Questioning Authority: The Intoxicant of the Liberal Mind?

As I’ve written earlier, the main goal of this blog is to understand my own conversion (at the age of 20) from a liberal to a conservative, and secondarily, to understand why my peer group (college professors) generally have not made the same conversion.

A constancy in my personality is that I have a bit of an allergy to whatever is currently popular.  I distrust fads and rarely get caught up in them.  I can roll through most academic categories on Jeopardy, but when the pop culture categories come up, I turn into an idiot.

In arguments, I like to play Devil’s Advocate.  I find it far more satisfying, intellectually and emotionally, to score points from the minority position.

On one hand, this is a personality characteristic that is quintessentially Left.  It is the Left who “Question Authority”, who “Don’t trust anyone over 30”, who “dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”, who rail at the status quo and seek radical change.

Yet on the other hand, this is a personality characteristic that is quintessentially Right.  It is the Right who resist change for the sake of change, who are skeptical of the new and untried, who demand certainty before proceeding, who favor slow, systematic advances over being swept up in the zeitgeist.

Prior to my conversion at the age of 20, I was a bright, inquisitive, impressed-with-his-own-intelligence high school kid in the Bible Belt.  It was also an era – the 1970s and 1980s, when there was far less tolerance for atheists and homosexuals, where men made more money than women and were much more likely to get a college education, where black Americans weren’t yet leading men in Hollywood, where interracial marriage and even interracial friendships were uncommon.  In this milieu, Questioning Authority certainly did lead to a skepticism of conservative ideas and an embrace of liberal ones. Then I hit college.  The college I attended (in the era in which I attended it) was not noticeably leftist, at least not in the science classes I was attracted to.  George H.W. Bush was President – it was a conservative era.  I began college life as a College Democrat.

But then I began hanging around with an intellectual crowd.  I traveled overseas and met a variety of people.  I was friends with Eastern Europeans who had fled socialist regimes.  Clinton became President and initiated (along with Newt Gingrich), the beginning of the ideological wars that has led to our current red state/blue state polarized society.  Suddenly it was a milieu in which Leftist thought predominated.  Faced with this, the Devil’s Advocate position to explore was the conservative one.  While I still believed in tolerance and equal rights to all, that war was a last resort solution, that there was no God, that women were as smart and capable as men, that education was important, and that society needed a safety net for the less fortunate, I began to recoil at the shallow thinking and groupthink of my new social group.  My friends could certainly find the shallow thinking in their political opponents, but they were incapable of finding it in their own world view.

Question Authority doesn’t mean Question Tradition, or Question the Right Wing.  It means to demand evidence and to investigate biases – the biases of others and the biases in your own thinking.  (This is the core of the scientific method, which explains why I am especially troubled when scientists fail to rely on scientific thinking when they step out of the lab and into the voting booth).

Yet so many of my professor friends misunderstand the slogan.  It requires a strong set of ideological blinders to believe that “authority” consists in the religious right, capitalism and free markets, racism and sexism.  From the colleges, to primary education, to the news media, to the entertainment industry, to the United Nations, authority is now the doctrines of group identity, multiculturalism, socialism, big government, free thought, and social justice.  Those who truly want to Question Authority should take a hard look at those doctrines and seek evidence as to whether those doctrines truly increase people’s happiness and goodness.

To the liberal, Questioning Authority is intoxicating.  Slapping a bumper sticker on your car that says “Coexist” or “Hate Is Not A Family Value” demonstrates, at a cost of $2, one’s moral and intellectual superiority.  It feels good, and everyone pats you on the back for it.  But it’s an illusory thrill.  Questioning Authority is not what one does to gain plaudits and popularity, and it shouldn’t feel good.  Questioning Authority should be difficult and it should earn you scorn.  You should be swimming against the tide, not with it.  The work of Questioning Authority is never done – because there’s always a tide.  If you’ve turned it, it is time to swim in the other direction.  That’s what the slogan means.

