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On Having a Thick Skin
Conservatives should be more used to criticism by now.
Thomas Sowell’s foundational A Conflict of Visions answered a question I’d wondered about for most of my life:
Why have conservatives always been subjected to unfair allegations of greed, selfishness, insecurity, mental illness, idiocy, venality, cold-heartedness, hatred for others, etc. from the left?
Not that conservatives haven’t made bad-faith attacks upon the left. But there seemed to be a disproportionate tendency—in my lifetime and throughout the twentieth century—among left-wingers to resort to ad hominem attacks, to argue that their opponents were illegitimate and worthy of contempt, and even to believe (in some cases) that all right-wingers were motivated by bigotry, mental dysfunction, self-aggrandizement, or outright evil. Meanwhile, leftists could get away with supporting noxious dictators or making foul statements about murdering their opponents while remaining respectable and sophisticated. Even when the right represented the country club set, it could never match the left for sophistication.
And thus, when along came a Republican nominee in 2016 on whom the left’s tactics no longer worked (perhaps because he had a lot in common with the left), many right-wingers fell in love with him.
Asymmetry Between Competing Visions
People who believe in free markets rarely believe that support for socialism is an indication of a lack of moral character, but the same can’t be said about the reverse. People who voted for Reagan didn’t believe that a vote for Dukakis was a sign of low intelligence, but the reverse can’t be said either. Exceptions can be found, but we are talking about averages, and on average, it is more common for the left to believe their opponents are bad (because they are standing in the way of progress) than it is for the right to believe that those who believe in progress are bad (even if progress is a myth).
Some on the left won’t know what I’m talking about. Let me try to explain. If you are a left-winger, until the Trump era, you probably haven’t had any of the following experiences:
You meet someone and immediately hit it off. You talk with this person for a while, and then, somehow, your politics comes up. Your new friend immediately writes you off as a bad person and refuses to have anything to do with you.
From the time you are six years old, you are routinely called racist, sexist, chauvinist, misogynist, selfish, etc., based solely on your support for George Bush or Bob Dole.
It is suggested to you that there is something wrong with your mind (i.e., you’re “repressing” something—your sexuality, your need for hallucinogenic liberation, your latent fascism, or whatever), even by close friends who don’t share your politics.
You are told by serious people—but people who know very little about you as a person—that you are what is wrong with the world.
Sowell explains that there is an asymmetry between the two competing visions of the world. The utopians are more likely to see their opponents as venal or stupid because it seems obvious to them that utopia lies just beyond human grasp and that the actions of those opponents are (the only thing) standing in the way of that utopia. They struggle to understand why anyone would want to stand in the way of perfection. It doesn’t occur to them that anyone could actually believe in some of the premises their opponents espouse.
The anti-utopians don’t generally see their opponents as standing in the way of anything. Moreover, given their beliefs in the fallibility of humankind (as opposed to the perfectibility of humankind), they have no trouble understanding that there will be people who will hold wildly different beliefs and opinions from their own.
In particular, it is immediately obvious to almost anyone why the utopian, or unconstrained, vision would have a natural appeal to human beings. Unless you already have a relatively constrained worldview yourself, it isn’t immediately clear why you would want to believe in the things that anti-utopians believe. An unconstrained world sounds “nicer.”
Many unconstrained solutions to problems “sound nice,” whereas most constrained solutions sound harsh, mean, cold, cruel, and uncaring. If I say that I believe the governments of the world cannot sustainably and effectively give the people of the world the medical care they need, and that it would be better for the health of the human race to leave it up to the free market, many people hear me say that I want to unleash something like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle upon the medical care of poor people, because I couldn’t actually believe that the best way to help people buy the medical care they need is to leave it up to the market.
But I do believe that. Nor is that the only position for which I might have been derided by left-wingers. I learned early on that you could either take offense and get angry (and, occasionally, I still do), or you could laugh. I don’t know if children still say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” but we did back when I was a kid.
