A Minor Defense of Conservatism
Unraveling some seeming contradictions
A recent article attempted to present conservatism as a paradox. Being a hide-bound, rather stodgy conservative myself, I was interested in seeing what insights I might gleam from such an account.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the author was willing to admit “that before we get too much further into this discussion we should first define what conservatism or conservative philosophy is.”
Having engaged in any number of philosophical debates, I am always glad to see a definition provided. So many writers throw around obscure terms willy-nilly with no definition — then get upset when their ideas are misunderstood. The lack is understandable, however. Having presented their own definition of a concept, if nothing else, the writer is constrained in the rest of the article by their own words to working only with the presented definition. The trick of using one definition over here and a completely different definition somewhere else is eliminated.
So what is this definition?
The point of conservatism is either to preserve the current status quo or to regress back to previous social hierarchies regardless of argument or evidence to the contrary.
As I said before, I am an open conservative. Not only that, many of my family and friends are conservative and many of my associates are conservative. Yet, I know no one that fits this description.
But before attacking the definition as being in error, I am ready to make allowance based on differing contexts. The word “conservative” means something very different in Great Britain than in, for example, Russia. And each of those are different than the meaning here in the US.
The author admits to living in an unnamed country “governed by a conservative party, where each parliamentary seat is held by a member of said party…” While unnamed, this country then cannot be the US — not only are we not currently governed by a conservative party, we aren’t a parliamentary system at all.
So I can only assume that the author is using a definition that is applicable in her home country but not in mine.
That’s a relief. I would hate to think I moved in such limited circles.
The problem, though, is that Ben Shapiro, an American, is the only “prominent conservative commentator” named in the article. So it would appear that the stated definition is intended to be used as a definition of American conservatism.
Not quite cricket, m’lady.
Now, Shapiro is a religious Jew, and I do find that deeply religious people of any belief are more in line with the defenders of the status quo — the status quo, that is, as far as morality is concerned.
However, all the examples in the article of conservatism in action are political in nature. The political conservative can be just as likely to attack a status quo as defend it. It depends on the institution under examination.
For example, a popular theme among political conservatives is the individual rights, privileges, and responsibilities established in the very founding of the US. Considering the history of Mankind at that point, there is nothing at all status about that particular quo. It was a complete break with every convention in vogue at the time.
Let’s examine the examples given in the article and the supposed conservative reaction to them.
For example, if we look at the topic of gender and sex, the mainstream scientific opinion is very obvious. Every credible expert in relevant fields for decades has acknowledged that gender is a socially constructed phenomenon with no relevance to underlying biology.
Many years ago, I was standing in line at a supermarket and caught sight of the headline of one of those infamous rags like National Inquirer. It proclaimed that a woman had been found who had some large number of verified “past lives.” What particularly caught my eye, however, was the subtitle: “Reincarnation experts baffled!”
Reincarnation experts? Who are these people? I was awed by the ability of this “newspaper” to sneak in the concept of reincarnation in such a way as to get the reader to assume their existence prima facie. Reincarnation had to exist — otherwise, why were all these experts running around so baffled?
I find myself looking at the words “every credible expert” quoted above with the same vague feeling of “what the hey?!” Who are these people? What kind of job titles do they hold? (Gender experts? Social construction engineers?)
When I learned these concepts, I learned about sex in biology and gender in language arts. So when someone claims that “gender is a socially constructed phenomenon,” I think, “Duh! Gender is a part of language and languages are socially constructed phenomena. So what’s the big deal?”
The only explanation I can think of is that “gender” has been given a meaning that, for some odd reason, is being held as a closely guarded secret, available only to some elite few. The rest of us have to gleam what meaning we can from the way it is used.
That meaning, as I have derived, is nothing more than role. Specifically the sexually-oriented roles such as nurse or teacher for women and engineer or garbage collector for men. Yes, these roles are, to some extent, social constructions. We know that a particular woman might just as well be a good engineer or garbage collector and a particular man might just as well be a good nurse or teacher. But we also know that there are many roles that women tend to gravitate towards and roles that men tend to gravitate towards.
Now, if the problem is that there have been times and societies that have pushed women to accept exclusively a female-oriented role and men to accept exclusively a male-oriented role, there are very few American conservatives today who would not stand firmly in support of the woman who wanted to be an engineer or the man who wanted to be a nurse — assuming they had the appropriate skills and aptitude.
But if one assumes that an about-to-come-of-age girl will select from the list of female-oriented roles or that the boy will select from the list of male-oriented roles, then one will be correct more often than not. One’s first guess should always be the most likely to be correct. We’re just playing the odds.
However, I know this meaning I have worked out is not correct — or at least, not complete.
The other meaning is too fantastical to take seriously.
A baby is born. It’s a male. It grows from infancy to boyhood, then to a young man. At some point, he notices that something is wrong. He has the body of a male. But somewhere deep inside, he thinks he should be a female. He feels like a woman trapped in the body of a man.
So he has a problem. Now, we all have problems. Some of us are too tall to be a racing jockey, too short to be an NBA forward, too lacking in math skills to be an engineer, too lacking in musical talent to be a performer, too frightened of blood to be a doctor, too lazy to be a professional anything else.
How does an American conservative handle such problems? We cope as best we can. If we cannot be what we would most like to be, we work with what we do have, finding the best combination of talent and aptitude to become what we would second best like to be — or third best. We can find other people with similar problems, then work together to accomplish what would not be possible on our own.
