Being Called Racist Isn't an Insult; It's a Diagnosis
Since Donald Trump won the Electoral College in November, liberals have developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for self-punishment. From “Bernie Bros” whining about how their candidate would have won to cable news pundits wringing their hands about broken windows in Washington, the vast majority of the left seems determined to find any way to blame itself for Donald Trump’s victory.
The latest trend in this flurry of self-flagellation seems to be going out to diners in places like rural Pennsylvania and Michigan to talk to those 78,000 voters whose voices outweighed 3.5 million. While these conversations mostly rehash a lot of things we already know (people thought Hillary was dishonest, they wanted change, they didn’t think Trump was serious about his campaign promises) there is one particular conclusion that seems to be receiving more and more attention: people on the left are pushing moderates away by being too mean. The great plot twist, as these working-class martyrs see it, is that the sensitive left is suddenly calling them names and making them feel uncomfortable.
So far, liberals seem more than happy to buy into this premise. Pieces like this New York Times article and this blog post suggest that if the left wants to win these voters back we’ll need to stop calling conservatives names and start being more sensitive to their emotions. This analysis is appealing at first, especially if you’re the type of liberal who prefers blaming yourself to criticizing others, but it doesn’t hold up for one simple reason: calling someone out for being racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or having some other bias isn’t name-calling.
So what is it then? I prefer to think of it as a diagnosis, no more inherently pejorative than when a doctor tells you that you’ve got the flu or a broken arm. If that doesn’t make sense right away, let’s walk through two simple situations and see if it makes sense then.
In situation one, a man walks into the doctor’s office with his hand hanging limp at the end of his arm. The doctor asks him to move his hand, and he says he can’t. The doctor takes his hand, moves it gently, and the man cries out in pain. The doctor then orders an x-ray, and finds that the bones in the man’s wrist are cracked. The doctor tells the man he has a broken wrist, the man thanks him for the diagnosis, and they move on to discuss ways to fix the problem and stop the man’s pain.
In situation two, the same man is sitting at home with a friend. They are talking about recent political events and the man says he thinks black people are lazy thugs who should quit whining and go find something useful to do instead of selling drugs and living off welfare. The man’s friend analyzes this comment, comes to the conclusion that his friend is making some broad statements about people based solely on their skin color, and calls the man a racist. Now the man who so happily received the diagnosis of a broken arm from his doctor becomes flustered and combative, quickly changes the topic, and later complains to a reporter that all the liberals he knows are intolerant jerks who keep calling him nasty names.
Why are the outcomes of these situations so different? The doctor and the man’s friend both did essentially the same thing: the doctor looked at physical evidence and correctly diagnosed the man with a broken wrist; the friend listened to what the man said and correctly diagnosed him as a racist. Yet the man thanks the doctor and resents his friend.
To understand why this happens, we need to delve into the two differences between the situation with the doctor and the situation with the friend. Doing this will help us understand why some people react badly to criticism from the left. However, it will also make it clear that these negative reactions are not something the left needs to worry about or accommodate.
The first difference between the situation with the doctor and the situation with the friend is that while the bigoted man may not have any negative associations with a broken wrist, he may in fact think that being called racist is an insult. If this is the case (and it isn’t always), then the man’s anger does not arise because his friend calls him out out for racism. Instead, he lashes out because he is afraid to admit he is violating his own moral code.
To avoid making this concession and engaging in the uncomfortable soul-searching that would come with it, the man casts himself as a victim of his friend’s mean, liberal insults. This allows the man to absolve himself of guilt, but it does not mean his friend did anything wrong. Calling out the man’s racism was still the right thing to do.
The second reason the man may react differently when his friend tells him he is racist than when the doctor tells him he has a broken wrist is that while the man sought out the doctor and asked for a diagnosis, his friend called him out for his bias without an invitation. To the self-effacing liberal, this may seem like a totally legitimate reason for the man to get angry at his friend. However, if we try to apply this logic to the diagnosis of a broken wrist, then we yet again see that the friend did nothing wrong, and that the man’s unwillingness to accept criticism is the real problem.
To make this clear, let’s revisit situation one, but this time we’ll assume the man does not want to admit he has a broken wrist in the same way he does not want to admit he is racist. To make sure he never has to face the truth, he actively avoids doctors. One day, however, he is out in public, and a doctor notices the man’s hand hanging limply at the end of his arm. When he gets closer, the doctor sees that the man is grimacing and appears to be in significant pain. The doctor also notices that the man’s pain appears to be making him irritable, and he is barking angrily at anyone who gets too close. In an effort to help the man and prevent him from lashing out at anyone else who may stumble across his path, the doctor approaches and tells the man that he has a broken wrist and should consider getting it treated.
Now the doctor has acted just like the friend: he has diagnosed the man without the man seeking his input. But can anyone seriously say the doctor did something wrong? He saw a man who was both in pain and causing pain to those around him and did what he believed was necessary. Even the most blood-soaked of the bleeding heart liberals would have to engage in some Olympic-level mental gymnastics to portray the doctor as the villain in this scenario.
Finally, I think it is important to point out that virtually every single person on the left side of the political spectrum has been called racist or sexist or homophobic at some point. However, instead of lashing out and crying about how mean and nasty liberals are, we have taken these moments as opportunities to engage in thoughtful discussion and to grow into more understanding and tolerant people. We do this because we recognize that, in the same way the doctor isn’t being mean when he diagnoses the man’s broken wrist, the people criticizing us aren’t doing anything wrong when they point out our unconscious biases. In fact, we see that they are actually helping us.
The left has plenty of problems and we need to address them if we are going to remain a viable political force, but our commitment to eradicating prejudice is not one of them. Instead of giving in to a few whiny conservatives who don’t want to take the time to question their assumptions, we need to keep calling people out and keep making them uncomfortable. In the same way a doctor should still tell a patient he has a broken wrist even if that patient wants to believe he’s healthy, liberals should continue to call out prejudice whenever we see it, even if that makes some conservatives think we’re mean.
The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo: "Snapped_arm" by Peter Burkel for Flickr on a CC BY-ND 2.0 license. Usage of this photo does not indicate creator's endorsement.