I’m not a relativist here.  I’m not saying there’s no right answer.  I’m saying there’s no simple answer to complex questions.  What I’m saying is that Questioning Authority becomes intoxicating when what you are questioning is no longer the authority, when you are fighting battles that were won 30 years ago and you don’t recognize they’ve been won.  We have to constantly resist hubris, constantly guard against group think and the confirmation bias, constantly demand evidence.  When there’s so much agreement on something that you can put it in the form of a bumper sticker, you’re probably overconfident.  When you’re only questioning other people (many of whom are straw men) and not questioning your own beliefs, you’re missing the point.

And so I suggest that my liberal professor friends join me in asking the following questions, and more:

  • Does expanding the food stamp program really give impoverished people the ability to better-devote their resources to getting out of poverty?
  • Is it really beneficial to society and civic engagement for 40% of people to pay no federal income tax?
  • Is the quality of health care and customer service affected when employers, rather than individuals, choose and purchase health insurance?
  • Does increasing the minimum wage actually decrease the number of jobs available for young Americans?
  • Given that a larger and more active police force reduces crime, is it possible that a stronger and more active military makes the world a safer place?
  • Does multiculturalism actually decrease tolerance between groups?
  • Given the pace of technological change, is it really wise to place so much in the hands of a centralized, distant authority rather than local or private control?
  • Do “awareness campaigns” (of drug use, tobacco, eating behavior) actually change people’s behavior?
  • Do the words “fair share” actually mean something, or are they a substitute for avoidance economic analysis?
  • Can affirmative action be harmful to the people it tries to help, either by putting those people in situations they are unprepared for, or in creating the perception that those people have not earned their successes?
  • Has low interest rates for college loans contributed to the out-of-control increases in college tuition and the decreases in the rigor of the college experience?
  • Are condoms so difficult to find and expensive to purchase that contraception needs to be subsidized by insurance companies and/or the taxpayer?
  • Is “class” a useful concept in a market-based economy?
  • Is “race” a useful concept, or does the concept itself decrease, rather than increase, understanding between individuals?
  • Isn’t “gender” actually a useful concept?

I could easily write 3-4 dozen more of these bullets.  I don’t pretend that I know the best answer to these questions.  My point in creating this list is that I can predict that most professors pretend to know the best answer to these questions.  And that their certainty is so high that they can’t believe that the question is even being asked.

Or, to put it more bluntly, that their authority on the subject is even being questioned.

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10 comments

  1. Steve Burri · · Reply

    I was just directed here from Keith Burgess-Jackson’s blog and caught up on your postings. As a Christian, Conservative, and non-academic, I must say that I have run into many of your kind lately. Keith, John Ray, John Pepple, and you fit into similar categories. I appreciate you all very much. Unfortunately, I have blogrolled you and you are stuck with me as I will return with each new post and comment from my great wisdom from time to time!

    1. Thank you for these blog links, I will check them out. Who knew there were others like me? And of course, non-professorial theists are good folk too, so welcome. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Well, I’m afraid I can only lay claim to two out of the three, but I am the son of a professor so perhaps I’ll go for two and one half.

    The apparent misunderstanding, at least from my point of view, regarding the “liberal/conservative” brains has become so pervasive that I have decided to make an attempt at setting things right.

    Here let me just address one particular misconception that liberals have propagated and conservatives seem to have accepted.

    “A constancy in my personality is that I have a bit of an allergy to whatever is currently popular. I distrust fads and rarely get caught up in them. I can roll through most academic categories on Jeopardy, but when the pop culture categories come up, I turn into an idiot.”

    All fully indicative of a “conservative brain”.

    “In arguments, I like to play Devil’s Advocate. I find it far more satisfying, intellectually and emotionally, to score points from the minority position.”

    Depends on the reason for the satisfaction. Libertarian tendencies…fundamentally conservative…idiotically liberal.

    In your case I’m going to eliminate number 3.

