Sunday, June 23, 2024

Free + clear: Clash of the bully pulpits

I am reliably informed that when I was about 4 years old, I got really mad about spiders. My father was helping me read a book on the subject. When I learned that some large spiders kill and eat smaller ones, I became indignant and said, “When I grow up, I’m going to do something about those big spiders!”

It turns out that resentment toward bullies is a natural impulse. Anthropologists and psychologists believe that during most of human prehistory, when our ancestors lived in bands of 50 to 150 people, there were good reasons to develop language, division of labor and other cooperative skills. It maximized their abilities to take down game, protect against predators and survive natural disasters. But ceding some authority to leaders to accomplish these ends created other risks: that those leaders would exercise their power to enrich themselves, and that the link between work effort and reward would weaken as shirkers got more than they deserved and workers got mad about it.

In response, humans developed other moral intuitions along with a healthy respect for legitimate authority and loyalty. One response was a tendency to value freedom over oppression — that is, to identify bullies and work cooperatively with other members of the community to restrain or overthrow them. “Individuals who failed to detect signs of domination and respond to them with righteous and group-unifying anger,” wrote psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, “faced the prospect of reduced access to food, mates and all the other things that make individuals (and their genes) successful in a Darwinian sense.”

Haidt’s point is that while people often construct elaborate explanations for their views, their disagreements derive mainly from their basic moral intuitions. Some of us place a high priority on freedom, while others prioritize authority, loyalty or other concerns such as protecting people from harm. Even more problematic, you and I may both rate freedom highly but perceive very different kinds of bullies as being the primary threat to it.

Which brings me to House Bill 2. The Republican-controlled General Assembly enacted it last year in response to a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance that lawmakers strongly disagreed with and feared would set a precedent, particularly regarding access to bathrooms, showers and locker rooms on both public and private property. Next, the Obama administration issued a “guidance letter” about facility access that many believe was even more objectionable than Charlotte’s original ordinance or HB2.

Since then, North Carolina has been embroiled in controversy. For both sides in the national debate about LGBT rights, our state has become a pivotal battleground, complete with an air war of TV debates, artillery barrages in the form of boycotts, and a ground war of competing campaigns for governor, legislature and local offices.

For many business leaders, the controversy was baffling. What was the imminent problem that needed to be solved, either by Charlotte’s overly broad ordinance or Raleigh’s overly broad response? Wasn’t there some way to work out a reasonable accommodation among the concerned parties before escalating the dispute into a no-holds-barred conflict?

Having tried several times to help “work this out,” I came to understand that the impasse didn’t lie in the details of the various bills and alternatives. For both sides, their freedom-oppression moral sensibility had been turned up to 11. Each perceived a different set of bullies.

For opponents of HB2, state lawmakers were the bullies.They were dictating to local officials what ordinances the latter could enact and to transgender North Carolinians what bathrooms they could use in government buildings. For proponents of HB2, out-of-state interests — businesses, sports leagues, Democratic governors, media outlets — were the bullies. They were using boycotts and other pressure to dictate to state lawmakers what laws they could enact and to private businesses what their bathroom policies could be. (This was a partisan role-reversal. Normally, Republicans tend to see government as the oppressors, while Democrats tend to see big business as the oppressors.)

Few of us are inclined to give in to a bully. We’d rather punch him in the nose to teach him a lesson or recruit some other victims to gang up on him. We don’t see a bully as someone to listen to or negotiate with. But what if it’s not clear who’s the bully and who’s the victim?

Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation, took part in efforts to broker a compromise on HB2.

John Hood
John Hood
John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation. You can reach him at

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