Today’s mob mentality politics: Just deny it, and keep moving
We have no reason to expect an honest and thorough conversation about the kind of cultural degeneracy that may have led a white 17-year-old to cross state lines to patrol and fire shots at those protesting the shooting of a Black man in front of his children. We have no reason to expect an introspective conversation about the messaging that led hundreds to riot and loot in Minneapolis based on false information.
Notwithstanding Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s speech last week, we should only expect deflection, denials and insults from conservative and progressive hardliners. Few will question their own tactics because publicly critiquing your tribe is considered treasonous. In this truth-deficient dialogue, facts and principles are inconveniences — unless they can be weaponized. Only the narrative seems to matter. Our pride and prejudices compel us to take sides and defend them, come hell or high water.
If one thing is clear about the American public discourse today, it’s that we’re totally ill-equipped or unwilling to engage in honest debate. This makes solving issues such as police reform and racial injustices very difficult. We refuse to risk losing an inch to our sociopolitical opponents by acknowledging that we got something wrong or that our allies are destructive. Constructive debates require intellectual honesty, and intellectual honesty forces us to admit things that don’t always immediately help our cause. But we’ve constructed ironclad narratives that are just as untruthful as they are flattering, and we protect them at the cost of our credibility. Credibility is currency in public discourse, and American partisans have bankrupted themselves by dismissing inconvenient truths that are clear to the naked eye of any good faith observer.
The right can’t seem to admit that America has — and always had — a race problem and that too many of our police stations harbor a culture that makes them dangerous to Black communities. They can’t bear to concede that systemic advantages for the majority undermine their claims of being champions of rugged individualism.
The ideological left has trouble acknowledging that many of their ideas don’t even have the support of the people for whom they claim to speak. For example, most Black people just aren’t as “progressive” or liberal as the left would have you believe. We desperately want criminal justice reform but disagree with the left’s conclusions about the importance of police and prosecutors, based on practical considerations. Furthermore, the left loathes to admit that the chaos in places such as Portland is unjustified, incredibly counterproductive and has little to do with the dignity of Black life.
These inconvenient facts aren’t minor details; they severely disrupt the core assumptions that form the identities and storylines of both groups. And unfortunately, they’re shielded from internal critique. We think admitting fault weakens our case, but our lack of veracity actually weakens our credibility. There’s no credibility across ideological lines, and thus there’s no real discourse. Those who try to hold everyone to a higher standard are accused of weak moderation, both-sides-ism or not actually caring about the issues. The moment is always too urgent for due diligence or to question those with whom we share identity. If we end up being wrong, just deny it and keep moving. Those are all key components of mob mentality politics.
A few trends have exacerbated mob mentality politics and the downward spiral of American public discourse. The political right has condoned and defended fact-denial in high places. They’ve decided to achieve pro-life and religious liberty policy by any means necessary, which is self-defeating because it negates any claims to moral high. Postmodernism on the left allows its adherents to shape reality by dismissing facts they don’t like as social constructs. They have the cultural and economic power to cancel the voices they don’t want to debate and then claim that cancel culture doesn’t exist. Let them tell it, nothing exists that doesn’t serve their narrative. This is brilliantly expedient, but catastrophic if they’re actually wrong in their strident cultural pursuits.
Within these phenomena, charity, collective self-examination and the pursuit of common ground based on moral absolutes are discouraged. Fear and simplistic storylines rule the day. The other side is considered just dumb or demonic; they can never be sincere. Their motives are so bad that we don’t even have to wrestle with the full merits of their propositions. Far right voices wouldn’t dare show compassion to the mother of a Black man without first checking his criminal background and exhausting all self-serving alternative justifications. Performative activists on the left call those who take their time to gather the facts complacent or hateful. Rushing to judgment is virtuous.
We’ve also bought into the idea that everything the other side does is aimed at harming, controlling or tricking us. Therefore, we find a false virtue in opposing their every belief and instruction. In accordance, acts such as refusing to wear face masks on the right and celebrating sexual promiscuity on the left become noble signs of defiance. But it’s actually empty defiance, an opposition-centered march into absurdity.
Public discourse won’t improve unless we take the time to listen with humility, rather than being dismissive and pridefully self-defensive. Most proponents of social justice aren’t seeking to spark a Marxist revolution. We’re tired of seeing people traumatized and murdered in a country that consistently has shown a lack of concern for Black people. Sensible people who dislike cancel culture aren’t upset about groups not playing nicely with blatant racists and sexists. We’re upset about the blacklisting of non-conforming voices based on an arbitrary and ever-expanding list of taboos — a list that’s built not on American consensus, but on the white, Western sensibilities of cultural elites and academics.
Reductionist binaries got us here; they won’t provide the real solutions needed to fix things. It’s time for people in both parties to promote justice and moral order. This moment calls for leaders who are compassionate and brutally honest. Those willing to make arguments against their immediate self-interest if it means dismantling false narratives and healing the nation. Those who are willing to admonish their side publicly when necessary. Those who aren’t looking for validation from any ideological tribe and don’t melt in the light of examination and transparency. Those willing to forgive, listen intently and be truthful.
Justin E. Giboney is an attorney, political strategist, president of the AND Campaign, and co-author of “Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.” Follow him on Twitter @JustinEGiboney.