Wednesday, January 1, 2003

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WHY IS THE LEFT MORE SENSITIVE THAN THE RIGHT?: Virginia Postrel and Jacob Levy have posts about the inability of Randy Cohen -- The Ethicist at the New York Times -- to get past critiques of his work from conservatives and libertarians. This, combined with the somewhat snippy reaction I've received from my critique of Paul Krugman (from Krugman and his acolytes) leads to an interesting question: is the left more sensitive to criticism than the right? If so, why?

I'll admit that it might not be possible to answer the first question, since measuring such sensitivity is next to impossible. And conservatives routinely bitch and moan about unfair treatment by mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times. However, the distinguishing factor here is that in recent memory, political leaders on the right do not complain about attacks from left-wing conspiracies. The same cannot be said about political leaders on the left -- see Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, or Cynthia McKinney (Bill Clinton probably felt this way too, but the longer he stayed in office the better he got at publicly shrugging off those criticisms). The claim of a coherent right-wing disinformation campaign has the peculiar stink of paranoia that renders some on the left unable to distinguish temperate from intemperate criticism. In contrast, those on the right are pretty good at shrugging off being called evil, capitalist pig-dog fascists as part of a day's work.

Why is this the case? Two possible explanations:

1) The left takes things personally. When you have a political disagreement with someone on the right side of the spectrum, the tendency is to have a good fight and then go out for a drink. When you have a a political disagreement with someone on the left side of the spectrum, the tendency is for that person to believe that the disagreement is an indication of a deep character flaw. More (admittedly superficial) proof: run a Google search on "evil" and "right-wing" and you get 135,000 hits; do the same thing with "left-wing" and you only get back 55,000 hits. [Hey, I did the same thing with "liberal" and "conservative", and the liberals had more hits, 426,000 to 380,000---ed. OK, but do the same thing with "Democrat" and "Republican" and the Republicans win, 244,000 to 102,000].

2) Liberals have yet to adjust to the fact that they've graduated from college. Until recently, campuses were thought to be centers of gravity for political liberals. This was certainly the case when I was in school. Anyway, those who form their political positions in a world a like-minded souls are not used to having such views challenged. Those who were conservatives in school were used to being attacked, and as a result are not fazed by it later in life. Liberals face a much harsher political adjustment when they exit the ivory tower.

If it's the first explanation, there's not much that can be done about it. If it's the second, however, then liberals are likely to become much less sensitive -- and conservatives more so -- in the near future. As both David Brooks and George Packer have recently observed, students are increasingly conservative. Over time, liberals will adapt to criticism at an earlier stage, while conservatives will grow more sensitive as they find intellectual kinship at an earlier age.


UPDATE: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Kieran Healy really likes me. [Dude, he's parodying you--ed. Yes, but I'm not sensitive about it!]

posted by Dan on 01.01.03 at 04:50 PM