Columns

Sundlee ’16: The modern silent majority

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, November 10, 2015

No recreational marijuana for Ohio. A defeated measure that would have fought discrimination against the trans community in Houston. The victory of a Kentucky gubernatorial candidate who championed Kim Davis. These and other similar results paint the picture of a liberal failure on election day. 

The results of this year’s elections should be noted by us here at Brown. They are a reminder of something we seem to continually forget: Our closely held liberal values do not necessarily align with those of the majority of the United States. We are in no way representative of the whole of a nation that we seek to unify behind our banners of social change, and our approaches often widen the schism.

Whether or not we like it, social conservatives are a sizeable voting bloc that doesn’t seem to be dying out — figuratively and literally — like we keep predicting. Instead, they are multiplying and reacting — incensed by change they do not understand and therefore construe as hostile. I hold that this is at least in part the fault of modern liberal methods of engagement with opposing views.

I recall one night at a party in some dank basement when I witnessed a student make the assertion that patriarchy does not exist. Needless to say, he was verbally eviscerated on the spot. And I would bet my lunch that the tongue-lashing humiliation he received was enough to ensure he would go forth into the world with a deep seething grudge toward all feminists.

Was the anger against him justified? Probably. Did anyone learn anything? Was any progress made? Absolutely not.

Of course, this is not how all young liberals act when confronted with opposition. But this incident does characterize the general attitude toward social conservatism on our campus.

I will never make the argument that views formed on a foundation of hate are defensible or innocuous. But using rage and public abasement as tools transforms someone who is probably merely ignorant into an active adversary.

In truth, at the time, I cheered on those who pounced on that unwitting boy. I was angry. It felt good to rip down someone so smugly obtuse and paint that person as everything wrong with the world.

But ultimately anger doesn’t really help anything, does it? It’s understandable, but it’s also self-indulgent, sanctimonious and ineffective. Progress is the product of constructive engagement, not tantrums.

Social media is somewhat to blame for American liberals’ overconfidence in their ranks. On platforms where your name is attached to your views, there is intense pressure to image-curate. Few people are interested in cultivating an image of a sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic Satan — especially when the costs of doing so are usually exuberant cyber tar-and-featherings.

Bigoted leanings are kept hush-hush because in Internet-land where your reputation is concerned, being moderately liberal actually gets you virtual pats on the back. Think rainbow-draped profile pics. This is most certainly the case here at Brown, where the consequences for failing to toe the social justice line are even more severe.

But the story changes when you move to platforms with more anonymity, such as Imgur, Reddit or the comments section on The Herald’s website. These platforms are where you find the true mood of the millennial demographic that is supposed to be the most progressive. Rancor brews underneath and boils over in ugly hate-filled posts lashing out at feminists or the Black Lives Matter movement.

I imagine the same thing happens in the voting booth. Inside that little curtained box, there’s no one to judge, censure or shame. That’s where resentment at liberal political correctness and latent prejudices take the reins. These notions were never displaced by holier-than-thou conditioning; they only sank deeper.

It is at this level that we must engage with those who oppose social justice measures. Practicing unfailing patience, maintaining an even keel and searching for points of understanding is the way to people’s hearts. Responding with self-righteous outrage and personal attacks only feeds feelings of bitterness and retrenches bigotry.

Hailing from a Religious Right stronghold in Middle America, I know the breadth of the divide we must bridge, and I understand what resonates and what does not. Right now, the approach on our campus does not resonate with those who need the most persuasion.

I have no doubt that the goals of social justice will be realized. Contrary to the views of a Nov. 4 Atlantic article entitled “Liberals are losing the culture war,”  I believe that in spite of the election results, liberals are indeed winning the culture war. We’re just doing it too slowly, with far too much vehement opposition.

By alienating today’s silent majority, we are hamstringing the march of progress. There are times for radicalism, aggression and refusal to compromise. These are invaluable tactics for social revolution. But they must be kept only as tactics and never made the overarching strategy. It isn’t right to have to cajole those who have privilege. Civility and understanding are exhausting, but if we wish to move forward as a nation, they are essential.

Robyn Sundlee ’16 is concentrating in international relations. She can be reached at robyn_sundlee@brown.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misstated that a gubernatorial candidate who championed Kim Davis was from Virginia, rather than Kentucky. The Herald regrets the error.