Walls rise grad­u­ally, build­ing siege men­tal­ity

The Times-Tribune - - Op-ed - DAVID BROOKS writes for The New York Times.

Why are so many con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cals still supporting Roy Moore? Why have so many evan­gel­i­cals spent the past two years em­brac­ing Don­ald Trump?

I just took part in a com­pelling con­ver­sa­tion at the Faith An­gle Fo­rum, founded by the late Michael Cro­mar­tie of the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter, and came away with one core ex­pla­na­tion: the siege men­tal­ity. I’d say the siege men­tal­ity ex­plains most dys­func­tional group be­hav­ior these days, on left and right.

You see the siege men­tal­ity not just among evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians but also among the cam­pus so­cial jus­tice war­riors and the gun lob­by­ists, in North Korea and Iran, and in the pop­ulist move­ments across Europe.

The siege men­tal­ity starts with a sense of col­lec­tive vic­tim­hood. The whole “cul­ture” or the whole world is ir­re­deemably hos­tile.

From this flows a sense of pes­simism. Things are bad now. Our ene­mies are grow­ing stronger. The world our chil­dren in­herit will be hor­rific. The siege men­tal­ity floats on apoc­a­lyp­tic fear.

The siege men­tal­ity feels kind of good to the peo­ple who grab on to it. It gives its pro­po­nents a straight­for­ward way to in­ter­pret the world — the no­ble us ver­sus the pow­er­ful them. It gives them a clear sense of group mem­ber­ship and a clear so­cial iden­tity. It of­fers a ready ex­pla­na­tion for the bad things that hap­pen in life.

Most of all, it gives peo­ple a nar­ra­tive to ex­press their own su­pe­ri­or­ity: We may be los­ing, but we are the holy rem­nant. We have the in­no­cence of vic­tim­hood. We are mar­tyrs in a spite­ful world.

Lead­ers, even sports coaches, try to whip up the siege men­tal­ity. Af­ter all, this men­tal­ity en­cour­ages peo­ple to con­form. Re­sent­ment can be a great mo­ti­va­tor.

The siege men­tal­ity ex­cuses the leader’s bad be­hav­ior. When our very ex­is­tence is on the line we can’t be wor­ry­ing about hu­mil­ity, sex­ual moral­ity, hon­esty and ba­sic de­cency. In times of war all is per­mis­si­ble. Even mo­lest­ing teenagers can be over­looked be­cause our group’s sur­vival is at stake.

In the end, the siege men­tal­ity ends up be­ing self­de­struc­tive. Groups smitten with the siege men­tal­ity fil­ter out dis­cor­dant facts and be­come more ex­treme, lead­ing to fur­ther marginal­iza­tion. They take main­stream loathing as a badge of honor.

The siege men­tal­ity ends up dis­plac­ing what­ever creed the group started with. Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians had a hu­mane model for ser­vant lead­er­ship but, feel­ing be­sieged, they swapped it for Don­ald Trump, for gla­di­a­tor pa­gan lead­er­ship.

Why is this mind-set so preva­lent now? Well, it’s par­tially be­cause the coun­try is di­vided and many groups feel un­der as­sault. Ac­cord­ing to a Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll, 64 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve that their group has been los­ing most of the time.

But that’s not the main rea­son the siege men­tal­ity is so preva­lent. It’s be­cause we’re in a his­toric tran­si­tional mo­ment and the very foun­da­tions of so­ci­ety are now open to ques­tion.

In the 1960s the civil rights lead­ers suf­fered in­jus­tice and op­pres­sion. But they had a ba­sic faith in the foun­da­tions of so­ci­ety. They wanted a place at the ta­ble.

Today peo­ple are more likely to think the ta­ble it­self stinks, or there is no com­mon ta­ble. Today Chris­tians are more likely to ar­gue that the lib­eral order it­self is in­tol­er­ant to­ward faith. So­cial jus­tice war­riors are prone to ar­gue that Amer­ica is racist and op­pres­sive in its very bones. The evil is in­her­ent in the ba­sic struc­ture.

How should one re­spond to the siege men­tal­ity, to the Alabami­ans now ral­ly­ing around Roy Moore? Well, it’s right to be dis­gusted, and it feels good to be con­temp­tu­ous. But con­tempt only breeds con­tempt. Con­tempt for the con­ser­va­tives in Alabama will just jus­tify their siege men­tal­ity and make the so­cial dis­or­der that flows from it worse.

The fact is, the siege men­tal­ity arises from over­gen­er­al­iza­tion: They are all out to get us. It shouldn’t be met with a counter-over­gen­er­al­iza­tion: Those peo­ple are all sick.

It should be met with con­fi­dent plu­ral­ism. We have a shared moral cul­ture, and some things are be­yond the bound­aries, like tol­er­at­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment. But within the bound­aries of our lib­eral polity, we’re go­ing to give one an­other the ben­e­fit of the doubt.

Sup­pose Amer­ica’s lead­ers had gone to con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cals a decade ago and said: Look, we un­der­stand that chang­ing at­ti­tudes about gay mar­riage put you in a tough po­si­tion. We’re not go­ing to stop do­ing what we think is right, but we’re go­ing to try to work out some ac­com­mo­da­tion with you on re­li­gious lib­erty so you can feel at home here and prac­tice your faith.

That might have felt more like a con­ver­sa­tion than a siege. That might have spared us the pop­ulist re­volts that brought us Roy Moore, and Don­ald Trump, and the re­pug­nant habits of mind that now ex­cuse them.

DAVID BROOKS Commentary

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