The most instantaneous, intense hatred I ever engendered was when I illustrated libertarian ethics to a progressive group in Massachusetts:
I sat John in a chair.
“Let’s say that John was minding his own business but I wanted something that John had, or I wanted John to do something that he didn’t feel like doing.”
I held my index and thumb like a gun and pointed it at John’s head.
“Almost everyone agrees that if I threaten violence against an otherwise peaceful John that I am doing something evil and wicked.”
Everyone was smiling and nodding. Here in liberal Massachusetts, “We don’t like guns”! They knew where this was going!
I pulled up burly Andrew, had him point his “gun” at John’s head, and took out a $100 bill.
“And almost everyone also agrees that if I hire a thug like Andrew to threaten violence against an otherwise peaceful John that I am still doing something evil and wicked.”
Most were still nodding, but a few more politically astute were showing confusion.
I brought Steve onto stage, placed him behind Andrew. I gave Steve $200 and had him hand a $100 bill to Andrew who was still holding the gun.
“But most people think that, if I vote for a politician like Steve, who hires a thug like Andrew, to threaten violence against an otherwise peaceful John then what was evil before is evil no more… and magically transformed into Good.
“A libertarian is someone who does not believe that fundamental human ethics change based on the number of intermediaries; how I choose them, or what I call them.
The Explosive Kind
The group politely clapped. (The exercise had been to illustrate “a core value”.) But several participants were now visibly angry.
Ironically, this was at a personal growth seminar, where diversity, acceptance, peaceful coexistience, and loving relationship were explicit, shared values. Nonetheless, throughout the rest of the afternoon, a core group kept a glowering distance from me.
That evening a senior woman came to “clear with” me.
“I couldn’t have been more insulted if you had pulled your pants down and sh_t on the stage,” she spat. I knew better than to try to explain how libertarian values truly matched our stated values. So, instead, I let her vent.
She told me of fuming all afternoon. She had finally calmed herself down by recalling my years of selfless giving. (I start and run charities around positive psychology.)
So she would — in this one instance — forgive me of my grievous sin. She assured me that, deep inside, I was a “good man”. (I’m guessing here that she meant to compliment me — that I was Good, despite my newly revealed aversion to using political proxies to initiate violence on otherwise peaceful people.)
Then, she pressed her face, which was literally red with anger, into mine to warn me that she never wanted to hear this from me again. (That was actually not her call, but authoritarians gotta be authoritarians, so this five foot tall, elderly woman was suggesting violence against all 6′3″ & 220 pounds me.)
What Caused That Anger?
So, why was she so angry, so disturbed, so full of hate, so close to violence?
My hypothesis is that my example caused her to realize subconsciously that the method that she regularly used was evil. This conflicted with her self-image as a Good Person, triggering intense psychological discomfort.
It requires great integrity to review one’s actions and beliefs consciously and objectively when you realize that you might be behaving inconsistent with your values. The easier tack is to kill the messenger: “He is terrible, hateful, racist, white privileged, selfish, crazy, male, blah blah blah blah.”
But that option created yet another cognitive dissonance. She values and admires the things I create.
Her solution was not self-examination (even in the middle of a personal growth retreat!). It was not open and curious exploration with me about what her feelings of anger were all about. But instead, she went to threats and avoidance.
To her, my core value was crazy and terrible, and it made her so angry, not because there was anything wrong with not initiating violence against someone, but because it caused a major conflict with her image of herself.
When Cognitive Dissonance Rears Its Head
As a libertarian, you naturally bring up some pretty scary challenges to people’s images of themselves as “Good People”, and you might well find yourself in a discussion with someone who gets irrationally angry.
The best thing to do is to recognize that this is a psychological protection of the listener’s ego, and it’s not going to go away if you ignore it. Their easiest solution is to blame you, reject everything you’ve said, and find someone who will reaffirm that using political violence against otherwise innocent people is a perfectly reasonable and kind way for Good People to act. Ego protected!
One technique here is to empathize with the difficulty that the listener is going through. You can do this by reflecting on your own difficulty just examining some of these challenging questions. You can also check in with them, acknowledge that this is a really hard area for most people to even consider. And praising them for their ability to get even this far in what must be a kind of scary conversation for them.
And don’t forget, libertarianism is a journey, not a destination, and not somewhere that they’ll arrive right here right now. You only want them to see that there may be a different perspective that they have never considered, one that might be kind of scary, but that offers so much promise for peaceful living. 🙂
→ More essays on <The Difficulty of Understand Libertarianism> by Dennis
→ <Table of Contents> for Dennis’ Libertarian Essays