Political Affordances of the Left (And How to Defeat Them)
In 1977, psychologist James G. Gibson coined the term “affordance” to refer to any “action possibility” within an object. For instance, a 5 foot leash doesn’t “afford” a dog the possibility of walking 10 feet from the tree to which it is tied. In the 1980, Donald Norman shifted the meaning of the term in relation to human interaction to mean “just those action possibilities that are readily perceivable by an actor.” (Source: Wikipedia)
As a software quality assurance engineer and designer, I’m more familiar with Norman’s definition of the word.
The example I learned when first considering the term in conjunction with designing software interfaces was surprisingly low-tech. Remember when, as a child, you got your first bicycle? On the handlebars were those rubbery hand grips, like there are on almost all bikes. However, especially on bikes designed for children, those hand grips have grooves in them. By looking at those grooves, it is immediately clear to a young bike rider that this is where one places one’s hands. Just by the shape of the grips, one understands how to use them.
I’d like to suggest that the term “affordance” can be applied to concepts as well as objects. When one thinks in sociopolitical terms, certain situations or even ideas invite built-in responses and reactions. For example, if you use the social networking site Twitter, as a conservative, you would probably feel invited to follow someone with the word “patriot” as part of his or her user name. The word “patriot” suggests something about the person who is using it reflexively. Consequently, based on your past experiences as a conservative, you might make some substantial assumptions about the person behind the “nick,” and be more inclined to view that person favorably. More to the point, you would use the word “patriot” as a descriptor of someone who shares common political views: American Exceptionalism, Constitutional values, a pro-Military stance. Beyond the dictionary definition of “patriot,” common usage affords it an entire cultural context.
What makes “patriot” an affordance of the right is how portable the word is. The connection between the word and certain values is so strong, usage of the word to describe a fellow conservative is suggested by the term and all it encompasses.
Similarly, the political Left has its affordances, too. I’d like to briefly address some of the most popular ones I feel are damaging to conservatism, and consequently to America, because of their blatant inaccuracies.
Racism – No doubt, real racism exists everywhere along the political spectrum. Also, it is exhibited by every social and ethnic group. But the word by itself usually conjures up images of stodgy old white men, often wearing sheets over their head, who hate all people of “color.” There is a popular belief among many people that racism goes beyond hating or fearing someone based on race; it must be coupled with political clout. In other words, because the majority of Americans are white, and because white people therefore are the group who mostly defines culture and controls politics in America, only white people can be racist.
The connection between “racism” and white people is so strong, many people who see racism exhibited by a so-called “minority” member toward a white person often mislabel it reverse racism, as if there were any difference.
The affordance here is the invitation to use the term any time a white person disparages any attribute of a person of color. Of course, if you think all black people like tap dancing, watermelon and are only suited for blue collar labor, you are a racist. But if you disagree with a black president on his economic policies, it has nothing to do with the color of skin of either parties.
The bad news is that perception of racism will exist as long as there’s a perception that conservatism is a “predominately white” movement countering the agenda of a black man. Either we elect a new, white, progressive president in 2012, or we suffer the moniker. The good news is that many non-white conservatives are speaking up about their political and social values. Perception is shifting, which will only invite more people who have been silent about their politics to come forward, thus weakening the bond between racism and white people, and racism and conservatism.
Feminism – As a younger man, I proudly supported a t-shirt that proclaimed: Feminism is the radical idea that women are people. I still hold true to that notion, but the left does not. Feminism has become so entrenched in the annals of liberalism, it is now used to describe women (sorry, wymyn) who hold a fiercely pro-abortion stance. A feminist must be a particular type of strong woman. She can’t speak favorably about abstinence, or even being a stay at home mom. She must be career oriented, anti-Christian, anti-conservative, and – most importantly – pro-abortion. Must!
The affordance is to use the word to push specific progressive goals and values. I think we can all agree a woman has the right to speak her mind, choose her own path in life and make decisions about her own body. What we disagree on is her obligation to eschew any traditional gender roles as a damaging byproduct of a dangerous patriarchy. And, of course, to make unilateral decisions about an entirely separate life because it happens to be contained within her body.
Fortunately, there are so many active conservative women speaking out about this travesty, it is almost self-correcting. Unfortunately, many of these women use the word feminism in quotes, as if to say “so called feminism.” While I fully realize having outdoor plumbing makes my own opinion on this issue slightly less relevant, I’d like to see conservative women claim this term. Not for conservatives alone (though I do think conservative women are stronger and more truly independent than their liberal counterparts), but for women in general.
LGBT – This one is my personal pet peeve. To be a member of the “gay community” is to be a member of possibly the most restrictive and politically correct group of people to ever walk the earth. There is tremendous pressure to be “out and proud.” There is also tremendous pressure to be financially successful, have a 30 inch waist and speak out about all the right things. Never mind I have seen more misogyny, misandry and racism within the gay community than I have in any other. And when I say “more,” I mean lots, lots more. Never mind that gay people give great lip service to individuality and personal choice, then separate themselves into divisive groups such as “bears,” “twinks” and “bull dykes.” One must by into the liberal machine to be gay, otherwise one is not welcome, no matter how tolerant liberals may claim to be.
