November 22, 2023

Questions Answered

Editor's Note: Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who responded to our survey with thoughtful questions! We’re delightfully overwhelmed. For our final Q&A edition, we’ll be covering social issues. Yesterday we covered foreign policy and immigration, and Monday we covered Trump, Biden and elections.

Please note that while we've put a lot of thought into these answers, we do not claim to speak for any political party / activist group / large swathe of people. When we’re answering as a 'conservative' or 'liberal,' it’s a tricky balance between trying to accurately summarize the prevailing viewpoints on our side of the political spectrum, being true to how we as individuals think and feel, and keeping our answers short enough so that readers won’t lose interest.

Ask a Liberal

I acknowledge that racism is still alive today. Both systemic and individual. But sometimes I feel like people make it the blanket explanation for EVERYTHING. Is there a good way to ask, "Is there a factor other than skin color that is the major issue here?" without sounding like you're dismissing the existence of racism altogether? - Liz, TX

It’s easy to find extreme examples on the internet, but in practice most people are capable of nuance. It’s worth noting that Martin Luther King Jr. “focused on kitchen-table economic issues and, perhaps even more importantly, that he saw the path forward as forging a political alliance with self-interested low-income white people.” While racism is certainly a problem, it interacts with plenty of other causal factors to produce disparities.

In terms of rhetoric, one approach is to consider the “Yes, And” (rather than “Yes, but”) approach. Yes, racism is real, and there are also other factors that should be considered. Something else to consider is to take an action-oriented / future-thinking approach. Rather than dwell only on the causes of a situation, focus on what actions can be taken now, and/or how to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. What are the common goals you’re trying to achieve moving forward? What are some ways those goals can be achieved? Living Room Conversations has a useful guide to talking about race.

I can understand the importance of protecting the rights of transgender adults to express their identity, but the conversation feels much more complicated when we are talking about children being granted permission to have serious medical changes, like hormone blockers and surgery. What scientific sources do you look to to make the argument that medical changes are appropriate for children who are questioning their gender identity? What body of research exists to support this? - Anonymous

This issue is tough because it has gotten so political. Culture warriors on both sides have become dogmatic, arguing either that transgender people do not exist at all, or that all children with any sign of gender dysphoria should be medically transitioned. The goal should be helping children, not “winning” a political fight.

Proponents of puberty blockers and hormone treatments, including the American Medical Association, cite studies finding that the treatments reduce depression and suicidal ideation. Opponents, however, have criticized this research. Several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, have recently restricted treatments due to concerns about efficacy and long-term side effects.

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of critics: those who argue treatments should be banned for moral/religious reasons, and those who argue more research is necessary in order to ensure that children receive the best care. Clinical guidelines stress that medical intervention should not be done casually, but only after a thorough evaluation and treatment to address any other potential psychological issues that may be present. Many of the stories in the news reflect a failure to adhere to these guidelines, likely in part due to the recent increase in demand for gender-related treatment. Rather than trying to ban such treatments, conservative states might instead fund better research.

Do you really believe people can renounce having a gender at all and just be neither? How is that possible? - Anonymous

It’s important to differentiate between sex and gender. Sex is simply biology: barring a few extremely rare instances, we’re all born male or female. But that doesn’t have to dictate our behavior, which is where gender comes in. Gender refers to people’s identity along with “social and cultural expectations about status, characteristics, and behavior as they are associated with certain sex traits.” For many people, sex and gender are correlated: most males present as men and behave as society might expect men to act (which itself varies depending upon cultural context). However, this does not work for everyone. Thus you may have someone born male who prefers to be perceived and treated as a woman (or vice versa). Just as we’ve abandoned the rigid stereotypical gender roles (e.g. women cooking and cleaning in the home, men working in factories) that once permeated our society, there’s no reason we can’t make room for different gender identities.

Academia by and large is firmly in the liberal camp and conservative viewpoints often are targeted and oppressed (“cancelled”). If you were a university administrator, what would you do to encourage civility and free exchange of ideas? - Anonymous

The first step would be to promote the free exchange of ideas, including conservative ones. Over a hundred universities across the country have adopted the Chicago Principles, a statement from the University of Chicago affirming its absolute commitment to free expression. This commitment requires that speech be allowed on campus, and also that those attempting to silence speech - whether through violence or other means - be prevented from doing so. The University of Chicago itself also refuses to take institutional stands on current issues, and instead allows students and faculty to speak for themselves.

