Few recent movies have generated as much partisan division as “Sound of Freedom.” Blame a concept called “reactive devaluation” for at least some of the split. The same concept could help us make sense of other state and national debates.
Never heard of the term? You’re not alone. This observer encountered it for the first time while reading the most recent Commentary magazine.
Columnist Rob Long, an “executive producer of six TV series,” devoted his latest Hollywood commentary to “Sound of Freedom.” The $14 million film had earned $190 million domestically by the time of his inquiry — outperforming major Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford action features. Why?
It’s an action thriller. A “disillusioned American special agent” quits his job and goes rogue to “smash an international child-sex-trafficking ring.” “It seems like pretty down-the-middle fare, to be honest,” Long writes.” The hero bucking the system to save those who need saving “has been a reliable formula for box-office success since … well, since the invention of the box office.”
But Long spotted “peculiarities.” The lead character is a “devout Roman Catholic.” Star Jim Caviezel raises eyebrows. “Caviezel has gone more than a little QAnon in his political beliefs,” Long asserts. Plus distribution company Angel Studios’ Christian focus gave the movie a “faith-based” label. That’s the “euphemism employed by left-wing media types when they want to throw a little shade at a project,” Long reminds us.
The most interesting part of Long’s column transcribed a conversation with Rod Barr, a “Sound of Freedom” screenwriter. Readers learn that Barr considers himself “center-left” politically. He believed the movie fit a standard Hollywood template. “Structually, it’s a rescue-the-princess story, right? A hero story,” Barr told Long.
Here’s the most important exchange.
Long asks, “But if they make ‘Sound of Freedom’ with a different creative team, same movie, same everything, no one would have called it the ‘QAnon Movie.’ Why is that?”
“Rod was silent for a moment. ‘My wife’s a mediator,’ he said, ‘and a really good one, and she deals with this all the time in litigation and mediation, when sides are entrenched. And there’s this thing called reactive devaluation that she talks about a lot. And it’s essentially that if the other side believes it, it must be wrong. Even if it’s not wrong, even if it’s true, it must be wrong.’”
“’In other words,’ [Long] said, ‘conservatives and religious people are deeply concerned about child sex-trafficking, so they must be wrong, it must not be a problem?’”
“’Exactly,’ Rod said. ’It’s human nature, I guess.’”
A quick Google search leads to another definition of reactive devaluation. The Decision Lab says the term “refers to our tendency to disparage proposals made by another party, especially if this party is viewed as negative or antagonistic. This cognitive bias can serve as a major barrier in negotiations.”
Even if the label is new, you’re likely to know examples of reactive devaluation in your own life. Two recent hot policy topics in North Carolina come to mind for this observer.
The first involves photo identification for voting. North Carolina’s general election voters endorsed the concept in 2018. The John Locke Foundation’s May Civitas Poll noted 66% support for voter ID among likely 2024 general election voters. More than 70% of states already require voter ID.
Yet professional Democrats and left-of-center activists spend much time, money, and energy fighting voter ID. North Carolina’s law provides free IDs and allows any eligible voter to cast a ballot without an ID. Yet critics claim voter ID’s top advocates aim to disenfranchise voters.
Republicans came up with the idea. To their ideological opponents, it must be wrong.
Debates about school choice tell a similar story. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, parents of all types have asked more questions about traditional schools. More have pursued alternatives that work better for their own children.
Support for parental choice crosses racial, gender, socio-economic, and partisan lines. Yet a committed cadre of vocal activists continues to paint school choice expansion as an attack on public schools. Their criticism ignores evidence of higher spending on the traditional schools they seek to defend.
Republicans touted school choice. In the critics’ minds, it must be bad.
Neither opposition to voter ID nor a campaign against school choice seems like a political winner. Conservatives could benefit from this reactive devaluation.
But there’s a lesson for those on the right side of the political divide as well. Ideas ought to get a fair shake, regardless of who puts them forward. Our state’s future depends on us understanding — and counteracting — misguided reactive devaluation.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.