“Hypocrisy” is Often Just Tribalism

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There’s been a lot of left-wing hand-wringing (say that five times fast) about alleged Republican/Trumpist “hypocrisy” lately. They mock our safe spaces, but they want their own! They accuse us of suppressing free speech when we boycott, yet they boycott companies for removing advertising from Breitbart and movies for having women and people of color in them! They don’t think poor people deserve health insurance and opposed the Affordable Care Act, but now they’re upset they might lose their Medicare!

I’m not saying these positions aren’t ridiculous and wrong. But I’m going to suggest that “hypocrisy” isn’t a helpful lens through which to try to understand them. Tribalism is.

I wrote in a previous post about Trump voters that we underestimated the importance of tribalism in this election outcome:

For white conservatives, things like opposing immigration (of non-white people), fearing Muslims, distrusting women, being disgusted by homosexuality, and believing that government programs and other institutions unfairly favor people of color aren’t just isolated opinions, like preferring summer to winter or liking a particular brand of frozen pizza.

Rather, those are strong markers of group identity. Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon them because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

Tribalism is a feature of human group behavior in which loyalty to one’s group takes precedence over other values that we’d generally consider important, such as morality, empirical accuracy, thinking for one’s self, and so on. Obviously, tribalism exists for a reason and was probably once very adaptive, insert evopsych here, blah blah.

It’d be convenient if tribalism only applied to groups that have deep significance and importance for their members, such as religions, ethnicities, and political beliefs. That’d be difficult enough to manage, but unfortunately, tribes can develop over completely fucking random things. When research participants are randomly assigned to groups named after colors, they still somehow manage to develop a group identity around that and start to denigrate the other group. If you’ve played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen this firsthand. (Seriously, y’all. Those teams are totally fucking random. I just picked the one that looked prettiest.)

It’s not exactly a new or controversial opinion that tribalism has completely overtaken actual policy positions as the dominant force in American politics–if in fact it was ever the other way around. But I still see a lot of folks ignoring the implications of this and being really confused about why Trump supporters ask for their own safe spaces while denigrating ours, boycott companies and film franchises they don’t like while bashing progressives for doing the same, and receive government assistance while voting for politicians who repeatedly state an intent to limit that assistance.

It’s not because they oppose safe spaces, boycotts, or government assistance. It’s not because they’re confused or stupid. (I apologize for the ableist language, but it’s what progressives have been saying, so it’s what I’m refuting.) It’s not because they’re “hypocritical” in any meaningful sense of the word.

It’s because they think that they deserve safe spaces and government assistance, and we don’t. It’s because they think their boycotts are brave fights for justice, and ours are whiny, dangerous attempts to repress free speech. It’s because when we ask for safe spaces, we’re making mountains out of molehills and need to toughen up, whereas their needs are valid and urgent. It’s because they worked hard and deserve help from the government when they need it, but we’re lazy and that’s why we’re asking for help. It’s because if anyone’s actually oppressed around here, it’s white conservatives, especially men.

Obviously, factual reality defies these explanations, but what progressives call “factual reality” is just the liberal propaganda that the media is pushing, and they know it’s wrong because it’s liberal. As I said: Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon these beliefs because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

Whenever I’ve pointed out a conservative’s apparent hypocrisy to them, I’ve gotten nowhere because they insisted that the two things I was comparing were completely different. Sometimes they will even go so far as to say something like, “Those people don’t deserve [help/respect/a living wage/political autonomy/representation/life] because they’re bad people. I’m not.” Other times they’ll utilize the just world fallacy to claim that those people are to blame for whatever bad thing is happening to them. This is how you get, for instance, Jews who lost loved ones in the Holocaust and now think that Israel should literally kill all Palestinians. It’s not that they actually think that sometimes killing innocent people is okay and sometimes it isn’t. It’s that they think that the people currently being killed are not innocent.

But Trumpists don’t just hate marginalized people; they also hate liberals/progressives. As Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, much of this election result can be attributed more to trying to get back at liberals for such insults as putting a Black man in the White House and legalizing same-sex marriage than to pursuing any particular policy agenda of their own. Supporters of Sanders and Clinton tended to celebrate the positive changes they hoped their candidates would bring about as President; supporters of Trump seemed much more excited about frustrating, angering, or even terrifying liberals.

That’s why even if you have a lot of privilege, you are unlikely to successfully convince a Trump voter of anything. Back when I used to argue with conservatives, the responses I most often got from them weren’t things like “You’re wrong about the facts” or “I disagree that those are important values” or even “What you’re suggesting isn’t practical”; it was “That’s just liberal bullshit.” And that’s why I stopped arguing. Anything I said was automatically classified as “liberal bullshit,” and by the way, this was the case whether I used “controversial” language like “white privilege” or not. Anything I said was liberal bullshit because I was a liberal. I was not Them.

How do you fight this type of thinking? I’m not sure, but it’s one of many reasons I don’t think patiently debating policy positions or the humanity of marginalized people will help. Because it’s not about the specific opinions. It’s about allegiance to your tribe.

In order to change your mind, you have to be willing to give up that allegiance first. And most people–left or right–aren’t.


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“Hypocrisy” is Often Just Tribalism