff, "Well, just don't have such elements." They always seem to think that if we would only be nicer to criminals, crime would vanish. There is the implicit suggestion that if you would only be nicer to criminals, crime would vanish. When the left asked after 9/11, "Why do they hate us?" it was clear from their answers that what they really meant was "Why do they hate you?", meaning conservatives, capitalists, and Christians -- the three C's of Evil or C3oE. And what they mean is that the C3oE is not on board with the effort to reprogram all those nasty violent people into bucolic Europhiles.

The left sees the intransigence of the C3oE in this regard as either selfish unwillingness to help, or a nasty preference for violence over peaceful reprogramming. What they don't understand is that the C3oE really has an entirely different reason for not going along with the effort: they view the plan as hopelessly naive and useless. The issue is certainly not one of selfishness or preferring violence. If you give C3oE an effort such as the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan that actually might work, they don't mind the expense. And they think it's wonderful that there were so few civilian casualties in those wars.

When the right congratulates themselves for a war with few civilian casualties, the left views them as being callous to the casualties that did occur. But what the left misses is that the right doesn't believe that there were any better alternatives, any solutions that would have led to fewer deaths of the innocent. Once you decide that you can't prevent all tragedy, it is simply reasonable, not callous, to work toward minimizing the scope of the tragedy and to be happy when you do a good job at minimizing it.

I've been pretty hard on the left in some of my postings, but I'm a conservative who doesn't believe that people's moral choices are controlled by society so I also believe that leftists are, in general, as well-meaning as conservatives. Yes, there are a lot of people spewing hatred and bile on the left today, but that's mostly just because they can get away with it. If the Republicans owned the news media the way the Democrats do, they would be just as bad as the Democrats are now. And yes, the left has shown an apparently callous disregard for the people who suffer under brutal dictatorships, but you have to assume that in some sense they think the alternatives would be worse.

So go hug a lefty today. Unless you are both guys; that would be gross.

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