Why I can’t be a conservative

I was sitting at my desk the other day and was thinking about what conservatism means.  Ginny was at her desk, next to mine, so I bothered her by asking what she thought conservatism was, fundamentally.  I don’t remember her wording, but it seemed to agree with how I was thinking about it; an attempt to conserve the current social, political, and cultural norms.  The implication is that those who are conservative generally believe that the world, as it is, is fine.  The world is fundamentally right, and as old Pangloss said, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”


Now, I don’t think that the primary motivation, especially consciously, of conservatives is the mere preservation of their current cultural values (or what they think of as the best values of some past golden era, perhaps).  I don’t think that conservatives generally think about it in these terms. But in many cases, especially in relation to social justice issues, conservatives seem to side with preserving a status quo, at least in the sense that they maintain traditional definitions concerning mores, values, etc.

So, the question arose for me, in context of this question, as to whether there could be a possible world where I could be comfortable calling myself a conservative.  What I mean is that given the fundamentally broken nature of our current culture, society, and political atmosphere, I cannot be a conservative now (why would I want to conserve this?), is it potentially feasible that a future world might exist that has a culture I’d want to conserve?

But this question gets complicated really quick, which is related to two different questions:

1) Is my personality naturally contrarian?  That is, is my fundamental personality architecture such that no matter what culture I live in, I will be critical of something? If I was raised in what I would call an ideal culture, would I still feel so radical? I don’t know.  I would like to believe that I would follow the evidence, that I would only be critical where criticism is deserved.  That is my goal now, and I hope taht I’m at least close to being good about that.

But perhaps the more interesting question (especially to all of the people who are not me), is this one:

2) Is the value of freedom of criticism, of challenging the culture in which one lives, more important than conserving an ideal culture? That is, if humanity were to achieve some ideal culture, where no unnecessary (logically, that is) inequality exists and no social justice activism is necessary, then would it be more important to maintain that culture, or would it be more important to maintain the right to criticize, challenge, and question?

Because if the world is right as it is, then any challenge is simply a means to make the world not right.  And this, I believe, is how many conservative-minded people must see liberals or radicals; as acting to destroy something that isn’t broken.

This issue is related, at least in part, to The Crommunist’s recent series of posts about the culture wars, using the idea of the dueling myth hypothesis, which I summarized here.  The fundamental question is whether the world is fair or not, and the implications of those views.  I do not think the world is fair, and I think that this is because of the social constructs, derived from faulty individual cognitive and behavioral biases, which we live within.  In other words, I’m almost never a fan of traditionalism, because our history carries so many terrible traditions based on very oppressive ideas (hetero-normativity, patriarchal power structures, monogamy, etc).

I’m concerned with things such as gender equality (for an example which has been all the rage recently) because there are cultural constructs surrounding concepts of gender which are poorly conceived, and which we could make better with education and perspective.  There is a potential culture which would be much less unjust, concerning gender, than we have now and so I care to help implement those changes.

But if someone genuinely believed that the way that the majority our culture views gender (as being more or less digital; male and female and no room for gender-bending let alone actual transitioning), and that this is the right way to think about gender, then trying to change that would be an attempt to destroy a good thing–a correct thing.  From this point of view, conserving the traditional gender roles, including the many personality attributes associated with those gender roles, is defending what is “normal” or right.  And from the point of view of such a person, there is no significant philosophical difference between the rightness of those gender roles now and my hypothetical future world where an ideal social world exists that I might decide to defend.

This, I believe, exposes the fundamental flaw of what I call conservatism, and what Ian Cromwell was calling “the fairness myth.”  And yes, I know that Ian’s concept of the fairness myth does not always correspond with conservative politics (in The USA or elsewhere), but in the sense I’m using “conservative” here it overlaps quite well.  The problem is not that one is defending an idea they think is right, but in defending an idea that is entrenched in culture in such a way that they may be blind to how it is harmful.  Those who defend traditional gender roles don’t think they are causing harm (at least I hope not), because those roles seem natural, normal, and right to them.  That is the nature of mainstream ideas; they seem right to mainstream people (and often to non-mainstream people, which is another problem related to staying in closets and feeling guilty).

As you may have guessed, I think that the value of criticism, skepticism, and the ability to be contrarian (even if not for its own sake) is superior to the value of maintaining traditional ideas, even if those ideas happen to be defensible.  Thus, I do not think that the fairness myth, at least in the world I see, is a defensible myth.  I don’t think conservatism is good per se, even if it might be right on a case-by-case basis.  I cannot be a conservative in this world now, and for the sake of the possibility of my being wrong about what I might potentially try and conserve, I cannot be a conservative in any potential worlds where social justice “wins”.

I think there will always be room for critics, guardians of honesty and the pursuit of truth, and all others who seek to maintain the pursuit of ideals, rather than the defense of them.  True ideals don’t need defense, as the truth does indeed point to itself.  Thus I think that liberalism, radicalism (at least when things are very bad), and skepticism are the superior values in any culture, and thus I can never be a conservative.

