Putting People in Boxes

On May 2, Jacksonville Journal-Courier columnist Jay Jamison wrote that I think Americans are stupid — too stupid to manage their own affairs. He didn’t mention me personally, but his column repeated several times the idea that “the left views Americans as too stupid to make informed decisions.”

Since I’m sure he puts me on “the left,” I get lumped together with everyone else he disagrees with.

Too bad he didn’t ask me what I really think. He might learn something.

I think that putting all your political opponents into a box labeled “stupid,” “unpatriotic” or any other nasty characterization is a substitute for thinking. If everybody on the other side is incompetent or evil, then you don’t have to think about what they say. All their analyses of society must be wrong and their policy proposals defective.

That easy way out leads to troubling consequences. When I was young, each side of the argument about American involvement in Vietnam created boxes for their opponents. Many anti-war protesters labeled the police “pigs” and assumed every man in uniform was a blind tool of “the system,” willing to do violence to peaceful citizens who offered legitimate criticisms of our foreign policy. But some policemen had children in the anti-war movement; others recognized the futility of our involvement in Vietnam and the duplicity of our government’s claims about how we were winning. But it was easier to call them all pigs.

Many police, and those who gave them orders, put all protesters into a different box – long-haired, pot-smoking hippies who had no discipline, no ambition, no guts. So the ideas of the anti-war movement must be drug-induced fantasies, the motivations of protesters must be juvenile. In fact, the war was protested by housewives and grandmothers, doctors and professors, soldiers and veterans. But it was easier to swing a billy club at protesters if you thought they were all unworthy.

This tendency to denigrate all political opponents led to the worst excesses of both sides. The FBI assumed Martin Luther King was a Communist, so it tried to undermine the civil rights movement. Anti-war militants planted bombs in government buildings and killed innocent people. Before the Ohio National Guard pointed their guns at unarmed students at Kent State and shot them, they put all protesters in a box labeled “dangerous radicals.”

In fact, it’s pretty easy to see that “the other side” is just like us. Some are smart and some are not. Some are motivated by a generous desire to help others, and some are just self-interested.

So does “the left” think Americans are stupid? A big claim like that needs a lot of evidence. Jamison gives exactly zero examples. He cites an article by Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, as sufficient evidence, without telling us its content. Jindal isn’t much of an authority on Democrats: He is a professional partisan and among the nation’s least popular governors. The article that Jamison cites provides the usual Republican talking points about the Affordable Health Care Act. Maybe Jamison doesn’t actually cite any evidence from Jindal’s article because it doesn’t prove his point about “the left” at all.

Of course, it’s easy to find examples of Democrats saying things that imply they think voters are not well-informed. Politicians do it all the time. Many positions of leading Republican politicians are founded on their hope that voters have no idea what’s going on. Think about “death panels,” or their claim that global warming is a hoax, or their contention that massive election fraud is a justification for voter ID laws.

steve hochstadtShall we alter the claim slightly to say that “the right” assumes the average American is ignorant? No. That would be falling into the same we/they, evil/good dichotomy that makes his article analytically useless. Some people on both sides say dumb things or say things that imply voters are dumb. Others say smart things and treat voters as able to distinguish true from false. Blanket condemnations of the other side, by politicians or columnists, show little respect for the intelligence of readers or voters.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

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