We act as if we know what these labels mean. Conservatives are traditionalists, fiscally opposed to anything that smacks of gambling, private, often religious, and pedantic on what they consider “appropriate” in either government or personal conduct.
Liberals, on the other hand, are often taken for progressive, willing to spend social capital to repair perceived problems, tolerant, agnostic if not atheist, and overly-concerned with a definition of justice that ought to be all-encompassing rather than what they perceive as sinecure for the privileged.
Well. Over on Facebook I posted a brief quote (my own) to boil down the actual underlying distinctions.
Conservatives are those who don’t like what other people are doing, Liberals are those who don’t like what other people are doing to other people.
It was meant to be taken as humorous. But I’m not being entirely flip here. When you look at it, and try to define the common factor in much that passes for conservative posteuring—of any country, any background, anywhere—it always comes down to one group trying to stop another group from Doing Things We Don’t Approve.
I heard a news report this morning (on NPR—I unabashedly don’t pay attention to any other news source, I find them all utterly biased) from Pakistan about the university scene there, and one bit caught my attention—at a campus in Punjabi, conservative students who find men and women sitting too close together interfere and move them apart. At a game of Truth or Dare, conservative students pulled participants out and beat them.
How does this apply here? Well, here’s a clip from P.Z. Meyers’ Pharyngula to illustrate:
Rising Sun School in Maryland has the standard default take-it-for-granted attitude that Christianity is just fine — there’s the usual well-funded and usually teacher-promoted evangelical groups, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — and when one student tried to form a club for non-religious students…well, you can guess what happened. All their signs were torn down and destroyed, and the students were threatened by their peers. There were also letters to the editor of the local paper.
My daughter comes home today and informs me they have started a new club in Rising Sun High School. The club is known as NRS, which stands for Non Religious Society.
The members of this club have proceeded to hang posters along the halls of the school. When a student tore the posters down, because they offended him, he got suspended from school. Apparently the students are not allowed to touch these posters.
To say I was shocked is putting it mildly. My daughter does not hang posters of her Catholic religion throughout the school, and I expect the same type of respect from others. We cannot control what others think or their beliefs, nor do we want to. But I will not have this type of atrocity taking place without having my voice heard.
My daughter has my permission, if she sees these posters around school, to put up her own. I challenge the principal to say one thing about this. I guarantee you do not want a religious war taking place, as I have God on my side and you’ll lose.”
Perhaps no one was beaten, but I think the point is well-made. To be fair, so-called Progressives have a history of barring certain speakers they disagree with from campuses and the like, but I don’t often see such in-your-face geurilla tactics from left-leaning groups in this country. It happens, sure, but it also happens under an assumption that it’s not sanctioned. But also, it happens usually as part of an effort on behalf of some other group than the liberal group doing the protesting.
When you get right down to it, conservatives as a group seem driven by a desire to constrain conduct with which they disapprove—personal conduct. Perhaps this is a consequence of the way arguments are framed. But I think not. Conservatives, by definition, are concerned with preserving things they like about the way they live. Hence all manner of social protest on the part of conservatives against things that will, they believe, change the way they live—climate change deniers are conservative, anti-abortion advocates are conservative, anti-tax groups are conservative, so-called Strict Interpretation constitutionalists are conservative. And so on.
But are Liberals actually any different? Liberals, it seems to me, become conservative once they have achieved their goals and suddenly find themselves in positions to defend the way things now are. Consider: free market advocates are now conservatives, but if you go back far enough you discover that this was a liberal idea. At one time, the notion that all children have some right to a college education was a liberal idea, but now it has become an entrenched part of business in such a way that the whole educational apparatus is geared toward the degree as an essential element in the economy, so much so that challenges to the way teaching is done, to the idea that education ought to be fundamentally changed, are viewed as dangerously progressive. At one time, the idea of organized religious groups becoming politically active was a way Left notion, but it is one that has come to exemplify conservative ideology.
