The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bias against conservatives works like any other prejudice

A White House news conference.
A White House news conference. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Everyone’s angry about Kevin Williamson. The left that he was hired by the Atlantic despite having said that abortion should maybe be a capital offense; the right that he was quickly fired when it turned out that he really did believe that abortion is, well, premeditated murder.

In a better world, this moment would help us understand each other, and come to some sort of reasonable agreement, rather than swearing mutually assured destruction. That’s because what conservatives are saying about media bias sounds a lot like what liberals are saying about race and gender — and vice versa.

(I pause to make the tiresome-but-necessary disclaimer: I’m comparing the group dynamics, not proclaiming that bias against conservatives is exactly morally the same as systemic racism and sexism. And the group dynamics really are the same. I know you’re skeptical. Bear with me.)

While conservatives are right about media skew, they frequently talk as if it is some sort of conspiracy. It isn’t. I’ve worked in mainstream media my whole career, and the overwhelming majority of my colleagues have been lovely, generous people who are deeply and sincerely concerned with seeking truth.

No, liberal hegemony in media, academia and entertainment works by the same mechanisms that produce systemic bias against other groups: People are more comfortable with other people who are like them. And thus, they reproduce themselves in the institutions they control without ever consciously thinking: “Time to shore up the power structure!”

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Moreover, these things are subject to tipping points — a small majority can rapidly turn into total domination. Those homogenous groups inevitably find it difficult to imagine ways different from their own, much less take them seriously. And this cozy consensus naturally alienates many members of the minority.

A person of color in a white space spends a great deal of time noticing they are a person of color, and that they are in a white space. The white people are very rarely conscious of the glistening pink skin surrounding them on all sides. Something similar holds for liberals and conservatives in American cultural institutions. People on the right may be well-treated in liberal domains (I generally have been); their institutions may try hard to be fair (mine certainly have). But they will always be conscious of their difference, that their presence in those spaces is unusual, and cannot be taken for granted.

Remarkably, through the miracle of modern mass media, liberals have managed to give this experience, not to a handful of conservatives in mainstream cultural production, but to virtually every American conservative. Those conservatives spend the first few decades of their lives in a left-skewed educational system, and the rest consuming cultural products made by liberals, so that liberal cultural hegemony barrages them daily with their “otherness.” Which is how they can sincerely feel powerless despite holding a great deal of political power.

This ought to give conservatives some insight into what the campus left is saying about race and gender. They should ask themselves whether their rage about Williamson is not, perhaps, similar to how underrepresented minorities feel about their experience in many other American institutions. And see if they don’t develop some sympathy for the occasionally vivid expressions of anger that erupt when people respond to minority complaints with “Sorry, that’s just how things are, and also, many of you deserve it.”

As for liberals: Well, guys, check your privilege. Try to really imagine what it might be like to have a conservative identity when cultural products almost all skew liberal. That is, to be one of the few acceptable villains for all the movies and jokes and television shows. To see your viewpoint systematically excluded and slighted. To have your daily life, your beliefs, routinely handled with ignorance and insensitivity.

Then imagine what it would be like to complain, and get eye-rolls from the very same people who talk a lot about privilege and microaggressions. Or worse, get the same tired tropes that majorities always hand the minority: “Gaslighting” (“that thing you just saw happen didn’t happen at all”); sneering explanations that your intellect, morals, or manners make you unfit for elite spaces; or sad shrugs at the impossibility of anything ever changing.

If that happened to you, probably you’d be pretty mad. You might even become occasionally intemperate in your speech. Heck, you might even say “to hell with respectability politics,” and vote for a loudmouthed reality television star whose signature campaign move was telling cultural hegemons to take a long stroll off a short pier.

By this point, I would imagine many conservatives are angrily cataloguing the ways their behavior differs from campus protesters; many on the left are outraged that I would dare draw any parallels between the deeply unjust discrimination against other minorities and the educated conservatives seeking elite jobs. Or, less caustically, they might say: “Yes, but this is how the market worked out, and conservatives of all people, have no right to complain about it.”

If you want to say “Conservatives should use this opportunity to rethink whether cultural dynamics might occasionally produce unjust market outcomes” — well, obviously I agree with you. But if you want to use that as an excuse to do nothing, then there we part ways.

You cannot complain about Fox News, and then serenely proclaim that liberal-leaning publications are some sort of natural happenstance, like tsunamis. You cannot demand that people work hard to include minorities while simultaneously, well, refusing to include a minority. And obviously, I would offer the same admonition to conservatives who are outraged by their own exclusion, while refusing to listen to complaints from other excluded groups.

But if you aren’t swayed by appeals to logic, consider the practicalities. A substantial fraction, maybe a plurality, of the country is being made to feel the stings of exclusion, with all the anger and counterreaction that implies. That’s not going to end well.

Unfortunately, I suspect that there are people who think that this will end well, at least for them — that we are now in total war, and their side is headed for V-E Day. And that a strategic lack of charity is therefore a valuable tactic.

They’re making a grave mistake. If we are in total war, it’s not World War II, but World War I, with both sides deeply entrenched, and neither side controlling sufficient strategic resources for outright victory. Which leaves us with two choices: We can keep killing each other without ever really advancing. Or we can seek an armistice, and a generous peace that lets us live together as neighbors rather than enemies.

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Ruth Marcus: Kevin Williamson’s abortion comments were shocking. But at least he’s intellectually honest.

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