What we cannot do is force others to accommodate us. If we are too short to play basketball, we cannot force the other members of the team to squat in order to placate our desires. If we are not so musically inclined as to become a great performer, we cannot force the audience to applaud wildly after we do terrible things to an otherwise beautiful piece of music.
The bedrock of conservative thinking is that each of us is ultimately responsible for ourselves. Each of us faces a unique set of problems and challenges. The responsibility of solving those issues, and the freedoms required to work toward those solutions, quite properly lies within each of us. My issues, no matter how significant and life-changing they may be for me, are my issues. They are not any problem at all to the society at large.
Nor should they be. For there is no such thing, really, as society. It is an abstraction. Try to reach out and touch any part of society and the end result will be to touch a person. A person who is busy day and night working to handle their own set of issues. To inflict your problems upon them would be an intolerable injustice.
If you think this is a dark and bleak view of life, then take a good look around. Take an issue that we all share in common — hunger. We must all eat. Enter any modern supermarket and take a good look around. Observe the sheer volume of effort and resources that have been placed at our disposal to solve our problem. Every aisle crammed with hundreds of products all shouting, “Hungry? Take me!”
Do you need housing, transportation, clothing, medical care, entertainment, a quiet evening with a good book? Billion-dollar industries compete with each other to be the one you choose to provide yourself with an untold number of solutions to any problem you may have.
But, we are told, there are some problems that are special in some way. These problems must be born, not only by those directly inflicted but by society at large — that it is society’s duty to come to the aid of those inflicted.
Conservative thought rejects this notion outright. In the first place, different people react in different ways to the same problem. One may consider the issue as simply an inconvenience, a minor irritant that may be solved if a ready solution presents itself but not worthy of much effort. Another person could consider the same issue as the bane of his life, the solution of which consumes the major part of his daily thoughts and efforts.
People with the same issues may prioritize those issues very differently. When declaring a problem special, of society-wide implications, that person declares that his priorities must take precedence over the priorities of others.
Such seems to be the case with the trans community (or, more accurately, those who claim to, for some reason or other, speak for the trans community). If a man looks upon his own body and thinks, “This is all wrong. I should be seeing the body of a woman,” then this man has a problem, an issue, a challenge. As long as this man enjoys the freedom to pursue solutions as he sees fit, as long as he doesn’t unduly interfere with others who are in pursuit of solutions to their problems, his situation differs only in detail, not in form, from the rest of us.
Now, different challenges may require different solutions. Even the same challenge faced by different people may be handled in different ways according to the different abilities, preferences, and priorities each person may bring to bear.
The survival tool unique to the human animal is our brain, our ability to think, to reason. If there is any lesson we have learned, or should have learned, in all our long history of survival, it is that problems are not solved by just ignoring them or wishing them away.
The passengers and crew of the Titanic knew, shortly after striking the iceberg over a century ago, that they faced a problem. There may have been some who declared that the Titanic was unsinkable and what they were seeing with their own eyes could not be happening so went back to bed. If so, we don’t have first-hand accounts of what they were thinking because none of them survived.
You may face a minor problem of crossing a busy street. There may be many solutions available to you — some may have obviously higher chances of success than others. However, the solution with no chance of success is to concentrate really hard — convince yourself that the road is empty of oncoming traffic. If you then act on that particular “solution,” you will learn the universal truth that, whenever there is a difference between reality and our perception, reality always wins out, often quite messily.
If a man thinks he is a woman, he has a problem. Convincing himself, or being convinced by supposed do-gooders, that he is, in fact, an actual woman, is not solving his problem. Furthermore, forcing everyone else to speak and act as though he were a woman not only fails to solve the problem but forces everyone else to participate in the lie. Now we have some people forcing the “solution” of their problem onto everyone else, stepping all over their rights and hampering them in pursuing viable solutions to their own problems.
The civilization we have today is the result of countless generations of people working to solve their problems. We have discarded solutions that did not work (or resulted in other problems which then had to be solved) and adopted solutions that worked better.
Conservatives wish to conserve the tried and true solutions that have a proven track record. We also know that civilization is a movement of increasing knowledge and technological development. New solutions are developed and can replace or enhance older solutions — when they are shown to be better. A solution is not de facto better just because it is newer.
Conversely, an older solution may still be quite effective and should not be discarded, though it be thousands of years old.
There is also the fact that most problems have more than one solution and each of us is best served when we are free to choose the solution that best fits the situation, abilities, and preferences of our own lives.
I refer back to the definition of conservatism at the beginning of this article, where we are supposedly working toward the strengthening of hierarchies. But the most important concepts worthy of conserving have been personal freedoms and responsibilities. Those have always been our bread-and-butter issues. These are also quite antithetical to hierarchies of all types. We can promote one or the other, freedom or hierarchies, but not both.
Each of us has problems. Each of us thinks our problems are important and our efforts and our resources are best spent in the pursuit of solutions to our problems. Conservatives recognize this and work within these constraints.
The modern-day progressive, however, thinks they have identified problems that should be, must be, the most important problems facing all of us. Individual preferences be damned, these problems are more urgent than petty personal problems, and united action, even if must be thrust upon us by force of law, is the only available solution.
Anyone who disagrees, especially those who just want to preserve their silly little freedoms, are just big meanies!