Hanging in the lobby of the place I once worked was an excerpt from the speech Winston Churchill gave to the students at the Harrow School in October 1941:
"Never give in
Never, never, never, never
Never yield in any way
Great or small, large or petty..."
Churchill's memorial to the merits of immovability stand as a perfect metaphor of that favorite conservative complaint known as "liberal bias."
By and large, conservatives think the whole world is arrayed against them. The media has a "liberal bias." The teachers in our schools have a "liberal bias." Professors have it. So do professional economists. Even "reality" is said to have a distinct liberal bias. And so in self-defense conservatives have tried to appropriate liberal ideas and values for their own purposes in an effort to turn the tables on their "left wing" tormentors. They've internalized the instructions they've been given from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to instantaneously label liberals who criticize right wing ideas as being "hypocrites" who say they want people to think for themselves -- just so long as everyone thinks like a liberal.
And I suppose that is true, in a way, depending on what you mean by "liberalism," for the real source of the conservative's complaint against liberals is not that they are narrow-minded. Rather, it's that liberals are not more like them -- never compromising, never changing, "never giving in, never yielding in any way, great or small, large or petty, never, never, never!"
From far too many family feuds that end in frustrating dead ends, or those futile squabbles over the differences between Fox News and MSNBC, I am finally ready to wave the white flag and concede that people everywhere -- liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, partisans across the political spectrum -- all of us are equally and hopelessly "biased."
One man's "truth" is another's "prejudice." I get it. But here's the thing: Only liberals seem to care. Only liberals think bias is a bad thing and so try to do something about it.
Dogma is conservative, skepticism is liberal. Religion is conservative, science is liberal. Royal absolutism and the Divine Right of Kings is conservative, democracy and rule of law are liberal. Conservatives don't like this division because they recognize it puts them on the wrong side of history. And so they have even tried to make "secularism" a separate "religion" all its own in order to pretend that liberals are as guilty of breaching the "wall" between Church and State as the most rigid Christian fundamentalist.
Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, has added a new contribution to the growing body of literature that tries to explain in scientific terms why liberals and conservatives can't get along or even talk with one another.
Using phrases like "cognitive dissonance," "motivated reasoning" and "primacy of effect," Mooney writes in The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science - and Reality, that no one - neither liberal nor conservative - is as rational or reasonable as we flatter ourselves to be. Humans just aren't built that way.
The Enlightenment hoped that good arguments would win the day, says Mooney. But the reality from what we now know of neuroscience and psychology is that "thinking and reasoning are actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call 'affect'). And not just that: Many of our reactions to stimuli and information are neither reflective nor dispassionate but rather emotional and automatic, and set in motion prior to (and often in the absence of) conscious thought."
Mooney says that our prior emotional commitments operate in ways we're not even aware of and so cause us to misread evidence or "selectively interpret it" in favor of what we already believe. And it's these emotional commitments, says Mooney, that "can make us virtually impervious to facts, logic and reason."
Worse, we think ideas are ephemeral and that beliefs are disembodied parts of ourselves when in fact our convictions manifest themselves physically in our brains, says Mooney. Therefore, he says, to attack someone's beliefs is almost akin to chopping off their arm or their leg or some other part of their anatomy, which is why challenging someone's beliefs frontally using logic and reason is not only unavailing, it's also naïve.
This is as true for liberals as it is for conservatives. The difference is that liberals have tried to find ways to mitigate their bias while conservatives just don't care. What conservatives can't stand about intellectuals, after all, is not so much the ideas that intellectuals have but their willingness to surrender them so easily.
Conservatives have many fine qualities. They are loyal. They are resourceful. They are decisive. They make good leaders. But as we've learned over the past 30 years since the right has been ascendent, conservatives don't do nuance.
Neither are they nuanced about nuance, as Mooney points out, citing right wing Ann Coulter as an example: "Whenever you have backed a liberal into a corner he says: 'It's complicated,'" says the bomb-throwing Coulter. "Loving America is too simple an emotion. To be nuanced you have to hate a little. Conservatives may not grasp 'nuance,' but we're pretty good at grasping treason."
Conservative demands for "freedom" and "individualism" are the flip side of their seemingly contradictory need to belong and conform to a well-defined group. Consequently, one of the important differences between liberals and conservatives is the conservatives' need for solidarity and unity -- "to be absolutely convinced," as Mooney puts it, of the rightness of their group and the wrongness of others, even as they accuse others of "bias," thus producing the distinctive conservative in-group/out-group double standard for how to look at the world.