We’re also big fans of Heterodox Academy, which works to “advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), another group, works to fight censorship on campus and ranks colleges based on their support for freedom of speech.

Ask a Conservative

This year, one of my cousins changed pronouns from he/him to they/them and changed their name to a more female sounding one. I spoke with them about how even though I don't fully support that, I will respect their decision and call them by their preferred name and pronouns. The problem is, several members of my family who don't support their decision are still deadnaming [Ed note: this refers to using the previous name of a transgender person] my cousin and using he/him pronouns. As we're getting ready for the holiday, I want to speak with those family members about how they can still respect my cousin's wishes, even if they don't agree with the decision. How do I go about this conversation? - Daniel, TN

Rather than focus on complicated issues of identity, it may be more effective to focus on general norms of civility. If a family member hated a certain nickname, would they continue to use it? You’re not asking anyone to approve of your cousin’s choice, or even to affirm a belief in the new gender, but simply to use a new preferred name. If they would be willing to do that for a non-transgender person, then it’s reasonable to ask them to do so in this case.

One of our contributors adds: I believe that everyone (barring medical anomalies) is either male or female. That being said, I also believe everyone has the right to behave how they want, present how they want, and identify how they want. I don’t have to agree with them that they have no gender, but because I’m a kind and pragmatic person, I have no desire to argue with them. It costs me nothing to call someone “they,” and their mannerisms and appearance certainly don’t affect me. What would I or anyone else stand to gain from picking a fight over such things? If someone treats me with basic kindness and respect, I do the same. How they feel about themselves and which pronouns they prefer are non-issues for me. I might believe they’re fooling themselves, but so what?

Typically the Republican party has been on the side of personal rights such as the right to own guns. Recently however, it seems that is changing such as in the case of abortion. Especially in this, the end result is your "right" to take a life if it threatens your well being in some way. Then it extends to rights to read a book or start a family with the person you choose to love. What is causing this change of heart towards the rights of liberty as defined in the constitution? Additionally people are citing religious beliefs as the backbone of their concern. But the founders were so adamant about their belief about the separation of church and state because of the effects it had in other governments including England. Why is your party now embracing this? - Malena, WI

It’s important to distinguish between rights that are enumerated in the Constitution and ones that are not. The Constitution (via the Bill of Rights) guarantees certain liberties: speech/expression, religion, guns, etc. Notably, this does not include the right to abortion. Roe v. Wade was long criticized, even by supporters of abortion rights, as unmoored from the actual text of the Constitution. Former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a staunch support of abortion rights, was herself critical of the reasoning behind the decision. Roe based the “right” to abortion on an implied right to marital privacy. Leaving aside how marital privacy applies to abortion in general, when Courts create “implied” rights, what is the limiting principle? The Constitution simply becomes a tool for judges to impose their own policy preferences on society. There are many liberties that one might want - and conservatives likely support quite a few of them as policy matters - but that does not mean they are mandated by the Constitution.

One of our contributors adds: I actually support legal abortion in most cases. Forcing women to have unwanted children is not good for society, and likely to result in subpar outcomes for both the mother and child. But there’s no right to privacy written in the Constitution, and it’s not the job of judges to make one up. This is an issue that should be decided by elected legislatures, accountable to voters. Thus I applaud the Court’s decision to strike down Roe while also opposing state legislatures trying to ban the procedure entirely.

In red states where state governments have prioritized restrictions on abortion, doctors have often warned of risks to pregnant women having life-threatening complications; conservatives have responded dismissively, often vaguely arguing that doctors’ judgment is already protected. Why is this risk not a concern to “pro-life” politicians? - Anonymous

Supporters of abortion restrictions have pointed out, accurately, that no states ban abortion when the life of the mother is at risk. Thus it’s unfair to blame the laws when it is in fact doctors who are choosing not to perform procedures that are permitted. That said, Texas just recently passed a bill clarifying that abortions are permitted in the case of certain serious medical conditions.

