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ALLY IN THE ACADEMY

You’re smug, I’m not

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By Trum Simmons

A recent column in The New York Times was headlined “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think.” While many liberals are very smart, the writer said, “they are not as smart, or persuasive, as they think.”

TheTimesthen printed several letters in response to the column under the head “Are Liberals Too Smug and Self-Righteous?” with most of the letters disagreeing with the columnist. Yet another piece, this one in Slate, was titled “You Are the Problem: Is Liberal Smugness to Blame for Our God-awful Political Climate?”

Interesting word, smug. A quick dictionary definition is “marked by excessive complacency or self-satisfaction.” Smug came from “smooth” or “sleek,” so it obviously began with positive connotations.

Are liberals smug? Conservatives? Progressives? Libertarians? What do all those words mean while we are at it?

I’ve long been bothered by the misuse and abuse of these large concepts, especially liberal and conservative. While we probably can agree on some basic definitions of each, it doesn’t take long for a person to chafe under the stereotypes that are so easily thrown about in subsequent discussion.

Take for example one response to the Times. “In detailing liberals as self-righteous, hectoring and arrogant the columnist forgot the most important aspect: They’re also wrong,” said the writer. And in the 2016 presidential election, conservatives were often stereotyped as being stuck firmly in some past golden age where everything was just the way it should be.

Conservative comes from words meaning “to keep, preserve, keep intact” and “to guard.” Liberal comes from words meaning “generous,” “befitting free people,” “noble” and “gracious.” Given these definitions I am both liberal and conservative depending on the context in which we are speaking.

It’s clear that the definitions of liberal and conservative have never been static. In addition, are we talking about these designations in the political, cultural or some other arena? Can’t a person be an economic conservative and also a cultural liberal, and the other way around?

The Timescolumnist also maintained that liberals control “the commanding height of American culture.” They “dominate the entertainment industry, many of the most influential news sources and America’s universities.”

On the one hand, liberals have helped Americans become more sensitive to racism and sexism, leading many to rethink their views on race and gender, he said.

Some liberals, however, “have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.”

He thinks too many liberals have been busy policing other people’s language, calling people racist and generally using their view of American culture “to lecture, judge and disdain.”

“Anyone hesitant about transgender women using the ladies room is labeled a bigot,” he continues, noting that “gender identity disorder” (his quotation marks, not mine) was considered a form of mental illness until recently, leading me to wonder if he would like us to return to that designation. (Not sure I like the use of the term “ladies room,” but I don’t want to appear smug.)

Well, I do believe that some liberals are the judging and disdaining type, but no more so than many conservatives. People of all persuasions engage in the inflammatory rhetoric that informs so much of our current political and cultural discourse, and of course social media magnifies all this.

The columnist criticizes liberals because he believes they do not realize that their rhetoric pushes people away more than it pulls them in, and he has a point. I believe we all push people away when we start preaching instead of talking. I’ve never been comfortable when I hear friends refer to people who disagree with them on an issue as “haters.”

It comes down to your worldview and who holds the power to enforce that view. When liberals, progressives and radicals question authority as in criticizing the government or other power centers in our society, conservatives often respond by calling them arrogant true believers who have no right to their point of view.

It seems to me that often those in power become outraged that anyone should question the status quo, because they like things the way they are (I happen to believe that conservatives have been exercising plenty of power in all facets of American life). They enjoy their influence and control, so anyone questioning them is a threat.

So who is smug and who isn’t? I believe that while many people are smug, most aren’t. I certainly hope that you don’t find a hint of smug in this particular column, at any rate.