Recently on social media I've found myself in the position of arguing against liberal points of view. This has been perplexing, not just for me, but for my friends as well. I have always considered myself liberal, and yet, recent manifestations of liberalism's beliefs, are not ones that I share. Some of my friends have even come up and asked whether I was somehow slowly turning conservative. Because of this I think it's necessary, personally as well as socially, to parse through what "conservative" and "liberal" actually mean, and try to get to the bottom of what's going on here.
Historically being a liberal has meant wanting to work towards a system that values both freedom and equality. Liberalism has been most effective in accomplishing these goal in the waves of rights movements that have swept over society reshaping it in important and profound ways. Women's rights, children's rights, black rights, animals rights, queer rights are projects that are yet to be finished, but have none the less, made huge strides in the last century.
Conservatives are more focused on a deference to the institutions of the past as well as a healthy skepticism for the unintended consequences of changing those systems. They have succeeded in that they pull us back from some of the wilder ideas that might have sounded fun and enticing at the time but have proven disastrous in implementation. Romanticism and Communism come to mind.
Metaphorically you can think of liberalism as expansive in that, it envisions a better future where there is more freedom and equality for everyone. It wants to push out from the existing structures and explore the far reaches of what we can become, and conversely, you can think of conservatism as the necessary constriction on this idealism, reigning it in from going too far.
With these definitions in mind, we are all in some respects conservative, in that we believe there are social structures that need to be defended. There are things that we don't want messed with, such as the abolition of slavery. And we are all liberals when we look at society and see improvements that can be made, and imagine a better system that gives people more freedom and equality.
These terms aren't just the broad ideological stances that I've described, but as you get into the nuts and bolts of specific issues, they start to mix with other claims of reality that don't necessarily have much to do with the definitions I've laid out.
For instance on the liberal side we have:
- Believing GMO's are evil
- Believing capitalism/business/modernity is evil
- Believing white people are evil
- Believing that there are no cognitive differences between men and women
- Believing that people in positions of power should be called out on on cultural appropriation and their privilege.
- Believing that people need to be protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable
- Believing that world events can be reduced to, and thus explained by, power dynamics, racism, sexism, etc.
On the conservative side we have:
- Over emphasis on gender norms and their defining qualities
- Radical religious belief
- Lack of understanding of businesses responsibility to deal with externalities
- Radical nationalism
- Lack of compassion for people considered "other"
I consider myself liberal, in that, I believe in the continued work of the rights movements that have historically been successful. I am economically liberal because I believe in the need to redistribute wealth so as to decrease inequality. But I also consider myself conservative in that I have a healthy skepticism about our ability to enact social change and be able to understand the effects it will have on our future. These are complex systems we are dealing with and I don't think we have adequately formed a good enough picture of human behavior to be able to create systems that push us in the directions we intend to go.
What I propose (and in some respects this is already happening) is that both sides take care of some internal housekeeping that is causing quite a bit of confusion.
For instance, a number of conservatives are using an outmoded religious text, the bible, as their grounding rationale to restrict liberalism. I am not asking people to abandon their faith, their belief in God, or their religion. What I think is critical though is that conservatives understand they can not make reasonable political arguments in contemporary society with a religious book that was written in a time when slavery was still the norm. You will lose with this approach, and you will continue to lose until you change. Conservatives must ask themselves, "What is the best way to combat the ill conceived expansiveness of the liberal ideal?" and the answer they should come to is...empirical data.
Do not turn to the bible if you want to refute the idea that there are no cognitive differences between the sexes. Turn to evolution. You will make a much better argument, and you will make one that you can win. Empirical data has all but eviscerated the romantic ideals of Rousseau. It challenges our gut reactions about GMO's. It paints a more flattering picture of capitalism's effects on the world and it casts doubt on the claim that everything is culturally constructed. And in the light of a complex empirically grounded view of causality, simplistic explanations of racism, sexism and other power dynamics will fail in their ability to explain what is actually going on.
Likewise, liberalism has its own demons to expel. In its healthy form it wrestles with its conflicting desires of freedom and equality. In its unhealthy form, one of these goals has completely dominated the other. In today's liberalism the entire emphasis is on equality. Not only is it dangerously unbalanced, but it has quarantined itself in a self described safe space where in a fit of righteous indignation it has refused to debate any of the reasonable points that conservatives have made. If Liberalism is to get back to a healthy state, it must learn how to take criticism and not simply call people who disagree with its views racist and sexist. Because contemporary liberalism has sequestered itself away (and because conservatism grounded in religious doctrine is an intellectually outmoded opponent) liberalism has developed some unchecked, rather strange notions of reality that have become mixed up with the idea of making things "equal".
If these changes were to happen, if conservatives, instead of trying to constrict liberal goals with religious doctrine, where to turn to scientific evidence, they would not only be doing themselves a great service, but would be doing liberalism a great service as well. Conservatism would act as a necessary filter that would weed out the misshapen ideas that have blossomed in an environment of like-minded liberals, unable to see the faults of their own insular reality. And if liberals could put down their righteous indignation and actually listen to the opposing point of view, the balance could be restored to this once great vision of a more free and equal future.
Going forward, we should resist the urge to make these terms, liberal and conservative, the unintelligent forms that they can undoubtedly manifest. It is too easy and it accomplishes nothing to point to the lowest common denominator on either side. Instead, we should value the opposition for the counterbalance that it brings. We shouldn't seek to reduce the necessary conflict that erupts between ideas, rather we should find strategies that use the energy that's generated when they collide more effectively and to better purposes.
So how do I define myself? Am I a liberal or a conservative? I am neither. I am someone who is interested in a clearer picture of reality, and I am committed to using personal observation, empirical data, and rational thought to see where that leads.