I am all about promoting what I see as our societal evolution from “patriarchy to partnership”, from an authoritarian power hierarchy of control towards a circle of true equals. To that end I occasionally clash with other progressives who are more supportive than I am of some “social engineering” like state-standardized mandatory public schooling. But more often than not it is key elements of the conservative world view that I find myself at odds with.
Unlike other progressive people I know who think that a “principled conservative” is an oxymoron, I was taught by my mom to “respect your adversary” and “pick your battles” in order to “be effective”. To that end I am always trying to engage the more conservative people I encounter respectfully, and exercising principles of nonviolent communication, try to understand their position and put myself in their shoes.
We generally label values, things political, and things related to government in the dualities of left and right, liberal and conservative, with moderates somewhere in between. Having been raised by a political activist mother and her circle of liberal, Democratic and even feminist comrades, I quickly developed a sense of that spectrum, particularly the left side. My mom actually, though an ardent feminist, was more of a political moderate and a bit of a libertarian, even spending a decade as a registered Republican. But among her more radical friends I had the occasion to even meet people on the far/extreme left, including a couple members of the Weather Underground.
With that activist feminist pedigree from my mom and her fellow feminist women friends (who I refer to now as my “Feminist Aunts”) I set a path forward as a young adult as a feminist activist myself, volunteering and later working as a paid organizer for the National Organization for Women on the ERA and other campaigns. Continuing to read history and polemics to sharpen my feminist chops, I read Riane Eisler’s book, The Chalice and the Blade, in my early 30’s (mostly listening to Enya’s “Watermark” album in my headphones as I did, which I think heightened the book’s effect) and was exposed to a new duality.
Eisler put forward a very different duality than the classic left versus right. Hers was partnership versus patriarchy, which could also be described in maybe more familiar terms as egalitarian versus authoritarian or a circle of equals versus a hierarchical pecking-order. She made a point that it did not necessarily correspond to the classic left versus right, since, for example there were both leftist and rightist authoritarian regimes.
I was so taken by Eisler’s book and her partnership versus patriarchy analysis of culture, that I have spent the last twenty-five years applying her two models to every aspect of Western history and culture, in the past and today. What I find is that our culture even today, is a complicated amalgam of egalitarian and authoritarian elements.
So for example, our democratic political process is by its nature egalitarian, but in practice, with our national political leaders being mostly rich, mostly white, and mostly male, and money playing such a key role in legislative decisions, perhaps more authoritarian in practice. Family life in the United States is much more egalitarian than it was a century ago when the rule of thumb was that children should be “seen and not heard”. But given that, our public school system, set up by progressives championing equality of education for all, in practice seems to be a very authoritarian institution in many respects, with teachers and students having little say in how the educational process is run.
So given all my context, I read George Lakoff’s blog piece, “What Conservatives Really Want” where he says…
Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other.
I don’t think that is necessarily true. It certainly is consistent with many conservatives’ discomfort with welfare and unemployment insurance and their efforts to privatize Social Security. But conservatives like William Bennett and Rod Paige have championed a very state-standardized education system to build an education citizenry and workforce. Maybe more accurate to say that conservatives believe in the primacy of individual responsibility over social responsibility.
I have actually found myself comfortable with some of the more libertarian Republican positions on education, that challenge the state’s right to dictate what you will learn, where, when, how and from whom. Though some of these conservatives challenge state educational control for religious reasons and mine are more secular, still at times they are my strange bedfellows. The whole “Race to the Top” approach to education from Obama and many other progressive Democrats leaves me cold. Education in my thinking is not a contest with winners and losers but a gradual progression from unknowing to knowledge.
Lakoff goes on to say…
The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong.
The metaphor of the strict father figure is just what Eisler’s conception of patriarchy is all about, real authority being exercised by an authority figure (not collectively by the group) and having the aspect of “tough love”, coercion, and implied or at times actual violence. God, in this patriarchal context is the biggest and strictest daddy of them all.
It seems to me that conservatives are more comfortable in a context where there are clearly delineated authority figures and clearly delineated good and evil generally. In this context there are obvious winners who choose the good path and losers who don’t. The latter are particularly important as a cautionary tale to encourage good people to continue to be good. Most conservatives seem to buy the Calvinist line that humans are deeply flawed and therefor ever vulnerable to temptation unless we are vigilant in our discipline. Says Lakoff…
Only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.
This whole idea of winners and losers, “us and them”, I am very uncomfortable with. I feel a connection with all my fellow human beings. I am pulling for all of them and hope that they are pulling for me in return. We are all evolving from some starting point.
My take is that people who are conservatives think that for our civilization to survive that a set of traditional institutions and values need to be maintained, including a proper respect for the authority of ones “superiors”, on and up the hierarchical pyramid often including respect for a deity at the top of that hierarchy. They are uncomfortable with transforming those institutions to more egalitarian ones, where they feel “natural” authority is no longer respected.
For example, people I encounter who are opposed to same-sex marriage are generally concerned that allowing it will undermine a key traditional institution that they see as part of a matrix of institutions that maintain the “natural” hierarchy and keep civilization from unraveling. I appreciate their concern though I don’t share it.
I acknowledge their feelings though I maintain my confidence and conviction that it will just take time for more people who have this concern to move beyond their discomfort with homosexuality (their homophobia), as perhaps more and more of them have family members, friends, or friends of friends who come out as gay or lesbian. We are clearly moving in that direction, toward a more universal recognition of this as a human rights issue.
We are evolving as individuals and as a society. Things that seem wrong in one generation seem more right in the next. For example, I’m a strong believer in youth rights, particularly in the context of school. In my generation I am in the minority on this (am “wrong” by conventional wisdom), but I believe that perhaps by the time my kids are my age, there will be more understanding and comfort with that youth rights argument and it will seem more legitimate as a civil rights issue.
You may not agree… but hopefully we will continue to dialog and to paraphrase George Harrison’s song lyrics, evolution will go on “within and without you”.