It takes time and practice, and you won’t always be successful, but you can avoid letting the names get under your skin. You can make a joke out of your political differences. Back when I still considered myself a Republican (2014), a friend who didn’t know my politics made a disparaging comment to a group of our friends about “dirty Republicans.” I immediately responded, “I’m a dirty Republican.” A little laughter can diffuse an otherwise tense situation. But it’s still going to involve some discomfort.
Sowell’s insight about the asymmetry can give one more magnanimity. It is easier to get angry at something when you don’t understand the reason for it. Once you know there is a reason, even an unsatisfactory one, you no longer feel the same indignity. What used to bother me about the casual disrespect towards the political right was the unfairness. The pathologizing, the automatic assumption that traditionalism demonstrated a lack of moral worth, the snideness, the cheap shots taken at every Republican since Goldwater, the lies about conservative thinkers—lies that many people believed.
And it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that leftists routinely get away with things that no Republican other than Donald Trump has ever gotten away with.
But what is the constrained response? Life isn’t fair. The world isn’t fair. It may or may not be fair that right-wingers get an undue share of hatred, but it is the way things are. It doesn’t matter that we wish they were different.
Where Does That Leave Us?
The constrained response to the world isn’t to throw up our hands. It isn’t to complain that we are uniquely and unfairly victimized by inscrutable and unjust forces outside of our control. It is to live as best we can in light of the way the world is.
Whether or not we feel in the moment, when we have just been insulted for the four-hundredth time for our fetishistic attachment to country and family, that the glass is half full, how we feel doesn’t matter. In fact, should we care at all how we feel?
In 2015, more right-wingers started whining about how unfair it was that the left controlled Hollywood, academia, popular music, etc. Some acted like it was new. I then as unsympathetically as I do now. It has ever been thus, and it ever will be. We can either whine about it and achieve nothing or learn to grow thicker skin. Both responses will change nothing about the underlying facts, but the latter will be far more useful and productive.
Perhaps that sounds harsh and uncaring. Well, most of the constrained responses to the problems of the world “sound” uncaring, especially when the other side is offering a lot of free stuff. It sounds harsh to tell people to learn to tough things out when the other side is telling them to indulge themselves and give vent to their feelings.
And it feels good in the moment to whine and complain and blame others for problems. But conservatives know that what feels good in the moment often isn’t good or healthy for human beings. Sometimes, the caring thing sounds harsh in the moment, but short-term discomfort often leads to satisfaction in the long term—and it sure beats greater suffering in the long term.
In the short term, playing the victim card about the left’s unfair attacks upon the right feels good. But in the long run, it will only backfire. Grievance politics will eat away at the constrained foundations of conservatism, corrupting the right’s political philosophy. The left will always be better at victimhood politics than the right. Whining about the left’s unfair insults may give vent to one’s feelings, but it will be detrimental to one’s mental health in the long term.
Even when I laugh, it still doesn’t feel good to be insulted by people you want to like and respect. It still doesn’t feel good not to be taken seriously. But whose life doesn’t require mental discomfort? Who goes through life without ever being insulted or hurt? Human nature may be flawed, but it is also quite capable of dealing with these things. The nature of human beings is that, remarkably, we “just can deal.” We can learn to deal with the insults—the ones that don’t bother us and the ones that do.
It takes time and doesn’t always come easy, but it begins when you realize that you can’t control what other people think about you. Not really. It would be good for them to think well of you. But some of them won’t. There will always be those who begin from unconstrained premises about the world and, due to the internal logic of their own worldview, will see you (personally) as problematic, backwards, stupid, or oppressive. But you know what? You’ll be okay. You can deal with that.
I’ll leave you with one last bit of advice. Don’t ever give in to the temptation, no matter how strong, to give truth to the worst characterizations your political opponents make of you. Some rightists, after being told for years that white people are intrinsically racist, respond by saying, “Well, I guess I should own it.” Some men, told for years that masculinity is toxic, embrace toxicity in lieu of masculinity, and give in to the darkest impulses of their nature.
Don’t be like them. They chose the easy path.
Ben Connelly is a writer, long-distance runner, former engineer, and author of “Grit: A Practical Guide to Developing Physical and Mental Toughness.” He publishes short stories and essays at Hardihood Books. @benconnelly6712
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