Gay men who didn’t know I was gay often treat me better than those who know I am. Why? Because I don’t fit an appropriate gay trope. I’m not thin and fabulous looking. I don’t care to dress well; I’m a t-shirt and jeans sort of guy and often don’t shave. When they feel I’m an outsider, they flirt and act friendly. When they find out I’m really one of them, I become “untouchable” as I am no longer an appropriate social or sexual partner.
The funny thing is, I know plenty of gay people who not only want to see “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” overturned, they want to serve in the military, and for the right reasons: to fight for our freedom and protect our beloved country. The biggest gay bar in Seattle recently displayed this on its scrolling marquee out front: God bless America and Troops! Yet they would openly castigate Young Republicans for displaying the exact same message, possibly citing their offense at having to even look at the word “God” out in – gasp! – public.
Fortunately, many gay conservatives are also speaking openly about their conservatism. Unfortunately, because they (I) have to self-identify as gay to make a difference, it is often seen as playing the same sort of identity politics popular with progressives.
The affordance here is that the Left is heavily believed to be the side of the political spectrum most accepting of gay people, when in fact they are merely the side most willing to use so-called gay issues to further a progressive agenda and keep gay people toting the party line. How’s that DADT repeal thing going? And, why is to offensive that Bill O’Reilly believes marriage should be between one man and one woman, but totally OK Barack Obama believes the exact same thing? Yet, when one learns someone is gay, one automatically assumes they are part of the political left. Consequently, the term “gay agenda” has become popular among conservatives.
Fortunately, there are groups like GOProud rallying LGBT conservatives. Unfortunately, because the connection between “gay” and “progressive” is so strong, they are often castigated by conservatives as well as liberals. Consequently, while I completely support GOProud’s existence, I prefer to remain independent of any coalition. The more LGBT conservatives who speak out, the less we’ll have to mention our orientation in connection with our politics. Also, one cannot mention enough that Fred Phelps is a registered Democrat.
Big Business – It is widely perceived by the Left that free market capitalism, unchecked by heavy government control, is evil. Conversely, it is also believed that big business is “in bed with” the politicians, giving them an unfair advantage over the little guy and robbing us of our freedoms. The Left’s solution to this is, oddly, more government involvement and regulation in business.
Wall Street, big oil companies, insurance companies. The evils of the rich and powerful are to be seen everywhere. Oddly, we laud Bill Gates for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation while forgetting how he made his money. Or, we hate Bill Gates for how he made his money while slavishly downloading every patch Microsoft puts out, or donating to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The affordance here is to use Big Business as a scapegoat for all the evils perpetrated against poor people everywhere. Sure, when an oil company displaces an African village – or simply runs a pipeline right through it – we can all agree that’s a selfish and possibly evil deed. But, “because big business” is being used as an affordance to invite more government control of every aspect of our lives. Millions of people don’t have health care because of Big Insurance, and thus we now have Obamacare, meaning many other people who had health care before, won’t. Because Wall Street and bank failures, we’ve asked our government to step in an regulate, not understanding Big Government is the biggest business of them all.
The solution isn’t “everything must be regulated and scrutinized,” nor is it “the government shouldn’t regulate at all,” though I think the latter is much closer to the truth. Adding layer upon layer of regulation to fix the already onion skin-like layers of regulations that have failed won’t fix anything. The idea is to regulate smartly, and as little as possible.
I could go on and on. The basic point is this: when certain terms become so entrenched and connected with certain points of view, they become useful tools for catch-all blame laying.
It’s hard to argue that an unwed black mother receiving less than $600 a month in benefits isn’t being oppressed by the very system she sought assistance from. It’s much easier to point the finger at a group of white people who don’t believe in the welfare state and call them racists.
Fortunately, the answer to all these social affordances lies firmly in conservatism: the belief in individual liberty above and beyond the power of the government. When we stop “racification” and identity politics, these memes break down. When we are no longer gay, black, female, Latino or white Americans, but just Americans, these terms become meaningless. When we blame individuals in positions of power for misusing that power, the solution becomes much easier: replace a corrupt person with an honest one. When we penalize a business for bad practices, rather than regulating an industry, we solve the problem and break the stereotypes.
The bad news is that, as conservatives, we are more diverse than liberals. Consequently, we do have a harder time coming together with one cohesive message. We are more tolerant of our nuts, as we don’t feel the same need to comb through all our messages weeding out the politically incorrect or unsubtle among us. And, getting conservatives together is like herding cats.
This is why the Tea Party is such a powerful phenomenon, and why it is so narrow in scope as to coalesce around a core set of values, rather than an all-encompassing platform.
Affordances are extremely useful tools. While we should continue to perpetuate the positive ones, we must also fight the negatives. These are more than just political stereotypes; they are stereotypes with built-in and suggested applications. And, they are pretty much the meat of the Left’s misguided system. Removing these underpinnings by reclaiming and redefining the terms they use against us is the quickest way to demolish the statist status quo.