Here’s a related article I wrote 2 years ago.  The Tea Party doesn’t want America to change:  I do

Santorum spreads stupidly

So, it’s no secret that I despise people like Rick Santorum.  I mean, the guy is pretty clueless, homophobic (but I repeat myself!), and the couple of times I met him he creeped me out as few have.  He’s smarmy, slimy, and pretty consistently socially conservative.

I’ll give him credit for at least being pretty consistent (in today’s political climate, that actually is a virtue), and being conservative is not necessarily bad in itself…right?

So, in reading a post on Friendly Atheist today about a speech Rick Santorum recently gave, I bumped into a quote by the man himself that went as such:

I always say that if your faith is true and your reason is right, you’ll end up at the same place. Why? Well because God created us, created the universe, created reason. And, of course, why would God create something where your faith would bring you one place and your reason would bring you another if your faith is true? Right? [Scattered applause.]

I also believe as a public official that you have a right to speak to people of faith and no faith. You have to present a reason why you want to advance a certain public policy. Not just because, “that’s what my faith teaches me and that’s why I believe it.” That’s fine, but from the standpoint of public policy, it’s insufficient, because you need to appeal to people who may not share your faith.

That is actually quite an interesting idea.  I think I agree…with Rick Santorum.

Of course, he goes the opposite direction as I do with how we implement this idea, but at least he recognizes that if reason goes a different direction than his faith, there is a problem.  Also, many people seem to believe that their faith is sufficient for implementing policy.  You would be surprised (or not, if you have been around religion enough) how uncommon that point of view is.

So, I don’t want to address specifically what he says about public policy and religion per se.  I just want to say a few words about the relationship between faith and reason, and perhaps a few things about intelligence and conservatism.

I don’t think Rick Santorum is stupid.  I also don’t think he’s particularly intelligent, enlightened, or has a good grasp of sufficient perspective in order to be a good leader for either the United States or any group of people.  His views on Islam are pretty extreme (which is fine; so are mine I suppose), but he seems to fail to recognize that much of what he says about Islam could be said about Judaism and Christianity.

I don’t know specifically what his “reasons” are about Christianity, nor how he meshes reason with his faith, but it is clear that he disagrees with me about how religion and faith relate.  Where I see them at necessary odds, he seems to think that reason and faith do lead to the same conclusions (or at least can do so) as he is a practicing Christian who said the first paragraph above, where he implies that reason is a good tool to employ.

I am skeptical at his ability to think critically, as well as many of the other conservative candidates, and I wonder whether the vast majority of his fans are not, well, complete idiots.  The ones I have talked to seem to be just that, despite my desire to believe that most people are basically smart if not misguided and ignorant.  Sure, I’m sure a few fairly intelligent and educated people like him, but they seem to be an exception rather than the rule.

So, what of intelligence and political conservatism? I mean, there has been some talk of it recently (here is a quick post by a colleague of mine about the recent studies hitting the news), and if there is any legitimacy to the idea that bigotry, low intelligence, and right wing politics are significantly linked then, well, should liberals use this?  Is it truly arrogant to think of ourselves as better educated, intelligent, and therefore more likely to have better opinions if we are liberal-leaning skeptics who know something about critical thinking?

Or is it just more ammunition for people calling us arrogant jerks?

Personally, I don’t care if people think me arrogant.  If I’m wrong, demonstrate that I am wrong and I’ll try and change my views accordingly.  But in conversations with racists, libertarians, and conservative theists over the years I have found myself feeling smarter, better educated, and better informed than my interlocutors.  Is this bias or is it something different? Is it a little bias, but mostly difference in intellect and education?

I just don’t know.  And if Hamby is right in saying that

When the science demonstrates that liberals are in fact more intelligent and tolerant, they sheepishly retreat to their labs, unwilling to publicly admit the characteristics that made them skeptic scientists in the first place, and virtually unmovable in their refusal to admit the logic demanding more intelligent liberals in office.  Far from a “liberal conspiracy” to take over the country, there is arguably an unspoken agreement to cover up the growing body of evidence that there is a scientific difference between the parties.  It’s far too boorish and elitist to point to our own studies demonstrating how smart we are.

well, then perhaps we liberal-minded skeptics should not be quiet about feeling smarter than bigoted conservatives, right? I mean, if it is true that conservatives simply think themselves superior (due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, perhaps) and so they barge through our culture with ignorant and simplistic ideas which do damage while cautious skeptics sheepishly pull back, unsure of our own adeptness, then this spells disaster for our culture.

It means that the truly intelligent and capable people tend to be self-critical and shy while less capable and less intelligent people charge through the world leaving destruction and stupidity in their path.  Destroying educational institutions, insisting upon their privileged religious worldviews, and calling any skepticism of their power, authority, or conclusions oppression, lack of patriotism, or treason.  What a nightmare!

If all this is true (and it is indeed a colorful example of liberal porn), then it amounts to a real problem for our political landscape for many years to come.

All I can say is that I hope that this view is not accurate.  I hope this is but pure fear-mongering, hyperbole, and another example of the polarity of our political climate gone mad.

But if it’s true, that uncertainty above is just another intelligent, educated, and capable liberal pulling back rather than trudging forward in the fight against the dangers of conservative politics.

My head hurts.  I’m going to go read some Nietzsche or something….