Statue of liberty from Nick Byrd's "5 Responses to the "Liberals Aren't Inclusive" Complaint"

5 Thoughts About “Liberal Hypocrites”

Liberals prize inclusivity and tolerance. But liberals also criticize certain things — e.g., certain things that conservatives do. So liberals aren’t inclusive after all! Liberal hypocrites! Boo liberals! …or so the story goes.

Should liberals be inclusive and tolerant of everything? Are they hypocritical if they’re not? No. Of course not. For an explanation and context, here are five thoughts about liberals, hypocrisy, and tolerance. (Spoiler: I make multiple concessions to conservatives.)

1. Even If Liberals Are Hypocrites…

Surely there is something right about these charges. I often witness liberals disparage conservatives. It often violates liberal principles. And it’s often obvious, like when the criticism is tantamount to saying, “I just don’t like conservatives”. Liberal principles do not license one to exclude someone simply because ones does not like someone.

But let’s not confuse such hypocrisy with being wrong. Someone can be a hypocrite without being wrong. So we cannot infer one from the other. (It’s really that simple.) And this goes for any form of hypocrisy. If someone behaves hypocritically by acting against their professed values, this tells us nothing about the truth of falsity of their values. Nothing.

2. Liberals’ Intolerance Isn’t Always Hypocritical

Importantly, not all forms of exclusion are unjust. Consider two examples. First, imagine that someone makes a claim that conflicts with all of our evidence. In this case, we should reject their claim. Rationality demands it — whether we are liberal or not.

Second, consider the possibility of tolerating ideas that promote unjust intolerance. That would actually erode tolerance. For instance, if you tolerate ethnic cleansing, then tolerance and inclusion are undermined. Likewise, when you shun unjust intolerance and exclusion, you support the cause of toleration and inclusion. This is just the paradox of tolerance. “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance” (Popper 1945).

The point is that even liberals can be intolerant without violating their principles. In fact, liberal principles of tolerance sometimes require intolerance.

3. Some Claims Of Oppression Are Hyperbolic

Some conservatives feel marginalized by liberals. But some of these feelings are over-the-top. For instance, a conservative academic who feels marginalized in the academic community recently said, “I am the equivalent of someone who was gay in Mississippi in 1950.” That is just laughable. However bad it is for conservative academics today, it is hardly “equivalent” to a gay person’s experience in Mississippi in the 50s. There are loads of important differences between the average openly conservative academic today and the average openly gay person in the south in the 50s. Did openly gay people in Mississippi have the right to marry who they pleased in the 50s? Hardly. Did only gay people in Mississippi have as many people following and supporting their cause in the 50s as openly conservative academics do today? Hardly. Were openly gay people in Mississippi as supported by one of the two wealthy, powerful, and popular a political parties in the 50s as openly conservative academics are today? Hardly. Were openly gay people in Mississippi as well-represented in powerful positions and popular media in the 50s as openly conservative academics are today? Hardly. You can probably think of other important differences.

The point is that the false equivalence between the treatment of gay people in Mississippi in 1950 and conservatives academics today is, at best, melodramatic. More likely, it trivializes the experiences of gay people in the US.

4. Experience Does Matter

But the answer is not to dismiss conservatives who feel marginalized. First, conservatives might actually be marginalized in some communities (even if not to the degree that gay people were marginalized in the southern US in the 50s). And dismissing any unjust marginalization would be a mistake.

Second, it can be beneficial to investigate the causes of someone’s feeling marginalized — even if their sense of marginalization is hyperbolic. By understanding such feelings, we might reveal something interesting and/or useful. For instance, by revealing the causes of conservatives’ feeling marginalized by liberals, we might better understand political polarization in the US. And the better we understand such polarization, the more likely we are to be able to prevent it.

5. Hey Liberals! Conservative ≠ Stupid

Some complain that liberals smugly believe that they are intellectually superior to conservatives (Kristoff 2016, Rensin 2016). I think I’ve witnessed such smugness go both directions, but suppose it’s just liberals that are so smug. Would they be wrong? Are liberals actually smarter?

Some Evidence

Consider basic reasoning competence. One study suggests that “social conservatives tend to be dispositionally less reflective, social liberals tend to be dispositionally more reflective” (Deppe et al 2015). And another study found that Trump voters were less reflective than Clinton voters in the 2016 election (Penycook and Rand 2018). But another study found that self-identified Republicans were more reflective than self-identified Democrats (Kahan 2013). Aside: that last study found that independents were most reflective.

What about education? One study suggests that “[h]ighly educated adults …are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values” (Pew Research Center 2016). However, Republicans tend to have more political knowledge (Althaus 2003).

Hypothetically, though…

Imagine that all of those correlations were damning for conservatives. Even that would not merit smugness from liberals. First, it is not clear that a handful of correlations in a handful of studies would support the idea that liberals are generally smarter. We’d need to find a persistent effect that survives time, replications, and increasingly sophisticated analysis to be so confident.

And second, these data are correlational. So we should not conclude that being more reflective or more educated causes liberalism — or vice versa. The data are consistent with the possibility it that there is no direct causal relationship between reasoning, education, and political ideology. These studies might have simply overlooked a common cause of both liberalism and being smarter.

Bad Evidence

Another (less scientific) reason to think that liberals are smarter is selective anecdotal evidence — emphasis on ‘selective’. After all, it is easy to caricature conservatives. A short quote or video of a conservative saying something stupid will do. But that would be poor evidence for that claim that conservatives are generally stupid. It wouldn’t even be good evidence that the person in the video is stupid. Even smart people think and say stupid things! So saying a few stupid things on the record doesn’t entail that someone is stupid. Often, a more representative sample of what someone says shows that they are, in fact, very smart — there are exceptions, of course.

The point: Regardless of what we think about being intellectually smug toward those with whom we disagree, the evidence does not obviously support intellectual smugness from liberals (or conservatives).

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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