Q&A With Mary-Katharine Ham: How the Right Can Counter the Outrage Culture of the Left

This week, FOX News contributors Mary-Katharine Ham and Guy Benson release their new book, End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters and Makes America Less Free (and Fun). Ham, who serves on the board of Center for American Opportunity, is also the editor-at-large of the conservative website hotair.com.

Mary-Katharine sat down with Opportunity Lives to discuss her first book, advice for students enduring close-mindedness on campus, and how to balance politics with real life.

What was the inspiration behind “End of Discussion?” Was it your at-times frustrating exchanges with Democrat talking heads on television, or perhaps encountering liberals in your life off-camera?

I’d say it was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent frustration. That’s the saying, right? The enforced “End of Discussion” by the lords of liberal orthodoxy was something Guy and I had been feeling for some time, as public figures who speak on TV and deal in political topics. We felt ourselves increasingly walking on eggshells on certain topics. We noticed in the 2012 election how easily fake “outrages” became national controversies with outsized influence on the news cycle. But in the past couple of years there also seems to have been an even more concerning trend.

Fake outrage ruins the national political dialogue and makes it nearly impossible for us to have rational, fact-based conversations about the country when everyone and their mama is pretending to be offended by everything everyone says. Guy and I sort of accept some of this language policing as the cost of being public figures. What’s really damaging is when it trickles down to private citizens, who then feel they can’t express themselves on their Facebook pages or Twitter for fear of becoming publicly shamed pariahs. And that is happening now in a very real way.

You and your co-author Guy Benson have been friends for a decade. How did you two decide to write a book together?

The conversation went a little something like this:

Guy: “Man, we’re really busy, but it’d be good to write a book about this important topic.”

MK: “Yeah, but I have a kid and a busy work life and you have, like, four jobs.”

Guy: “Half a book sounds easier than a whole book.”

And, we were off! Beyond logistics, though, we both were confident we would work well together, would have a blast, and had the same aim— to address a serious topic in a fun and fair way. Our hope is that conservatives will love the book, but that they can also give it to their liberal friends and/or frenemies. Part of the solution to this problem is convincing moderates and liberals not to jump into the outrage industry, as opposed to attempting to match them outrage for outrage.

“End of Discussion” reminds me of the old adage, “Republicans think Democrats are wrong. Democrats think Republicans are evil.” Your book outlines many examples where the Left, aided in part by the media, shuts down debate by painting its ideological opposition as irrational or inhumane. How should conservatives respond to the constant assignment of sinister motivation to our ideas, policies, beliefs and speech?

Thank you for this question as it allows me to use one of my favorite quotes, from Calvin Coolidge. I use it as a mantra to remind myself that no matter how much any dorm room bull session or Democratic talking head thinks I desire merely to destroy all that is good and kind in the world, I know I believe what I believe because free markets and free people are some of the most miraculous, uplifting forces for good the world has ever known. 

Coolidge said, “I believe in the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people.”

As conservatives, we must let that compassion animate our lives and our communications, and be confident in it.

In chapter 3, you and Guy detail the five-step “outrage” procedure of the Left. It often claims decent human beings as its victims, ruining their lives or at the very least their careers. Do you believe conservatives should respond in-kind (why bring a knife to a gun fight?) or should we lead by example (demonstrate mercy to those on the Left who stumble)? 

In “End of Discussion,” Guy and I prescribe a big dose of picking your battles. We advise against an outrage arms race with the Left 1) because we will lose, as they will retain the mainstream media and other institutional advantages to amplify their outrage du jour and 2) because matching them outrage for outrage sounds utterly miserable. It’s important to make the Left live by their own standards at times.

One chapter, “The Vagina Demagogues,” focuses on the Left’s bastardization of feminism. Of all the examples you provide (the debunked myth of unequal pay, Susan G. Komen v. Planned Parenthood, etc.), which is the most egregious distortion in the “war on women?”

I think my biggest issue with modern feminism (whatever wave we’re on now) is that in all of its claims to liberate us, what it really does is require us to be a VERY SPECIFIC kind of left-leaning woman who ascribes to a very specific and ever-changing litany of policy preferences. I didn’t get liberated so I can believe exactly what feminist bloggers say I’m allowed to believe.

What advice would you give to young conservatives who face the same tyranny of thought outlined in “End of Discussion” among their peers, both at school and in pop culture? How do they maintain their principles, articulate their points, and remain “happy warriors” about it?

Remember that being tested and questioned about your beliefs makes you a better spokesperson for them. I’d like to give a shout-out to my extremely liberal hometown for preparing me to voice my opinions on national TV while under fire from the likes of Bill O’Reilly every week. It was a great training ground.

Don’t fall into the tendency of our friends on the Left to think of whomever disagrees with you as evil. Granted, if you’re in college, sometimes your interlocutors are going to seem genuinely crazy, but I like to think that’s often just a season of their lives fueled by hookah smoke and throwback hippie professors who sprinkle their tiresome counter-culture lectures with cuss words. They’ll get past it, and you can help, mostly by treating them as fellow human beings who are also trying to make the world a better place for themselves and everyone.

Connect with people on something other than politics. Much as one should not discuss politics or religion on a first date, it is unwise to posit your thoughts on the flat tax or Obama’s historic failures while offering to buy a new friend a drink. Establish shared interests before stealthily indoctrinating them with your belief system. (Just kidding, shoot for human relationships first.)

Don’t have ONLY friends who share your political values, but have some, so you can vent.

On a more personal note, your book opens by marveling at how “everything’s a thing” and that in contemporary politics, even the most insignificant news nugget becomes the controversy du jour. You also advise your fellow conservatives to find fulfillment outside of politics. Why do you think this is so important? How do you keep sane in the midst of the 24/7-news cycle? 

I tell people who are about politics all the time that they are not normal people. It’s cool, I’m one of you, but we’re not normal. And, the business of politics and elections requires connecting with normal people. That means being conversant in “The Bachelorette” as well as the amendment tree for the latest reform to the PATRIOT Act. 

Also, your life will be miserable if all you care about are THE ISSUES, 24/7. I, for one, usually unplug from the news cycle and Twitter over the weekends, and try to enjoy a healthy diet of stupid TV in addition to my cable news consumption. It keeps me sane and happy, which makes me a better person who’s better at my job as a result.

Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, Members of Congress and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter at @ellencarmichael.