Tuesday, February 19, 2002

A recent e-mail from a reader said that he could not find the word “shibboleth” in his desk dictionary, even though he had seen this word in my column. That was an unfortunate omission in his dictionary because shibboleths explain a lot about what is said and done in politics today.

Back in biblical times, the word “shibboleth” was used as a password, because people from one side could say it easily and their enemies couldn’t. It identified who you were and which side you were on.

Today, many things that are said and done in our political life serve that same purpose and often make no sense otherwise. When people say they are for “diversity” or gun control or campaign finance reform, they are declaring themselves to be on one side in the political wars. In their own eyes, their position on such issues identify them as one of the good, caring and compassionate people.

What political shibboleths do is transform questions about facts, causation and evidence into questions about personal identity and moral worth. Shibboleths are also a great labor-saving device. You don’t need to find out what the actual consequences of affirmative action have been if being for “diversity” serves the purpose of identifying you as one of those good people who care about racial justice and the advancement of the disadvantaged.

You don’t have to find out what actually happens when there are more relaxed or more stringent gun control laws, if you only need to show that you are on the side of the angels. How many lives have actually been lost under one policy vs. the other is a factual question whose answer you need not bother learning.

Mere facts cannot compete with shibboleths when it comes to making people feel good. Moreover, shibboleths keep off the agenda the painful question of how dangerous it is to have policies which impact millions of human beings without a thorough knowledge of the hard facts needed to understand just what that impact has actually been.

Shibboleths are the lifeblood of the media. Stories which seem to support the side of the angels are trumpeted from coast to coast, while stories that support the other side are either downplayed or ignored altogether.

For example, vicious crimes committed by white people against black people are big news because these stories fit the shibboleths which establish the moral identity of the journalists who tell these stories. Vicious crimes committed by blacks against whites are not big news because these stories undermine the shibboleths or, as it is phrased, “feed stereotypes.” Ditto with stories about the homeless, homosexuals and others favored by current shibboleths.

Shibboleths are dangerous, not only because they mobilize political support for policies that most of the supporters have not thought through, but also because these badges of identity make it harder to reverse those policies when they turn out to be disastrous. When admitting a mistake means renouncing one’s identity as one of “us” and lining up with a demonized “them,” do not expect as many people to do it as if all that was involved was the question whether policy A produces better results than policy B.

Those who strain for moral equivalence itself one of the shibboleths of our time may assume that shibboleths are part of all political or ideological positions. But, for at least two centuries, shibboleths have been at the heart of the ideology of the left, whether moderate left or radical left.

Assumptions of being more concerned, caring and compassionate than their opponents can be found on the left from William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century to a whole galaxy of liberal-left journalists, academics, organizations and movements today. But there were no such assumptions in the writings of Adam Smith in the 18th century or in those of Milton Friedman today. It was enough for them to say their opponents were mistaken and their policies harmful and why.

What we need are more factual arguments and counterarguments. With shibboleths, we are flying blind into the future, through mountains of hard facts that are being ignored when they contradict the vision that gives many people their sense of self-worth.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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