It’s also worth noting that there’s always going to be some upheaval when changing the status quo, particularly on an issue as fraught as abortion. As time passes, doctors will learn more about what the new laws allow and we’ll likely see legal precedent clearly establishing that abortion is allowed for life-threatening conditions. We may also see other states follow Texas’s example to make absolutely clear that there are in fact exceptions for life-threatening conditions.

Where does the GOP go from here on abortion? Should they just copy the Dems’ position & move on? - Adam, Canada

Why are more and more "red" states voting against abortion bans / pro-life measures?  - Ben, NE

It’s important to remember that the primary argument against Roe was that it was decided on dubious legal grounds, and that abortion is an issue which should be decided by the states. That’s exactly where we are now. And while there isn’t a total ban on abortion nationwide as the social conservative movement would prefer, there are far more restrictions in many states than there were previously. Abortion is mostly banned in 14 states, and heavily restricted in several more.

That said, it’s undeniable that anti-abortion activists have faced recent electoral setbacks. Some of this is to be expected: polls prior to Roe showed that most voters thought abortion should be legal through the first trimester, but largely restricted after. This is more restrictive than was permitted by Roe, but obviously far short of a full ban. To the extent that the pro-life movement wants to enact further restrictions, it will have to start by winning over hearts and minds; that’s how democracy works. This won’t be an easy process, but the fact that it’s possible at all is a huge improvement.

Ask Both Sides

What is Critical Race Theory? What resource would give me an unbiased, concise overview? - KG, WV

Critical Race Theory (CRT) began as an academic framework which posits that racist practices are embedded in legal structures and policies. According to this framework, even seemingly color-blind policies can end up discriminating based on race. For example, until 2010 those arrested for offenses involving crack cocaine faced much higher sentences than those involving powder cocaine. Specifically, there was a 100:1 ratio: distribution of one gram of crack cocaine carried the same penalty as 100 grams of powder cocaine. This policy is technically race-neutral. However, crack cocaine, perhaps due to the fact that it’s cheaper, is disproportionately used (and sold) by African Americans, while powder cocaine is more common among white Americans. Thus the end result is a system in which African Americans committing similar offenses (but involving crack rather than powder cocaine) faced significantly longer prison sentences than white Americans.

CRT as an academic discipline, however, is quite different from what is taught in public K-12 schools. High schoolers are not reading treatises on legal theory. Instead, CRT has come to be used to describe a wide range of ideas involving race.

Many conservatives who oppose CRT are actually opposing specific curricula. There are instances of problematic teaching at some public schools. For example, school training materials have made claims such as that perfectionism, individualism, and objectivity are problematic characteristics of white supremacy. It’s worth noting that most liberals are equally disturbed by these examples; as one notes, “From any normal standpoint, the idea that ‘requiring people to think in a linear (logical) fashion’ is racist is itself racist.”

Liberals who support CRT, meanwhile, use the term to mean much more innocuous behavior, such as teaching about the horrors of slavery. They respond to examples such as a textbook that describes slave owners as “kind and generous” and claims that “many [slaves] may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot.” Students in Texas were asked to list both positive and negative aspects of slavery. “A class of middle-schoolers in Charlotte, North Carolina, was asked to cite ‘four reasons why Africans made good slaves.’” For most on the left, CRT simply means a curriculum that acknowledges the harms of slavery and does not brush past or make light of the experiences of slaves. It’s worth noting that 73 percent of Republicans want schools to teach about slavery, and 58 percent support teaching about racism.

All that said, debates over school curricula are not new. Just as our society is divided over race, it is also divided over how to teach about race. 82 percent of Democrats support teaching children about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism, compared to 38 percent of Republicans. Given widespread disagreements over whether institutional racism exists or how much discrimination each racial group faces, such conflicts are inevitable. If we’re going to engage in discussions about CRT productively, it’s important to be clear about what exactly each of us means when we use the term.

We hope you enjoyed this week’s Q&A, and wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving!

We’ll be back in full swing Monday morning. In the meantime, here are some resources to improve contentious holiday conversations while enjoying turkey:

And for those of you looking to avoid politics, here are some suggestions:

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