2013-08-27

Personal Narratives Matter

When was the last time you came around to a new position on a big issue? If you're like most people, then this hasn't happened to you for years. Why is it so unlikely that we ever change our views on anything?

One possibility is that it takes a certain amount of work to integrate a new position with all of our other perspectives. It only makes sense to change your opinion about X if it doesn't also create major conflicts with your beliefs about Y, Z, and so on. If you've already integrated all your beliefs into a single, underlying philosophy, it will prove nearly impossible to change your mind on any given issue. You'll only do it if you manage to also change your underlying philosophy.

Keep this in mind as you read what Steve Horwitz wrote yesterday at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. To sum it up, Horwitz believes that Ron Paul should do a better job of steering clear of avowed racists. Predictably, the Ron Paul contingent is now out in force, responding very defensively to Horwitz's point. In my view, criticism of Horwitz on this issue badly misses the mark, and the reason is because personal narratives matter.

Few people in the Unofficial Steve Sailer Fan Club really understand the severity of racism, and I presume this is because they haven't much experience with it. Once a large majority of people in your community democratically agree that you shouldn't be afforded the same kind of respect and dignity that everyone else gets, your whole life changes. The disrespect to which you're subjected infects every aspect of your life; the only way to solve the problem is to escape somehow.

The United States, in particular, has some deep wounds regarding racism. They're not going away any time soon. Those of us who are close enough to the issue to feel strongly about it seem to be equipped with a good moral understanding of the necessity of routing out racism wherever we find it. It's important for two reasons.

First, because only an equal and opposite measure of social stigma can overcome the socially enacted hatred of racism. That is, you can often win groups of people over to the non-racist side simply by taking a stand against it publicly, when called to do so.

The second reason goes back to personal narratives. In today's political climate, "Progressivism" has lain claim to the racism issue, even to the extent that many people associate with the left merely because they oppose racism. If there is value in winning hearts and minds over to new ways of thinking, new methods for solving problems, the next generation of political concepts, and so forth, then one requirement is that the new ideas change some minds. This means that some people are going to have to integrate new ideas into their preexisting opposition to racism. It takes time to change a person's mind, and it often requires patient persistence and repetition of key concepts. This is how anyone learns anything, really.

Where the "who cares about racism?" libertarians go wrong is that they have no desire to nurse this process. They badly underestimate the severity of the scars of racism in the United States. They want to skim over the issue and get to what they feel are the more important matters: natural rights, economic efficiency, freedom from coercion, and so forth.

But if someone is really concerned about racism, you'll never get anywhere by waving away those concerns with a sneering dismissal of the idea. You don't help them see your point of view. All you do is drive them away from people who are now associated with both racism and an aggressive, condescending response to their reticence.

So, Horwitz is exactly right. It's best for advocates of libertarianism to make it easy for potential newcomers to integrate new ideas into their personal narrative. Racism is hugely important in America, it just is. That's not going to magically go away, no matter how many condescending articles Tom Woods writes. Libertarians need to look it in the face and speak to it.

I mean, how hard is it to unequivocally disavow racism, anyway?