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How to talk conservative

May 30, 2012

I finished reading “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” and I have to say, I got a lot out of it. Even if they are just approximations to the truth, it’s interesting to consider his various positions. Near the end he talks about religion and “groupishness,” and how people are too focused on the technical aspects of religious beliefs rather than what a religion accomplishes in a community, which he claims is its main benefit.

But what I found more interesting is the beginning of the book when he discusses the different moral make-up of liberals and conservatives (and libertarians) in this country. Namely, he claims that liberals care primarily about the following three things:

  1. caring for the vulnerable or victimized,
  2. the concept of oppression from bullies – or conversely the concept of liberty, and
  3. the concept of proportional fairness (you deserve a part of the pie since you helped make it, but you wouldn’t deserve any if you hadn’t helped).

By contrast, conservatives care about a larger set of six things, the above three as well as:

  1. the concept of sanctity,
  2. the concept of authority – when it’s just and those in power take proper responsibility, and
  3. the concept of loyalty.

I took away three points. First, liberals are bad at guessing what conservatives think, because they are somewhat blind to these last three things, and when they see conservatives go on about them, they assume conservatives don’t care about the first three, which is wrong, although it’s true that they care about them differently (especially proportional fairness: whereas liberals emphasize leaving nobody out, conservatives emphasize not letting people get extra, especially if it comes from their stuff). Second, if I, as a liberal, want to communicate with a conservative, I have to talk about all six of these with some level of understanding. Finally, statistics and other rational arguments only work if the person you’re talking to already agrees with you or if they are exceptionally open-minded – in any case you have to appeal to their morals before going into stats.

With that in mind, here are two rants against the Stop, Question, and Frisk policy, one written for a liberal audience, one for a conservative audience.

Liberal version First, the stop, question, and frisk policy targets minority men almost exclusively. Second, almost 90% of the events end up without an arrest, which means it’s unwarranted intrusion and bullying- typically the reason given for the stop is a “furtive movement”, which could be absolutely anything. Finally, there is a quota system in the police department which forces each officer to perform these unwarranted searches whether or not there is cause, which inevitably leads them to target the “least likely to complain,” namely young, poor minorities. We need to stop the police abusing their privileges in this way immediately.

Conservative version What is the difference between a police force and a gang of men who walk around with guns? The answer, in the best of worlds, is authority, intentionality, and the rule of law. Police have an important job to do, which is to protect us, and to keep the streets safe. And when they do a good job, we admire them for that and count on them for their protection. But imagine if, instead of seeing your neighborhood cop as someone you can count on, he instead consistently stops you on your way home from school or work and asks you suspicious questions, and sometimes even takes your keys from your pocket, and, while you’re locked in the police car, enters your apartment and terrorizes your family. This makes you feel like you are the bad guy, even though you did nothing wrong. After a while, it would make you and your neighborhood less trusting of the authority of the cops, which would lead to reckless behavior and lawlessness, because your rights are no longer being protected. We need to stop the policy of Stop, Question, and Frisk in order to make sure the police never become just a bunch of bullies with guns.

Categories: musing
  1. Dan L
    May 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

    It’s a nice bit of armchair theorizing, but the fact remains that your “Conservative version” isn’t going to change the minds of any conservatives on this issue.

    Here’s my take on a conservative response (to either of your arguments): Most of the people stopped by the police are genuinely thought to be suspicious by the police. Of course, *some* innocent people will be stopped unfairly, but it is a small price to pay for a safer society. (After all, if you’re not doing anything wrong, it’s a simple matter to clear things up and be on your way.) And if you’d like to minimize how often you are stopped by the police, you can just avoid behaving suspiciously.

    Of course, I’m a liberal, and therefore I must be completely wrong about this.


  2. Deborah gieringer
    May 30, 2012 at 11:00 am

    It is a nice, even necessary way to open a dialogue …. And the next challenge comes back, as comment above notes, to the “facts” of any given situation, which are derived from very different perceptions of what is “actually” happening. In general, at least in informal, social settings, i make the most headway with low-key probing regarding how the person arrived at her perceptions. The less i challenge the perceptions, the more malleable they become for the person who holds them, and the more open to new information. I don’t want to change your opnion. I want you to do it.


  3. Deborah gieringer
    May 30, 2012 at 11:02 am

    And vice versa.


  4. May 30, 2012 at 11:56 am

    The “conservative” version is, unfortunately, just the classic libertarian argument. The actual conservative tends to think, “The police are the good guys, they are us, I have cousins who are in law enforcement, they tell me all the crap they have to go through, I have never personally had a problem, except that time when I was young and stupid, and I’m grateful my uncle’s friend let me off with a warning.”


  5. rob
    May 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Appealing to the other side is a noble and admirable exercise, though only liberals, who care about others and don’t prize loyalty, would put effort into it or admire it (if Haidt is right about both groups). I notice that the list of liberal values specify their interests in others — the others are mentioned in the description — but the conservative list is elliptical. It’s important to fill in those ellipses:

    Loyalty — to whom? To one’s own folks, of course, and only to them. That’s what loyalty is. (That other folks should also be loyal to them is by the definition of loyalty irrelevant to oneself.) So at the fundamental emotional level of values, “don’t unjustifiably frisk me and my folks” doesn’t translate into “don’t unjustifiably frisk anyone.”

