How Stigma Sows Seeds of Its Own Defeat

Defending the liberal project is a Sisyphean task in part because successfully inculcating liberal norms leads to habits that weaken the ability to sustain them.


In the Western world, the percentage of people who say that it is essential to live in a democracy is in precipitous decline. In the United States, only 19 percent of millennials agree that it would be illegitimate for the military to take control of government. The president-elect routinely speculates about authoritarian policies, like stripping citizenship from those who burn the American flag in protest.

During a bygone crisis in global politics, when the liberal order was under sustained attack, Friedrich Hayek published this diagnosis of the challenge before liberals:

If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking. This may be inevitable because no statement of an ideal that is likely to sway men’s minds can be complete: it must be adapted to a given climate of opinion, presuppose much that is accepted by all men of the time, and illustrate general principles in terms of issues with which they are concerned.

The passage resurfaced this week when Will Wilkinson, in-house philosopher at the Niskanen Center, cited it to suggest that the Sisyphean task of saving liberalism is now ours, the boulder at our feet, the struggle of the hill looming once again.

“If the old truths are not updated for each new age, they will slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance,” he wrote. “The terms in which those truths have been couched will become hollow, potted mottoes, will fail to galvanize, inspire, and move us. The old truths will remain truths, but they’ll be dismissed and neglected as mere dogma, noise. And the liberal, open society will again face a crisis of faith.”

Across the Western world, liberals are grappling with how to execute that project. And while I have no pat answer, I do see an obstacle to success that’s worth understanding.

Maddeningly, the very success with which the generation that defeated fascism and Communism beat back that bygone crisis of faith in liberalism leaves us ill-prepared to repeat their success. They built up stigmas against illiberalism. Those stigmas were well-earned. But their strength and endurance sowed the seeds of their collapse.

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In “Too Much Stigma, Not Enough Persuasion,” I argued that the coalition that opposes Donald Trump needs to get better at persuading its fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them. With Trump’s victory in mind, I wrote that among the many problems with relying too heavily on stigma rather than persuasion is that it just doesn’t work.

Noah Millman and Matt Yglesias have smart insights on the same subject.

And one of my readers, Maxwell Gottschall, has a useful coda that applies not just to opposing Donald Trump, but to the larger defense of the liberal project, the constitutional order, and republican government.  Sure, he acknowledged, wielding stigma is often ineffective. But even when it does work to achieve ends that liberals favor, like undermining support for racism or authoritarian demagogues, stigma achieves those victories in a relatively weak, dangerously tenuous manner.

As he put it:

Stigmatization of an idea, by design, intends to convert, not persuade, by bypassing reason and going right for our tribal desire to fit in. But I think the rarely noted effect of this conversion happening is that it robs the converted of the tools to persuade others going forward.  In other words, if you haven't been persuaded by the merits of a political idea, how do you persuade others? You can't without resorting to the same sort of stigmatizing argument.

This, I think, at least partially explains the left's staleness over the past two years, and the cultural center-left elite's utter shock at the inadequacy of its invincible ascendant coalition. Stigmatization doesn't just turn off perfectly good people who aren't racists but supported Trump (as a blasé example). And it doesn't just make you complacent (which it does). I think it actively contributes to ideological rot.

Liberals may find it easier to see this weakness in their opponents.

Think back to the late ‘90s, when supporting gay marriage still carried more stigma than opposing it. The notion that a majority of Americans would ever support a man marrying a man was met with mockery. Homosexuality carried a strong stigma. Marriage just was between a man and a woman. Yet social conservatives would soon be shocked at the inadequacy of their once invincible coalition.

A small subset of orthodox Christians had reasons other than animus, or fear of change, for opposing gay marriage. They believed that marriage ought to be a procreative sacrament, saw all the ways that premise was undermined by secular society, and opposed all of them, not just the extension of marriage rights to their gay and lesbian neighbors. But most Christians had never bothered to think through the logic behind traditional marriage, never mind tried to persuade others that its premises were worth defending.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, they were totally reliant on the stigma against homosexuality to preserve their notion that marriage was between a man and a woman. As it turned out, most Americans had long since stopped caring about preserving marriage as an institution focused on procreation. As the stigma against homosexuality faded and their status quo bias was challenged by persuasive arguments in favor of gay marriage, large numbers were willing to change their position. They realized that they had no rational reason to oppose gay marriage.

Today, pioneering gay-marriage proponents like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch express dismay that, after majorities came to embrace their position, the coalition that used persuasion to accomplish one of the great civil rights expansions of the 21st century shifted from a posture of persuasion to a posture of stigmatization.

There is, of course, value to stigmatizing anti-gay animus, and it is possible that stigma directed even at opponents of gay marriage who are motivated by reasons other than animus has bolstered the civil right in some jurisdictions—it’s hard to know for sure. Even presuming that is so, the larger point is neatly illustrated by this hypothetical: If Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominees overturn the judicially created right to gay marriage, returning the matter to the states; and if the pendulum of public opinion or political power unexpectedly shifts, so that the legality of same-sex unions is threatened in many jurisdictions and overturned in some, who would be most effective at reasserting the case for same-sex marriage rights?

In the realm of opinion journalism, would proponents of gay marriage be better off if masses of swing voters read columns by someone with my background spending years persuading others that gay marriage is a moral imperative and a boon to society, at a college and a series of magazines where the subject was openly debated? Or would the pro-gay marriage coalition be better served by a journalist who is a bit smarter than me, and a bit more eloquent, but who came up in an era when social stigma long prevented opponents of gay marriage from raising the issue, and so had never before had to defend it?

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With regard to gay marriage, or any single issue, reliance on stigma may not ultimately matter. If I had to guess, marriage equality won’t be challenged or overturned. There are many factors beyond stigmatization that shape our politics and culture.

But if Friedrich Hayek is right, if Americans ought to heed Will Wilkinson’s warning when he posits that “liberal norms and institutions are under constant corrosive pressure from natural, deep-seated illiberal tendencies,” and that failing to constantly refurbish the case for liberalism will cause our culture “to drift toward defensive avidity and mutual distrust” and our politics to drift “toward primal zero-sum tribal conflict,” then it is vital to understand the dismaying way in which bygone successes at inculcating liberal norms—successfully stigmatizing even that which ought to carry stigma—tend to sow self-destructive seeds.

For all its flaws, academia today is much improved in some respects over bygone iterations. It is committed to opposing rather than reproducing racism, sexism, white supremacy, and other bigotries that contributed to subjugation across many generations. And yet, for all the popular anti-oppressive efforts that manifest in American life, I wonder if today’s students are as well-equipped as older cohorts to persuasively articulate why racism or sexism or denial of equal rights to gays and lesbians is wrong, let alone to explain the value of other aspects of the liberal project on which they’ve never focused, having never lived when they were seriously threatened.

Perhaps the cohort’s surprisingly illiberal attitudes in survey data is due in part to a lack of ability or opportunity, among those who do support liberal norms, to argue for them. Maybe theirs is just an extreme instance of a handicap that affects all liberals.

To overcome it, Americans need to avoid leaning on stigma even when it seems both solid and warranted. Insofar as a position is worth defending, it is worth defending on its merits.