Liberals tend to displace their personal defense to causes that may not, but could possibly, affect them. They advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised (while conservatives often seem to consciously dismiss the disenfranchised as having nothing to do with them); they take up causes that are more philosophical in appearance; time and attention is given to people who do not have what the advocates have, namely political power, some economic security, or a voice in the community. The more thoughtful Left thinkers seem to realize that but for the grace of good fortune they themselves could be living on the street at the mercy of unfriendly authorities, and so make arguments on behalf of those who already are there. Conservatives seem to feel that those so benighted as to have fallen into such penury have only themselves to blame and dismiss the whole idea of fickle socio-economic shifts that could easily displace the currently secure.
I say “seems to be” a lot, because obviously on an individual level things get a lot more complicated. It all resolves to which part of the whole one chooses to look at.
There are a couple of points at which both sides have it wrong. For instance, in the matter of the disenfranchised—economically, politically, socially—conservatives seem to believe that one’s condition is one’s own responsibility and therefore nothing to do with those who have, according to their lights, already lived responsibly. Therefore, so the thinking goes, “I have no responsibility for Those People.” The liberal tends to believe the disenfranchised are inevitably disempowered due to the structure of social mechanisms, and their condition is therefore not their fault. “Society has all the blame.” Of course, this displaces personal responsibility on the part of the liberal to a kind of group thing. The bottom line is, responsibility still gets shuffled from here to there and very little gets done in the way of solving the actual problems, which are combinations of the two views.
Another observation I’ve made in the past concerning our two major political parties ties in to this: Republicans tend to see citizens as those who own property. Democrats see anyone who lives here legally as a citizen. Defense of corporate personhood is a Republican ideal, which support business, which is property. A rough descriptor, but it plays out remarkably in local politics. In Missouri, several years ago, the Motor Voter registration movement was strongly opposed by Republicans, supported by Democrats. Can’t have people with no financial stake in the country voting, for goodness sake.
I find both sides often equally off-base.
But I find myself siding more often with liberals and the Left because of the apparent obsession conservatives exhibit over Other People’s behavior. The example from Pakistan has direct equivalents here, and it always comes down to conservatives trying to deny expression to people whose preferences in life-style they abhor. The entire gay marriage movement is opposed by conservatives. Why? What is it they think will actually happen if gays are permitted to marry? I don’t buy the whole idea that they think it’s unnatural. I think they dislike the idea of altering their invitation lists and trying to explain to their kids why Tommy and Bill are “getting hitched.” It is this conservative activism that comes across in things like the Texas School Board’s changes to their base curriculum, altering history and science because they don’t like the way things are changing. Conservatives don’t appear to really have a problem with contraception for themselves—else where are all the enormous right-wing families, with seven, eight, or nine kids?—they just don’t want Other People to use it to live in ways conservatives find unseemly. Especially their kids. The opposition to Evolution is preponderantly conservative because it requires a shift in attitude that seems to reduce the influence of religion and the whole notion of humanity as The Superior Species. Climate change is aggressively denied by conservatives because if true it means they will have to change the way they live.
It amounts to a denial of reality.
On the other hand, liberals indulge equally in different sorts of denialism. Anti-vaccine advocates, I think, are mostly progressives. Certainly cultural relativists who are unwilling to make definitive statements about obvious boneheadedness and outright evil in other cultures (female circumcision, purda, etc) are little better than head-in-the-sand do-nothings. Nonsense causes, like homeopathy, herbalism, and the like tend to attract people of liberal bents.
But I think it’s useful to try to dig down deep to the foundational distinctions to see what is really going on. The one thing that needs to change is the all-encompassing unwillingness, on the part of right and left, to say and listen to things that make us uncomfortable, or disagree with our cherished ideals. You cannot know how to determine the real, the actual, and the relevant by confining your information to one channel that agrees with you all the time and censoring the other fellow who has a point to make. We’ve been doing that for much too long and it has been responsible, as much as anything, for the unprecedented divides we see today. Conservatives aggressively tear down posters while liberals passively refuse to permit a speaker to come, but both actions amount to the same self-imposed deafness.
We live in an absurd age, when you come right down to it, driven more by labels than any time before.