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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Supportive unanimity

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt proposes an explanation for some difference in the worldview of conservatives and liberals by showing experimental results that suggest conservatives are more considerate about sanctity and desecration than liberals. There is a fixation on purity, which connects to an affinity for tradition and an aversion to violations of tradition, real or imagined.

In recent years, I have wondered if his framework was missing a parallel aspect of the liberal mind: something you might call "supportive unanimity". On issue after issue, I find myself surprised that progressive friends take any deviation from a "protective" worldview as a sort of betrayal. What's interesting to me is that there is relatively little curiosity about the landscape of these "protective" views; the safe place seems to be in assuming everyone sees a long list of make issues the same way.

So you get, for example, surprisingly little interest in gender identities that don't fit the popular progressive view, such as Eddie Izzard's identity of frequently switching from man to woman and back again; and work by allies that isn't easy to categorize, like the wonderfully queer short story "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter", gets pilloried and censored.

It's important to recognize the positive value of supportive unanimity. As with other core values that Haidt points to, there is nothing inherently good or bad about it; it performs a function, and that function can be good or bad, at different times and from different perspectives. I think the positive function it plays is protection of the weak; it is a sort of overreaction to potential bullying by the majority, that signals to bullies and the bullied alike that abuse won't be tolerated.

I think you can credit a form of supportive unanimity for the degree to which, say, it is unacceptable for leaders to entertain anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In a sense, bigotry and oppression beget a reaction of supportive unanimity, by making "to each their own" unacceptably destructive. If Palestinian citizenship and land ownership rights were respected by the laws of Israel, in one example of supportive unanimity, the Movement for Black Lives wouldn't be compelled to oppose Israel's policies in its official platform.

It's not perjorative to say that supportive unanimity is a form of "groupthink" -- all community standards are groupthink, and groupthink can be a tremendous force for good. The danger is that the same fierce urgency that fuels supportive unanimity in support of the powerless can become its own justification. That can make it hard to change course when supportive unanimity is being repurposed in ways that are destructive. Almost anything goes, if it is presented as a defense of supportive unanimity; lamenting the pogroms against Asian-Americans carried out in the 1992 L.A. riots, for example, runs afoul of supportive unanimity for desperate Black rioters.

As with so many forms of suppression, supportive unanimity often ends up contributing to the oppression of the least powerful. It shouldn't be discarded -- but progressives should work to keep it grounded in other values, and to be open to violations of that unanimity if there are other progressive values that are being cited.

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