Stephen Colbert’s disgusting, homophobic rant about President Trump; special snowflake safe spaces on college campuses; and news media pretenses about press rights being eviscerated under our new fascist regime all have the same root cause, and it’s not ideology. That progressives engage in this behavior is incidental to a deeper problem, one that we must recognize and combat to save our culture.
Participation trophies have become a cliché, a catch-all term to define unnecessary protection against the bumps and bruises of everyday life. It used to be common sense that losing a contest is a necessary part of the maturation process, that we learn from failure and pain as much as we learn from success, and that frequent ease breeds sloth, not aspiration. Self-esteem needs a foundation of achievement to keep from becoming empty, destructive egotism. Feelings should be put through the twin crucibles of experience and perspective before they are acted upon.
Conflict, as much as we dislike it, is an integral part of the life of a mature adult. Taking risks confronts the fear of failure. To stand up for yourself is to confront an opponent. Defending your beliefs confronts narratives that you believe (or know) to be false. And pushing yourself to do something better/harder/faster/more than you’ve ever done puts you in conflict with your own self-image. You don’t know who you are until you’ve truly pushed yourself.
Our culture, which prizes non-confrontation, mediated conflict resolution, crossing the aisle, compromise over victory, and 24/7 comfort is destroying the vital, character-building notion of conflict, and we’re seeing the symptoms of that every day. Human beings were born to fight, to confront, to struggle, and when we don’t do that with big things, we inflate little things into big things and confront them instead. Social media, with unfriending, unfollowing, muting, and blocking does this for us, eliminating even the slightest hint of unwanted conflict from our digital lives.
When you haven’t pushed yourself, when you’ve had conflict cut from your life like a tumor, you won’t have the tools to determine the severity of one threat from another. Schoolyard fights, soccer game losses, poor academic grades, and even workplace layoffs teach us that failure is survivable, that you can lose and not be a victim. Lacking that learned perspective and living a coddled life means that a mere difference of opinion can feel like an assault on your very existence. Your psyche won’t know the difference between a knife to the gut and an off-color joke: they’re both attacks on you, and must be dealt with in the harshest way possible.
So when you’re presented with a different perspective, one that brushes against your fragile, hollow ego, you fight back with everything you’ve got because your psyche believes that your life’s at stake. You go after your attacker, your attacker’s children, your attacker’s job and reputation and integrity because by Gaia he put your body into that fight-or-flight combat response, with adrenaline, norepinephrine, and the rest of the stress hormone chemical cocktail. His apologies won’t save him any more than a rapist’s apology would soothe his bleeding, crying victim.
This explains the younger, more coddled generation, but what about older, supposedly more worldly people like Colbert? Consider his career: endless adulation from the people who matter, with laughter and applause and book signings and laudatory articles in the highest-status publications on the planet. His phalanx of writers and producers protects him from the right-wing riff-raff he mocks by writing his lines for him: all he has to do is read a script aloud. Imagine the relief of having to do away with the caricature he used to play, the comedy masquerade that did little to conceal his seething contempt for the backwards rubes in flyover country. Now Colbert could be himself. He was on top of the world, nowhere to go but up. Conflict was something that sister-humping trailer park-dwellers engaged in over meth pipes. Hillary Clinton would usher in a new Utopia where—
Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Trump won? This can’t be happening. The first true, unavoidable confrontation Colbert’s had in years hits him, and he’s not prepared for it. His worldview has been rejected by the very rubes he contemns. It’s fight-or-flight time. Whatever tissue-paper facade of perspective he had built for himself is gone, leaving fear in its wake. It’s not just his life at stake; don’t you understand? The world’s at stake. This madman Trump’s going to destroy the world, just like Charles Murray will destroy the world if he speaks at Middlebury, and just like you’ll destroy the world if you say the wrong thing to the right person. Filled with righteous rage and terror, Colbert attacks, using the same kind of taunts that he used as a child to deal with schoolyard conflict: Trump sucks Putin’s cock. The cover for the attack is flimsy, but it’ll do: Trump called his CBS colleague’s show a bad name, so he deserves it. Colbert’s fought back.
But the fear’s still there. It’ll always be there as long as Trump’s in office. Trump is the very essence of conflict (“he fights”). Trump’s presence in public life evokes fight-or-flight responses in progressives across the world.
So what’s the news media but a larger symbol of Colbert’s existential struggle? They haven’t had to do any work to speak of for eight years, and were expecting at least another four years of ease with Clinton. Now every negative word Trump says about CNN is an out-and-out assault on the foundation of civilization, which they alone protect: the right to a free (progressive) press. Disagreements over journalistic ethics and practices have been elevated to the struggles of Rome against Trump/Hannibal and his MAGA elephants. Fight or flight. Democracy dies in darkness. We’re scared.
The solution to this is to fight back every single time. In days of yore, when we knew the difference between a disagreement and a knock-down, drag-out fistfight, we practiced forbearance as a genteel virtue. We can’t do that any longer. Get more comfortable with conflict, fight as dirty and nasty as they do, and don’t stop until they’ve slunk back to their safe spaces. Teach them the virtues of losing and the lessons that only pain can teach. You’ll be doing them a favor.