    “On one hand, this is a personality characteristic that is quintessentially Left. It is the Left who “Question Authority”, who “Don’t trust anyone over 30″, who “dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”, who rail at the status quo and seek radical change.”

    In this case I simply wasn’t sure exactly what personality characteristic to which you were referring and, assuming it referred to the one above, it once again depends on certain hidden motives which you failed to reveal.

    “Yet on the other hand, this is a personality characteristic that is quintessentially Right. It is the Right who resist change for the sake of change, who are skeptical of the new and untried, who demand certainty before proceeding, who favor slow, systematic advances over being swept up in the zeitgeist.”

    So, now you are defining your Devil’s Advocate position as being one in which you defended the status quo? I generally agree with your overall characterization of the Right, but it seems we need more information in order to fully understand the question and thus formulate a reasonably accurate answer.

    I mean no harm in my response and feel free not to post my comment if you feel it was inappropriate.

    1. I think you have understood my train of thought. The Devil’s Advocate position, to my mind, is a position that Leftists usually claim. My feeling is that Leftist thought is now ascendent. The Left is almost exclusively the position that emanates from the mainstream media, from the universities, and from the United Nations. Leftist thought has become the status quo. In that environment, the Devil’s Advocates are now on the Right. It is the Right that is second guessing the appropriate response to global warming, the wisdom of the Post New Deal expansion of federal power, the trend at centralization of education, the preference for multi-culturalism over the melting pot.

      Also, I’m speaking from a sort of bunker mentality within academia. Even if society at large has not wholly bought into Leftist thought, I am surrounded by those who rarely if ever Question the Authority of Leftist perspective – because I’m on the faculty of a college.

  3. “The Devil’s Advocate position, to my mind, is a position that Leftists usually claim.”

    Absolutely, but with absolutely no justification based on the data they themselves cite. All the research shows that Conservatives are the independent thinkers, the ones that value individual liberty, and the ones least likely to be swayed by the crowd.

    Even in matters of religion a study I once read (sorry it’s been a while and thus no link) pointed out the difference in perspectives. The relevance here is that Conservatives assigned a high value to the societal benefits of religious values and instruction while it was Liberals who were more concerned with the spiritual realm. Makes sense to me as a conservative atheist supporter of the Christian (secular) value system.

    Liberals, on the other hand, are communal; group orientated, and need the group to validate their values and perspectives. The disconnect is that they, and many conservatives, misinterpret and assign incorrect values to the characteristic of being open to new experiences.
    The ascendance you assign to the left is certainly understandable from your perspective. If you are immersed in the academic world and read the liberal media it would seem that the conservatives are in the minority rather than, according to a Gallup poll the actual distribution is 40% conservative, 35% moderate, and only 21% describing themselves as liberal.

    Sorry, I get carried away at times, and there is obviously much more to be said on the subject. I’ve written several articles on the subject, but won’t link them now as that is not my primary motive for commenting and I have not yet moved them to the listed blog.

    Thanks for your reply. Keep the faith.

    1. If and when you do have relevant blog articles, I do not at all mind you plugging them in my comments section – for future reference. I enjoy the exchange.

  4. Thanks….I ‘m not really overrun with hordes of conservative atheists in my daily life either.

  5. Thought you might find this of interest..

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/compost/2011/02/born_this_way_conservative_bia.html

    Our recent exchange got me to thinking (again) about liberal bias on campus and the next logical step was to suggest you consider providing some perspective on how conservative students fare in the academic environment.

    The article above jumped out at me and I thought of you.

    1. That was an excellent read. I believe I’ve commented on Haidt’s work elsewhere in this blog, but if not, that is probably a subject I will bring up at some point.

      I do not know many conservative students, or at least those that are politically involved. But I certainly do resonate to the vignette in the column about the assumption that everyone will laugh at a political joke aimed at conservatives. They happen in class rooms and faculty meetings all the time, and I find them unprofessional in the extreme.

  6. […] Leftists regularly claim to be anti-authority but in the global warming debate almost their only argument is that “the authorities” […]

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