The Argument: Are Liberals Closed Minded?

To be “close-minded” is, according to the dictionary, to be “intolerant of the beliefs and opinions of others; stubbornly unreceptive to new ideas.” To be conservative and close-minded, according to popular portrayal, is a redundancy—a package deal that liberals can and do take for granted.

But University of Virginia Professor Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind doesn’t simply suggest that conservatives may not be as close-minded as they are portrayed. It proves that the opposite is the case, that conservatives understand their ideological opposite numbers far better than do liberals.

Haidt’s research asks individuals to answer questionnaires regarding their core moral beliefs—what sorts of values they consider sacred, which they would compromise on, and how much it would take to get them to make those compromises. By themselves, these exercises are interesting. (Try them online and see where you come out.)

Liberals don’t know what they don’t know; they don’t understand how limited their knowledge of conservative values is.

But Haidt’s research went one step further, asking self-indentified conservatives to answer those questionnaires as if they were liberals and for liberals to do the opposite. What Haidt found is that conservatives understand liberals’ moral values better than liberals understand where conservatives are coming from. Worse yet, liberals don’t know what they don’t know; they don’t understand how limited their knowledge of conservative values is. If anyone is close-minded here it’s not conservatives.

Haidt has a theory regarding why this is the case, based on the idea that conservatives speak a broader and more encompassing language of six moral values while liberals embrace three of the six in a narrow set of core values. I see nothing wrong with this explanation.

But let me present a complementary, more practical explanation: If you’re a conservative who lives in a major metropolitan area or who simply reads the New York Times, you get used to being outnumbered by liberals. Liberals, by contrast, get used to being surrounded by other liberals, both in person and in culture and the media. As a result, liberals speak their minds freely, often in ways that are harshly condemnatory of conservatives and their stands on issues. As a conservative, you can defend your values against friends and acquaintances who essentially just called you stupid and evil or you can keep quiet.

As a conservative, you can defend your values against friends and acquaintances who essentially just called you stupid and evil or you can keep quiet.

Most conservatives, most of the time, choose the latter. That is, they stay in the closet to avoid being accused of hating the poor, gays, or polar bears. As a result, liberals aren’t gaining any commensurate information. In fact, the silence of their conservative friends helps reinforce their views. Much of the time, liberals’ views of conservative positions and values are simply a caricature that bear little resemblance to what conservatives actually think and, more importantly, why they think it.

But during that time when conservatives’ mouths are shut, their ears are open. They’re listening and understanding what liberals think—and what liberals think of them. Conservatives understand their own world—whether it’s of religious organizations, talk radio, Fox News, or whatever—along with the New York Times, network news world of liberals.

That helps explain why a conservative’s reaction to a liberal critique often isn’t “you’re wrong.” It’s “you don’t even know what I’m trying to say.” Haidt’s research seems to show that this reaction is warranted.

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19 thoughts on “The Argument: Are Liberals Closed Minded?

  1. Being the liberal snark, I think the answer is no. But, I come from a mass of people who may not be as open-minded as I am. I would love to say, I have an open-mind and open to suggestion, but honestly. If there is an issue that makes my arm hair stand and my brain just says, “No, No, NO!” Then maybe I have some issues. But, I think everyone has a line in the sand. I can honestly say, I will try to have an open mind about any subject and try to come up with a compromise.

    But, I never try to call someone’s idea or belief system, stupid. It’s who they are. I may not agree, but that doesn’t mean I think they are wrong. They could be half-right.

    And, sometimes – that can feel like a win!

  2. So have the SnarkMatrons taken the quiz mentioned in the article above? And if so, will you be posting the results?

  3. no, i haven’t taken the test. yes, i will post results…stay tuned

  4. oooh — i’m a snarkmatron! i like that!

    my sense of the article is that it’s on point. there are exceptions to both sides, and things may differ regionally. i also thing it’s probably a class (or urban vs. rural) thing somehow, though different than the usual ones. i think the elites on both coasts tend to unilaterally dismiss flyover country as being less aware, less intelligent (and correspondingly less-educated), and less open-minded: “you don’t read the NYT?!” as i used to say about a black marxist prof when i was in college, one nice thing about academia (and elite society) is that you can believe whatever you want to and never have to live according to its operant values.

    and i’ll take the test and post — if i can figure out how.

  5. I took the tests. Several of them. My results tend to fall right between the average for the Dems and Reps, which makes sense. I’m coming from a background of Ultra-Conservative Christians who belong to Teacher’s Unions.

    As for the post itself:
    “That is, they [conservatives] stay in the closet to avoid being accused of hating the poor, gays, or polar bears.”

    I can totally relate. I value friendships over being right (or wrong) and I’m tired of losing friends over those darned Polar Bears! But as the article implies, I *am* listening. Sometimes I’m even rethinking why I believed something and changing my mind. Sometimes I’m becoming more convinced I’m right. But I am unlikely to say it out loud.

    By the way, we don’t really hate the poor, gays, or polar bears. We simply are afraid that socializing with them will cause profound money loss, gender preference realignment, and bothersome, excessive back fur.

    • bahahaha! amen to the back hair!

      and yeah — i often find myself having to weigh my options. sometimes expressing what i really think (esp. when i’m most certainly in the minority) feels too costly. it’s not that i think i couldn’t justify myself; it’s that it would take too much time and energy. but then again, sometimes i can’t help myself.

      that’s also probably why i blame george bush for lots of things. (ok, everything.) it’s my short-hand way of responding to something i don’t really want to get into.

    • What a plsueare to meet someone who thinks so clearly

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    • Arthur,You attempt to make us all believe that you’re some amazing fashionisto, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t critique your utter failure in living up to those expectations when I look at your outfit above. T-shirt: Too small, too trendyPants: Are those Levis or something? Are you even wearing a belt?Shoes: Where to start? Paint stain on the toe for starters. Worn out leather that hasn’t been polished in years. But above all, who wears leather dress shoes/boots with a t-shirt? WHO DOES THAT!

  6. This is funny – whenever, I say I am a democrat – I get the response, “Tree Hugger.” or the lecture of their taxes being spent on useless programs – like I was the one who wrote the program and taxed them personally. Or, that I want to give every poor person their money. That just isn’t the case.

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  7. I score highly with the republicans 🙂 Which means, I am open minded which means – yes, I am awesome!

  8. Careful, The Dems are going to have to revoke your Democard.
    And yes, yes you are.

    • I think I have been on their radar for some time – I am my own person – an individual, one reason why I don’t line dance – I don’t like to conform to what the popular people are doing. Realistically, I don’t have rhythm or motor skills.

  9. Hi Snarkster,

    Great post, very interesting.

    I’m not sure it’s true and I don’t know how independent the research is, and it’s difficult to gauge what it proves if it is true but I’m glad I read it, it’s certainly food for thought.

    Just as an example. Take creationism and evolution, what does it prove if a creationist knows more about evolution than an evolutionist knows about creationism, or vice versa ?

    It’s difficult because either result could be used to ‘prove’ all sorts of things.

    • Thanks for reading the post – the idea came from our non official contributor and it certainly proved that this liberal is open minded, but I tend to live in the center on most subjects. I hope you enjoy the blog.

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