The Limits of Opprobrium and Stigma
When Abraham Lincoln was 33 years old, he gave a speech inside a Presbyterian church to a temperance society. His message: The assembled ought to be nicer to drinkers and sellers of alcohol, rather than shunning them, or denouncing them as moral pestilences. Indeed, they ought to use “kindly persuasion,” even if a man’s drunkenness had caused misery to his wife, or left his children hungry and naked with want.
For people are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.
To expect otherwise, “to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation ... and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature,” Lincoln explained. “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.”
However, Lincoln cautioned, dictate to a man’s judgment, command his action, or mark him to be despised, “and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart. And even though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
It was and remains extremely counterproductive for the left to treat Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” especially given how tiny a percentage of his followers would need to be converted away from the president to reorient political power in Washington, D.C. For directing me to a Lincoln speech I’d never read before, I thank Andrew Sullivan, who quoted it to support the argument that “you will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.”
Forget What Is “Normal”
A typical objection to calls to contest reactionary premises on the merits, and to persuade adherents of reaction, is that doing so somehow validates their ideas. “Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being ‘normalized,’” Sullivan wrote, anticipating the objection. “But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage — or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction.”