When Values Become Conceit: The Danger to the Left


When a proud basic value set runs up against drastic and obscene changes across a broad spectrum of society, one needs to be extremely careful in how one goes about presenting the matter to those who could be allied to stop it the most strongly and soonest.

Let me put that more plainly, for me, if not just for you. We on the left have a tendency to be so secure in the righteousness in our cause, that we can edge toward being our own worst enemy in effecting change. It is not because we are wrong, or need to moderate our beliefs, no. It is because we will not reach the people we need to reach, given how we govern ourselves. In a democratic republic, only a true majority of society can institute real change. It just is.

It would be easier if we had a benevolent king. But that system doesn’t work when the king isn’t benevolent.

I hear you: Jason, what the hell does that even meannnn?

It means that we have to utilize the most effective tool(s) to cull voters and opinion-makers to see the world as we need it to be seen. It doesn’t mean we change our values or our policies. It doesn’t mean we search for common ground in places where common ground doesn’t exist. It means we shape our message as the most challenging to deny, and on its most fundamental level. Because if we present it as our most sure, most obvious, the best case (self perceived, “best”) we create a situation where we fall into conceit in our righteousness. And even where that conceit may be based upon “the only tolerable position” (which I think is the case on many issues) we lose much of our effectiveness in changing society’s priorities and behavior.

That is still a bunch of grad-school philosophy crap that even I don’t understand, so I am simply going to use an example, perhaps the strongest example.

Take the case of torture of children on the border, never mind the torture of their parents.

Because we are most sure of our position as the only acceptable response by anyone capable of demonstrating humanity, the conclusion becomes, well, “this is the only acceptable response by anyone capable of demonstrating humanity” as its strongest challenge to those who may wittingly or unwittingly vote in a way that prolongs such abuse, through their vote, are complicit.

The above is all true.

But it is not the most effective way to get moderates or even moderate Republicans to vote out the people putting the policy in place. It can be seen as conceit. And however it is justified – say the Nazi policy toward the Jews, that conceit is entirely justified and true – but conceit isn’t as effective in changing others’ minds, and imploring them to action.

Picture a town hall. Picture a debate. Picture a Democrat, liberal, progressive, hell, picture a “leftist” presenting all the facts, the inhumane living conditions in clear terms, clear terms like the fact that refugees are entirely different than people who sneak across the border, that they present themselves for possible admission, that the living conditions match those of concentration camps, the profit made in the whole matter (spending over $700 per kid, yet they cannot even lie down to sleep? Horror. There is ONLY one reason for that situation, someone is making a shitload of money off this.), noting to the crowd this nation’s values and how immigrants have traditionally been treated as outcasts at first, the “Orientals,” the Italians, the Irish, these outcasts soon become part of the fabric of this country. You set it all out, absolutely, kids are dying, the situation is horrific, it must change.

But if it “must change” in our system, we “must” sweep out the people who set-up the horrific situation, through elections, otherwise the horrific situation wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Right or wrong, we must persuade large numbers in society that this is intolerable, and kids on the border is just one example, I believe there are many.

Since we agree it must change, and change can only come through persuasion of large numbers of people, how we attempt to persuade becomes critical, perhaps the most critical decision in decades. The world may (rightly) see us as a valueless rogue state, we become the monster we always fought against, unless it changes.

And here we arrive at the choices available to persuade, and no matter how justified one might feel, not matter how obvious, or even how disturbing, we must be cautious in our approach, even if we have every reason to aggressively get in some people’s faces and lash out: “if you vote in support of the people who set this up, you may as well be down there doing it.” In my opinion, that could be entirely justified.

But it is less persuasive, it will be seen as conceit, self-righteousness it opens the door to some thinking it’s no more than a political argument, and one based primarily upon shaming those who may be persuaded. Again, even in situations that are justified, where under international law children endure conditions that breach those required for prisoners of war, for people who killed Americans. We treated captured German and Japanese soldiers better than these children. It is not about justification, it is about persuasion, it is about effectiveness.

We must change it, and so we cannot afford anything but the most effective means, the children and their parents are counting upon us.

A town hall, we’re there. Set aside the “might as well be down there doing it, totally complicit.” Compare the effectiveness of using an attempt geared at human nature, and persuasion.

Instead of the complicity argument, present it most persuasively: “Having heard all the horrific facts, seen the obscene pictures, and fully understanding factual reality, I am asking you to ask yourself now, ask yourself later, ask yourself as you vote, can I as a human being, ignore, or endorse, what is happening down there?”

See the difference? In one, you use your conviction, one which can be seen as conceit through righteousness – again, no matter how justified, think Nazis again – and in the other, you only “ask” the person or crowd, to ask themselves, whether their basic humanity precludes them from doing anything but acting to change the matter.

The goal is reaching the most people, not all people, so you can help save children’s lives. By “asking” the person to ask themselves, you are presenting the issue in a way that recognizes their underlying humanity. You count upon them knowing that they themselves have a sense of humanity, that they themselves are perfectly capable of changing. In one, you question their faith and ability, in the other you rely upon it. 

It is the most effective.

It is based on the fact that most people, when addressing something framed properly, do have a sense of fundamental moral fiber, in the other you’re going to be seen as endowing yourself with the righteous, rather endowing humanity’s righteousness.

The most obvious example of being our own worst enemy is our confidence in climate change, when often we speak as if “these people are incapable of understanding the situation, and cannot be reached.” I suppose that’s true for some, but not nearly all. The ramifications of that policy are far more tenuous right now, than deaths and torture at the border, so I am not using it as the example. But, I could.

OUR basic humanity, OUR sense of right and wrong, demands that OUR approach be its most effective, not necessarily our conviction as to the “clear” and obvious choice.

In this nation’s history, there is a repeated attempt to persuade by noting that the choice is dictated by basic humanity, but that attempt often serves to ensure the situation doesn’t change, or becomes even more entrenched. Trump’s policies are not necessarily the most horrific in our history (tolerance of lynching, anyone?) but these are the issues that we face, as presented to us as the challenge.

I ask you to ask yourselves, can we afford to argue that which comes across as strongest? Or anything BUT the most effective?




Peace, good lord we need peace,






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2 Comments on "When Values Become Conceit: The Danger to the Left"

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I’m totally confused by this.

rory darjiit
I maybe follow. When we become hyper-partisan, we can form a worldview that raises and re-raises the bar on ethics and morality, and wind up in an entrenched position where the only morally acceptable solutions are pretty narrow. Consider for example an increasingly narrow view on healthcare ethics: – We should provide universal coverage because healthcare is a human right. – Coverage needs to provide access and service in addition to insurance. – That coverage should be provided through a government-regulated system. – That system should be entirely government-run, ergo single payer. – That system should cover all care for… Read more »