The Washington Post recently published a rather remarkable op-ed piece under the title, Why are Liberals so Condescending? The author, Gerard Alexander, took it as a given that liberals are condescending to average voters while conservatives are not (well, OK, maybe they are sometimes). Within three days the online version received nearly 3000 comments, most of them aiming more vituperation at each other than argument toward the original article. Alexander’s piece itself was notable not only for its forest of unexamined assumptions and specious claims, but also for its failure to explain two basic things, namely, what is condescension and what is so wrong with it? But of course it’s futile to scan the editorial page of the Post for answers on this, or anything else, for that matter. Immanuel Kant, underappreciated as a philosopher of liberalism, got this one right more than 200 years ago.
Kant was what in German is called an Aufklärer, or ‘Enlightener.’ He was an intellectual-- a university professor, even— who saw it as his task to help common people clear away their ignorance, exercise their reason, and change the world accordingly. He was thus a ripe target for charges of condescension, and if he were alive today he’d no doubt be squarely in the sights of Prof. Alexander. In a famous short essay Kant considered the question, What is Enlightenment? His answer was that enlightment is “man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and immaturity, in turn, is “the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.”
The key word here is ‘self-incurred’: The unenlightened are responsible for their own ignorance. What could be more ‘condescending’ than this? In fact, this charge was soon leveled at Kant, by his acquaintance and intellectual sparring partner, J.G. Hamann. In a private letter Hamann mocked Kant’s definition, accusing him of putting himself and other self-important Enlighteners in the role of schoolteachers to the common person. But Kant, unlike Mr. Alexander, is clear about the difference between condescending to someone and saying that they have a false belief. The former can be justified as an attitude toward someone only if they are incapable of thinking rationally, and thus is incompatible with the calling of the ‘enlightener.’ The latter, however, is the very essence of respect between reasonable people.
Though Kant doesn’t explain his decision to say that ignorance is self-incurred, the logic behind it is pretty clear: The essay as a whole is about the obstacles to the free use of human reason, and how to overcome those barriers. The unenlightened have to be responsible for their own ignorance, because enlightenment requires that they be responsible for their own enlightenment. The goal is that people will reason on their own, and reason well, and this requires that they are capable of reasoning. If they are not reasoning well, then whatever external problems might make rational thought more difficult, the failure to think is the fault of the thinker, too.
This means that when a liberal (or anyone) says that the American voters are wrong about something, this is neither arrogant nor condescending. As long as the assumption is that they are capable of correcting their false beliefs, ordinary respect requires that we give people some responsibility for their own ignorance. This touches on one area where Alexander has a valid point. The left has often devoted too much intellectual energy to theories of the mass deception of the public. Alexander cites Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but he might also have mentioned many others, such as Noam Chomsky. I don’t want to say that anything these people say is mistaken—sadly, too often they are right on target. But the obsession with this sort of thinking can lead progressives to forget that their goals for a just and peaceful society depend on the ability of people to think for themselves despite all the deception that admittedly is all around us.