Whereas chauvinism and parochialism are indelible aspects of the conservative mindset, Mooney says the development of science and other "liberal" ways of thinking that arose during the Enlightenment had their origin in "the world changing attempt to weed out and control our lapses of objectivity," or what Francis Bacon called "the idols of the mind."
The whole point of science, says Mooney, is to "put checks on human biases" by means of peer review, skepticism and all of those other "norms" shared by people who form a liberal community committed to the discovery of provable truth.
"In science it is seen as a virtue to hold your views tentatively rather than with certainty and to express them with the requisite caveats and without emotion," says Mooney.
Among liberals, it is also admirable to change one's mind based on the weight of new evidence, says Mooney, in stark contrast to those with authoritarian dispositions - "primarily political conservatives and especially religious ones" - who view uncertainty or indecisiveness "as a sign of weakness."
Thus, when you hear a conservative attacking a liberal for being blind to his or her own bias, you can be pretty sure it's not because the conservative prefers even-handedness over subjectivity. Far from it. It's because the conservative is prospecting for "both-sides-are-equally-guilty" rationalizations to justify their own partiality.
Take the charge of "liberal media bias." It's not just that conservatives are hostile to what liberal journalists write, says blogger Robert Stacy McCain, who once wrote for the conservative magazine American Spectator. It's that Republicans have an "anti-journalism worldview."
Conservative journalists are not judged on the basis of "the accuracy of their reporting or the readability of their prose," says McCain. Instead, they are treated "as mere errand boys or stenographers, whose job it is to spread the GOP message."
We saw this hostility to empiricism on display when Rachel Maddow tried to nail down Senator James Inhofe on his global warming denial by confronting him with the relevant scientific literature.
Inhofe filibustered Maddow as expertly as his Republican colleagues have tied up the Senate. Time and again Inhofe refused to allow Maddow to get a word in edgewise as he dismissed the few stray words that did get through by slapping on each of them the label "liberal" as if that was all the refutation Maddow's arguments deserved.
In 2003, says Mooney, the American Psychological Association examined 88 separate studies from 12 countries on political conservatism that had been conducted over the past 50 years involving more than 23,000 individuals. The researchers concluded that political ideology is definitely linked to certain psychological traits and personality types: dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, the fear of death, less openness to new experiences, less "integrative complexity" in thinking, more need for "closure," among other things.
The authors emphasized that none of this was abnormal or pathological. In fact, the findings of the study were anecdotally confirmed by conservative Christian columnist Cal Thomas who spoke for many conservatives when he said conservatives believe "certain ideas about life, relationships and morality are true for all time -- regardless of the times."
Mooney says the whole point of the study was that, in the aggregate, political liberals and political conservatives are different in ways that extend far beyond mere philosophy or views about public policy. Instead, he says, "they have different personalities, psychological needs and moral intuitions or responses. They are different people."
Nevertheless, the reaction from the Right was fast and furious. The National Review dubbed it "The Conservatives are Crazy" study. There was talk of congressional investigations into the study's funding. One College Republican group demanded an apology. And Republican Congressman Tom Feeney of Florida spoke for many when he said of the researchers: "When you are basically confiscating money from taxpayers to fund left-wing rhetoric and dress it up as scientific study I think you have a real problem with credibility."
So, why does any of this matter? Because how a nation thinks is more important than what it thinks, and the democracy of a modern, melting pot nation like this one can only survive if it is governed by ways of thinking that are fundamentally liberal in nature instead of conservative.
The Founding Fathers understood this very well.
Speaking about the political "bias" of his time, James Madison wrote in Federalist 10 that "as long as the connection subsists between [man's] reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach."
By "extending the sphere" of opinions and interests to which we and our leaders are exposed, Madison and the other Founders hoped their constitutional framework might serve to "refine and enlarge the public views" of our republic so that it could "break and control the violence of faction" that had undone every previous republic that preceded our own.
Conservatives complain about the "moral relativism" of liberals. Yet, they are themselves "intellectual relativists" whose "absolute truths" are nothing of the sort but rather the partial truths confined within the four walls of their particular group and with all of the inherent limitations that attend any single group's vision.
I will take conservatives seriously that their complaints against liberal bias are more than merely a cynical ploy to legitimize and excuse their own narrow prejudices when conservatives begin to demonstrate a greater commitment than they have heretofore shown to objectivity, to impartiality and to provable truth.
And that will begin, perhaps, once they abandon their hypocritical objections to concepts like the Fairness Doctrine whose only purpose is to ensure that a genuine "marketplace of ideas" exists able to help us separate the wheat of what's true from the chafe of what isn't.