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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Smugness, explained for idiots

ALLYSON KO / AGGIE

Liberals are right about many things, but the way they communicate isn’t one of them

Liberals are frequently accused of being smug — often deservingly.

But in the same way that too many liberals label all Trump supporters as irrational racist bigots, all liberals are often grouped together as self-righteous elites incapable of changing their attitudes when confronted with unfamiliar rhetoric. These are gross oversimplifications that only describe subsets, not the entire groups.

Emmett Rensin wrote in 2016 that this “smug style in American liberalism” is defined by thinking America is divided by “the failure of half the country to know what’s good for them,” making liberals think they have “a monopoly on reason.”

A recent New York Times article by Katherine Mangu-Ward traces the history of the divide between smug liberals and conservative trolls, noting that “political squabbling across much of America has become increasingly aesthetics-focused and content devoid.” In other words, it’s become more important to have charisma and flare than it is to practice good rhetoric and make progress on the issues. Mangu-Ward criticizes Jon Stewart and his ilk for advocating civil, productive debate while still casually savaging opponents, a doctrine of “do as I say, not as I do.”

By extension, many liberals now accept this type of disparaging evisceration of conservatives “who don’t know any better” and “don’t understand their own interests.” This can be effective in calling people out, but not as a way to persuade those who we think need it most. Today’s liberals are failing to reconcile the desire for healthy discourse and the urge to annoy those with different opinions.

In a recent argument with a conservative friend, I had an important realization after I claimed that “I’d rather be smug than ignorant.” It made me ask myself whether anyone should actually aspire to be smug or think they’ve earned it. But more importantly, the fact that I happened to use the word “smug” in my response alerted me to the fact that I’ve become less and less bothered by smugness over the last three years. I became desensitized to it as political polarization caused me to identify more strongly with people from whom I previously may have turned away due to their smug demeanor and style. But instead, I have laughed at every smug joke and sick burn they’ve dropped at the expense of Trump and his supporters. This is not good.

Some liberals justify extreme smugness by thinking that “they are correct and the others are wrong,” and anyone alienated for not realizing this isn’t worth convincing. Others may say that liberals need to drop the smugness altogether if they want to stop feeding the trolls. Somewhere in between these two views is probably best advised. It’s okay to be confident that you’re correct about something and to try to convince others of this, but you’ll get nowhere if your argument and tone are derived from the idea that your opponent is inferior.

In an interview with Slate, Mangu-Ward discussed the difficulties of communicating to someone the genuine belief that they are misguided or misinformed. She thinks that it’s okay to hold these beliefs, but that saying so explicitly is futile. Instead, someone convinced of their opponent’s ignorance must think, “‘It is not that they are confused about their own interests, but simply that I am not looking at the world the way they look at the world.’” Doing this establishes mutual trust, giving your criticism value and even opens the door for using humor and sarcasm as rhetorical tools.

The interviewer, however, warned that the risk of being condescending arises both from telling people you think they’re being conned and from censoring yourself to imply that you don’t think they can handle what you think is the truth. Surely there’s a place between these two that allows you to be respectful yet persuasive and relentless.

I trust you’ve realized that the idiots referenced in the title are actually my fellow liberals, not those unlettered MAGA-hat-wearing racist cretins you hoped I’d be lambasting. As someone who wants to see the liberal cause succeed and again earn the support of people it has alienated, I will now ignore my own advice and tell my smug liberal allies that I understand what’s in your best interests better than you do. Smugly talking down to others as if we have that “monopoly on reason” is not working. In order to actually convince reluctant Trumpers of anything, we first must listen and demonstrate that we respect their feelings and motivations. There’s a difference between actually showing why you think your ideas are superior and just showing that you think you have superior ideas.

 

 

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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