Disapproval Fatigue and Team Names

I grew up in a meat and potatoes house. We had noodles from time to time, but we never had “pasta.” That being the case, the first dozen or so times I saw the word “antipasto, “ I misunderstood it completely. [1] Today’s reflection is going to be a little bit on the sober side. Probably pretty abstract, too. So I thought starting with the pasta might help; unless, of course, you are anti-pasta.

It will come as no surprise to anyone to hear that the United States is in the midst of a culture conflict. That means, for today’s purposes that there are different cultural norms and that the proper pursuit of the implied goals has either broad latitude or virtually none. And that means that people in Culture A are going to be disapproving of the words and actions of the people in Culture B and vice versa. There is a lot of disapproving going on.


I, myself, am not a big fan of being disapproved of. but today’s dilemma isn’t just that. The more it happens the more it hurts and the more resistant to it I get. I am hoping that by this stage, you are getting a little impatient and are waiting for me just to get on with it. I’m almost done.

At the beginning of the process—imagining for the moment that there could be a “beginning”—when someone criticizes me for some view I hold, I look at the view to see if I really hold it or if I should make any changes in the way I express it and so on. But later in the process, the people who are criticizing and the criticisms they are making are so familiar, that I react to them, rather than to the issue. This is the stage I call “disapproval fatigue.” It is analogous to having the same toe stepped on over and over. After a while, it just hurts more.

When I get fatigued, I don’t go back and look at the object of their criticism any more. I either move out of range or I raise the issue with them in a more focused way—essentially justifying the view they are criticizing—or I begin to attack their views. The grounds for their criticisms are weak, I say, or their way of allocating costs and benefits among the related issues is short-sighted, I say, or their criticisms are badly put and need to be refined.

Digging In

At this point in the process, I am anti- a bunch of things. I will pick three, just as illustrations. I am opposed to the racial policies that are being pushed on me. I am opposed to the description of a goal as unmixed good and therefore as justifying all kinds of actions to support it. I am opposed to the “warfare model” of partisan competition, regardless of whether it is being deployed by the other party or not. I promised three; there are three. There are more where those came from.

We are coming now to the point of this painstaking development. At this stage I am anti-this and anti-that and anti-the other thing. But, as Emil De Becque says so ardently in South Pacific, “I know what you are against. What are you for?” The pressure to be “for” something gets very strong.
You want to say, “Of course I am against that and that and that, I am an X. What would you expect?” The value of the name associated with X is crucially important. X is the answer the De Becque’s question: it is what you are for. And what you are for is the reason you are against all these other things.

That X does some valuable work for you. It gives you an answer—one answer—to the critics. There is a downside to that, but at the moment we are considering the value. It is simple and recognizable. And not only that, it gives you membership in an association of sorts. “Ah,” say the other members of this association, “You are one of us.”

Digging in has drawbacks

As you expected. Here are a few from the banquet table of drawbacks. First, it isn’t accurate. Team names—like “Neoliberal” for instance—do have the effect of grouping people together but people wind up under such an abstract banner for a lot of different reasons. So even if you have chosen it as a shelter from the storm, you have to know that it will misrepresent your views, your particular views.

The second is that you can “dig in” on procedural grounds or on substantive grounds. In the examples above, you can criticize an approach as being too radical (proponents will do anything to advance the cause) or as being wrong (the wrong goal is being pursued). I am calling that first one a procedural critique and it matters because the X name you take will be a strategic or a tactical one. You will be expected to argue that the goal should be pursued more broadly or more slowly or with more attention to side effects. X, in this case, will turn out to be translated as “moderate” or “gutless” depending on the kind of friends you have and on how early in the dispute names are called for.

If you argue that the goal itself is wrong, then you will get a goal-related name. “Patriot” and “Traitor” are goal-related names. “Perpetrator” and “Victim” are goal-related names. [2] You see where this is going.

The last lap

I have been so tempted to begin calling myself a conservative. I don’t want to do it because I don’t like my teammates. And it distorts the reasons I hold a lot of the views I do hold. And it leads people to infer, erroneously, that I must hold related views Y and Z, which I do not.

I think I am not yet at the place where I am compelled to choose among the team names. I can keep on doing what I have been doing, which is staying away from some meetings, and reading these books rather than those, and probing carefully to see if I dare have in any setting, the conversation I would like to have. As long as those work well enough and I am not overwhelmed by “disapproval fatigue,” I can keep on doing them. My formal affiliation with some team or other is postponed. I am just me being me.

I may already be, however, at the place when I really should pick a name (and therefore a team) and I might if I could find one that meant what I want it to mean. It would have to have implications for the issues I keep getting involved in (not all of them, of course) or it would not communicate automatically to the other participants what they should expect from me.

I think the recent interest in “anti-racism” is a good example. It offers a scale where “racism” is one pole and “anti-racism” is the other pole. I myself am a non-racist. There is no place on that scale for me. The argument against my position is that there is no way NOT to be on the scale: you are either for racism or against it and being “non-“ is effectively being for it. I disagree. I think that in specifying “race” as the organizing principle, you are guaranteeing an exhausting fight and one which you will lose.

Some fights really are about race. “Race” narrowly construed. But many that are said to be about race are really about either culture or about social class. And of those, some can be more effectively defined and fought if they are about culture or class than if they are about race. So let’s say each of these possibilities is available. We will call these issues “racial;” those issues “cultural;” and those other issues class-based. I think that’s just smart.

So what do you think? Am I a non-racist?

[1] It still doesn’t seem quite fair that ante + pasto migrated over to anti + pasto as if confusing non-Italians were its entire reason for being.
[2] “Marginal” and “marginalized” are goal-related names, too, although you might not think it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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