The other day I spoke on the phone with my very liberal, extremely well-educated friend from Washington, D.C.. While discussing the current state of American politics she said something like, “I bet that tonight some conservative idiot out on the farm in Kentucky burned his New Balance shoes because he saw the ‘N’ and was like, ‘I’m no Nike boy!’”
For years, liberals have branded conservatives as close-minded and judgmental. They often view conservatives as uneducated, racist, homophobic, and old-fashioned. And to be fair, maybe a few are. For those on the left, these insults are the most degrading because liberals preach tolerance, love, and acceptance of all people. They stand up for minorities and fight for civil rights. They let the LGBTQ community feel supported and understood. They reach out to refugees, around the world, with open arms. Yet, when confronted with a conservative, all understanding and compassion vanishes. What about that “idiot” out on the farm in Kentucky? Why can’t he feel supported and understood? What makes him less deserving of tolerance? Recently, I have noticed a pattern of liberals using their positive treatment of the marginalized to justify their negative perception of conservatives. This dangerous pattern widens the already considerable gap between liberals and conservatives, making it even more challenging to reach across the aisle.
Malcolm Gladwell discusses this phenomenon on his podcast, Revisionist History. He refers to it as ‘moral licensing,’ and defines it as, knowingly or unknowingly, using one good act to justify bad actions. He says that the act of doing something morally good gives us license to publicly or unconsciously act in a way that directly opposes the morally good thing that we did.
For example, imagine a person who voted for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election but refuses to associate with African Americans in his or her community in the weeks, months, or even years following the election. When called out on this exclusionary tendency, the person says, “I’m not racist, I voted for Barack Obama.” The person uses one act, voting for Obama, to justify subsequent racist behavior.
Or, my friend could arrogantly condemn conservatives’ boycott of Nike products and feel okay about it because she marched for women’s rights, retweets @adaripp, and volunteers at a homeless shelter. Moral licensing is the biggest threat to our current political state because most liberals don’t even realize that they are guilty of it.
I am a Democrat. I am a tree-hugging, Ruth Bader Ginsburg-loving, civil rights-supporting, bleeding-heart liberal. Universal healthcare? You bet I support it. Gay marriage? Love is love, I say. Hillary Clinton? My role model. I’m as progressive as they come. And yet, even I have grown tired of the liberal left’s elitist attitude and judgment of conservative Americans. We have become the party of egotistical, seemingly more educated elites who look down on those that we deem less informed. We have become so concerned with political correctness that it blinds our ability and even willingness to understand conservative Americans.
In a political climate that is already excessively polarized the last thing we need is more name-calling and judgment. We must foster an environment of understanding where dialogue is not only acceptable, but encouraged. This kind of environment cannot exist as long as liberals continue to justify their judgmental behavior using moral licensing. It is essential that liberals not only maintain their fundamental open-mindedness towards those who are marginalized, but also extend it to those previously deemed less deserving. Instead of judging conservatives, liberals need to listen to them. At the end of the day, liberals will definitely disagree with a lot of what conservatives have to say, and vice versa. However, that disagreement in no way justifies subsequent judgement and condemnation. In the words of Beto O’Rourke, “reasonable people can disagree on issues, and it makes them no less American to come down on a different side,” . But until we understand how we ended up on those sides, we will never be able to make compromises that lead to lasting, positive, change for all Americans.
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