Don’t Be Gliberal[1]

The change that social justice advocates and supporters hope to bring about can be hindered by their emotional attachment to an image of what they mistakenly think that change must look like.

I define people who prioritize the image of being liberal before the substance of being one as gliberals, and the general phenomenon as gliberalism.

In this essay I hope to explain how and why gliberalism limits the impact that advocates have in the ultimate hopes of fully enabling them to most change our world for the better. It should therefore go without saying that my use of the term “gliberal” is not meant to be pejorative, but rather memorable so that good-intentioned advocates can remain aware of how to realize their full potential so that they can best serve the millions who suffer injustice everyday.

Many social psychologists now believe that our moral and political worldviews derive from our conditioned emotional identification with a group-based image. Although we can use reason to transcend our parochial perspective, when deciding how to respond to a political issue, in general our group intituitions come first, and then only strategic reasoning come second. That is, we use reason not to neutrally analyze an issue on the merits alone, but to post hoc justify the conclusions our emotionally-attached, group-based identies have already reached.[2]

For those who care about actual change, this is potentially alarming. For if the metric that people use to assess and support change is merely a pleasing image of it, whenever that image does not accurately represent the impact it brings, the opportunity for real progress is not only lost, the fact that this is not even recognized discourages and misdirects current efforts from being applied to appropriate issues. For example, not all liberals realize that the last two Democratic administrations have not been fundamentally transformative but instead managerially compliant within the neoliberal, interventionist, and colorblind parameters established by the Reagan revolution.[3] Yet well-intentioned liberals still claim that all of our energies must be devoted towards re-electing Democrats this mid-term season (as it was last season), rather than building powerful popular movements that can give elected officials more operating room to go beyond the existing two-party frame and advance a truly progressive agenda.

At worst, in the same way that our cognitive psychology can eschew honest evaluation for image protection, so too can our advocacy obsess over protecting important but relatively superficial gains at the expense of more fundamental concerns. This is particularly seen in issues involving race. For example, advocates’ passion for maintaining affirmative action obscures the more foundational issue of establishing high quality public education for all, a goal that will among other things give rise to diversity naturally. Relatedly, a commitment to diversity in the private sector often produces servile tokens for business rather than transformative leaders for economic justice. And students’ current campaign to call out microaggressions reveals an almost-eagerness to wallow in (often misinterpreted) victimization and retreat into siloed tribalism, rather than a willingness to educate with maturity so that all students can learn and grow together.

The intensity with which these stances are nonetheless defended stems from how gliberalism is reinforced. When change agents start to realize that image is rewarded rather than impact, they are insidiously incentivized to aggrandize that image, whether or not they actually bring about change. As a result, change agents, either subconsciously or deliberately, start to become strategic instead of sincere over time as they learn the true “requirements” of the system—not telling the hard truths needed to make real change, but making us feel good about ourselves, usually through story-telling. This pathology can infect every decision of an aspiring change agent, as she will first consider whether her next action will fit into a glibly pleasing narrative and then whether or not it actually helps people. Case in point: you know his story, but name one specific thing Barack Obama accomplished to help people before becoming president.[4] More generally, consider how most of our political discourse does not seek to educate and resolve issues in a nuanced way but rather reaffirm pre-decided, black-and-white positions through a tiresome mix of self-righteous indignation, sentimental pablum, and, most destructively, caustic satire.

All of this detracts from change. Yet by exposing gliberalism we can finally begin to free ourselves from our dependency on image adherence and begin to focus on what actually matters—substantive outcomes for affected populations. The following chart helps illustrate the relationship between image and impact by delineating how the two affect the roles that people ultimately play into:

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 12.25.00 PMAs Dr. King said, “anybody can serve,”[5] so anyone who wants to make an impact in the world can end up in box 2, regardless of position. In fact, as Howard Zinn insightfully revealed, it is the “countless small actions of unknown people” that make up every great movement that brings about fundamental change.[6]

Since it takes certain experiences to be a leader, box 4 is not as open to everyone. However, because of gliberalism, more people than would otherwise will try to end up in Box 4 but will actually fall somewhere along the spectrum beween box 3 and 4. The difference in impact between that particular point and the level of impact that could have been made in box 2 is the cost of gliberalism. That cost is not an abstraction, but represents real flesh and blood outcomes for people who live in poverty or suffer from discrimination.

I hope that by exposing gliberalism and its costs, advocates and the people who support them can begin evaluating and helping each other based on impact and not image so that the people on whose behalf they are working can most fully benefit from their actions.

 


[1] This title is inspired by Tom Cruise’s legendary 2005 interview with Matt Lauer. “Tom Cruise calls Matt Lauer ‘glib’ during famous 2005 interview”, Youtube (Jun. 21, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uaRw0quwoY.

[2] See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012); See also George Lakoff, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics (2009); Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (2008).

[3] See Adolph Reed Jr., Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals, Harper’s Magazine (Mar. 2014), http://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/nothing-left-2/?single=1; See also Harold Meyerson, The Left, Viewed from Space, The American Prospect (Mar. 3, 2014), http://prospect.org/article/left-viewed-space; Richard Eskrow, Has the Left Surrendered? The Overdue Conversation We Need, Campaign for America’s Future (Feb. 28, 2014), http://ourfuture.org/20140228/has-the-left-surrendered; Richard Eskrow, Enough Recrimination. Let’s Build a Populist Movement, Campaign for America’s Future (Mar. 13, 2014), http://ourfuture.org/20140313/enough-recrimination-lets-build-a-populist-movement.

[4] Kudos if you said organizing, but that is only a means, not an end. The answer is here: Life Before Presidency, Miller Center, University of Virgina, http://millercenter.org/president/obama/essays/biography/2.

[5] “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

[6] See Noam Chomsky, Remembering Howard Zinn, Aljazeera (Jan, 27, 2012),   http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/01/201212382259755885.html. See also Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (2005).