    Sanctity is just elevating loyalty to ones own into an inviolable principle above anyone else’s interests or even their life or even above justice itself.

    And authority requires identifying with the chosen authority (patriotism when Bush is in office, suddenly refusing to recognize the office of president when the other occupies it). It’s just ones own elevated to rule over the non-own and a convenient bypassing of justice for the benefit of ones own. Daddy rules; he defines benefit; mom and the kids are just there for the ride.

    So your powerful arguments against stop, question and frisk will convince only conservative non-white victims of sq&p. (<; So long as sq&f doesn't compromise ones own folks, it's consonant with authority.

    Trying to make a categorical universal principle out of a value system that is predicated on the anti-universal is a valiant but losing game. I could see a conservative readily recognizing the principles behind your arguments, but underneath the deep feeling for loyalty undermines any commitment to those principles as universal. The response is often a fount of bigoted rationalizations intended to resolve the cognitive dissonance.


  6. Ray
    May 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    I don’t really see either of those arguments resonating very strongly with any of the people I’ve met who are in favor of things like Terry frisks. The supporters of such policies aren’t blind to the social harms that result from invasive policing. They just think that the social benefits that yields outweigh those harms. So it’s not like you need to educate them about the effect of stop-question-frisk on the perception of the police in minority communities; they already know (at least the ones worth engaging do). They just think it’s not too high a price to pay to catch the bad guys.

    I’m struggling to see the applicability of Haidt’s work here.


    • Dan L
      May 31, 2012 at 10:28 pm

      I agree, but I think it’s slightly more accurate to say that while many conservatives might understand that stop-and-frisk causes minorities to distrust the police, they would contend that their negative perception of the police is *unwarranted* and therefore we should not discontinue stop-and-frisk just to spare people’s feeling.

      Actually, I think that the most winning hypothetical argument to make to conservatives (if only it could be supported by facts!) would be the 100% pragmatic one: Stop-and-frisk causes so much distrust of police in minority communities that it actually *increases* crime.


  7. solundy
    May 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    I just started this book myself over the Memorial Day weekend. The introduction reminded me a bit of a book I read several years ago called “Don’t Think Of An Elephant!” by Lackoff, Dean, and Hazen. It’s a slimmer overview of moral politics and how to best frame arguments against an opposing conservative point of view. It also goes into the significant differences liberals and conservatives have in how they perceive and value the concept of “the family.” I may dig it out and revisit it after I finish “The Righteous Mind.”


  8. Bertie
    May 31, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Interesting post and interesting comments, wish I could contribute but I haven’t read the book in question.


  9. rob
    June 1, 2012 at 10:43 am

    I’ve had one great success talking to the ‘other’ side: teaching evolution to deeply religious students. But it wasn’t persuasion at all. If you’re interested: http://languageandphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/my-proudest-moment-and-the-problem-with-dawkins/

    Human nature seems to rebel against persuasion (just take a look around at our politics) — which implies that persuasion is a waste of effort. However, solving your opponent’s concerns is an effective means of resolving conflicts, well worth devoting effort, and all too often ignored among activists on every side. NIMBY is the standard for activists, and it can’t work — it’s a zero sum game. But if, say, you take it upon yourself to find an acceptable place for that waste treatment plant then at once you’ve solved it for you and the municipality too; merely objecting to the plant just invites a power fight.

    Solve the problem of crime, and frisking will come to an end (unless there is some stupid bureaucratic need for it). It’s a worthwhile effort and the only stable solution. True, one shouldn’t have to solve others’ concerns where there are issues of injustice like racial profiling. But merely protesting injustice does little more than add protest to the injustice. Attempted persuasion does even less.

    The work you are doing in OWS, Cathy, is of this broader effort: fix the financial system so that it doesn’t ruin itself and us with it. Unfortunately, it didn’t help that the CEO’s were not punished. That leaves them with no problem to solve.


  10. solundy
    June 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    We also shouldn’t forget, I think, that we’re trying to apply rational psychological and ethical insights into polarized behavior within the tremendously irrational, fear-factor, back drop of the last 10 years. Maybe Haidt gets into this later on in his book, but we are not—neither lefty nor righty—our most rational selves right now after a decade of war and killing, of repeated and gratuitous multi-colored “terror” alerts, of the daily drum beat (legitimate and contrived) of foiled “terror” plots, and creative mushroom cloud annihilation scenarios on American soil. Ugh.
    We’re traumatized as a nation from all of this—here and around the world. Like some weird paralysis of the intellect or concussion of the Western psyche. It’s so cliché now, but I think FDR was 100% correct. We fear everything except the one detrimental emotion which is causing us to act like terrified Puritans looking for the next witch to hang. We have to stop being afraid of each other or we will surely fucking perish.


  11. ca
    June 6, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    As someone who knows quite a few educated, thoughtful conservatives (yep, they actually exist), I’d say that your conservative argument is actually a good one. I’m not sure if it would be immediately convincing to them, but it would make them stop and think far more than the liberal version of the argument, which is all you can really hope for with this level of argument in the first place. I totally agree that it’s necessary to attempt to speak the same language when engaging in this type of discussion.

    (And Franklin, yes, most of the educated conservatives I know lean libertarian, which helps.)


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