Wrestling to Understand my Adversary

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”.

3 replies on “Wrestling to Understand my Adversary”

  1. I believe that Lakoff draws his conclussions from a flawed premise. His logic seems to be that to reach his goals, you must follow his policies and programs. Therefore, if you favor different policies, you must have different goals. It never occurs to him that someone could share his goals and not believe that his policies are best.

    I’m sure that there must be, somewhere, some conservative who is as Lakoff describes, just as somewhere the must really be a liberal who is only using unions and Democrats as a stepping stone to communism. But if both these shibboleths still exist, they are powerless, probably friendless, beyond the green party or tea party.

    As a conservative, the reason I look to traditional values in things like economics and foreign policy is that I believe that things are the way they are not because of some arbitrary decision by leaders, but because that’s the way things needed to be to work- at least at the beginning, if not now. In engineering they say, “Form follows function”- that is, cars look like cars and airplanes look like airplanes because that’s how they must look to function properly. In the social/political sense, that means that capitalism is the way it is because it works, and we tamper with it at our peril. Ditto other aspects of society.

    But that doesn’t mean that conservatives can’t see where things are flawed, it merely makes them reluctant to tamper… but we can also see that times change, and the the reasons things may have worked that way a hundred years ago may have changed. Take gay marriage- I wrote a blog post touting the conservative reasons FOR gay marriage. There had always been a couple conservative arguments in favor- primarily the strong “it’s none of your damn business” flavor of libertarian conservatism, combined with Reagan’s famous observation that marriage civilizes young men who tend to be kind of wild until they settle down with a family… which is true, no matter what the family looks like. The argument agains, the fear that it would devalue the institution of marriage had been disproven… after all, marriage has survived the assaults Hollywood and the libertine 60s threw at it- Hell, stable gay marriages may improve its image! But I digress.

    My point is that Lakoff, et al, make things worse when they ascribe such views and motivations to conservatives, They make it worse because believing what they do, there is no possibility that they will be able to find common ground to work with conservatives. Here’s an example- I vividly remember debating the “living wage” with some people at church during coffee hour. They actually believed that the one and only reason to oppose it was what you quoted Lakoff saying above, that conservatives believe that the poor deserve to be poor and they have no human compassion. I was never permitted to expand my explanations, that there were serious consequences- inflation, workplace impact, etc.,- that would actually make things worse for the poor if the “living wage” were passed; no, they wouldn’t listen to me because the only reason to oppose it was that conservatives are heartless. That being the case, they never heard the suggestions and programs *I* had to help the working poor.

  2. Joel… thank you so much for the extensive and thoughtful comment. You speak eloquently from a conservative position and I appreciate you engaging in this dialog.

    I agree with your critique of Lakoff and if I had it to do over again might have been more critical of his thoughts in my piece. I thought he did have some insights that seemed to jibe with some of the underlying ideas that are presented to me by my conservative friends, particular the idea of the stern father figure and acceptance of winners and losers in the world. That said, I admit there is a huge spectrum of thought that goes into any philosophical orientation.

    Actually, though I did not get to it so much in this piece since it was kind of an intro, what I am interested in is the divide between “patriarchy and partnership” or authoritarian and egalitarian. That I find a fascinating duality running through our culture and its evolution I believe from the former to the latter. These different world views cut across the conventional liberal vs conservative divide, with people on the liberal side supporting a massive authoritarian social engineering of education while some more libertarian conservatives oppose it in favor of more local control of schools.

    The fact that “form follows function” is a good argument for maintaining what is and not tinkering too much. The issue I find there is that I find much of the more authoritarian forms in our culture are based on a high degree of fear, which I think warps the forms and is unwarranted. As with the example we both used of gay marriage, rationalized positions built around a core of fear are usually not particularly humane.

    So if you care to continue this dialog, I would be interested in your thoughts on my argument for a continuing societal transition from hierarchical authoritarian institutions (often led by a male defined God or other father figures) towards more of an egalitarian circle of equals, where authority is not in some “figure” but in the collective wisdom of the group, and that authority is more focused on facilitation than control.

  3. You’re quite right that there’s a fear factor in conservatism, fear that unforeseen complications of our actions may result in dire consequences. It’s happened plenty of times. And fear can be a good thing- the corollary to “once burned, twice shy” is that shy prevents future burns! On the other hand, excessive fear causes a society to become static, unchanging, to its detriment- that’s why we need the constant debate.

    As to the “partnership vs. patriarchy” discussion, we have to consider human nature and human reactions. I do not believe an egalitarian council of equals is possible, because in real life people aren’t equal. We have equal rights, but we all have different talents and abilities; we do not share wisdom and leadership qualities in equal amounts. If such a council were truly equal, it would be totally ineffective; it would be paralyzed by indecision and indecisiveness.

    In real life, what invariably happens is this: the council is set up without hierarchy- even the gavel is held by a “speaker’, not a president. Or it might be a “speaking stick” that gets passed around; in the end it makes no difference. Lots of talking occurs until it becomes apparent to everyone that nothing is being accomplished. Eventually, one or more people take a leading role, and everyone else breathes an internal sigh of relief and takes on subordinate roles, helping the leaders tweak their plans. Eventually the reality becomes a Czar, with the council being subordinate, albeit with the ability to vote no confidence.

    Look at your own congregation. Don’t you see the same faces year after year, in committee after committee? And upon closer examination, don’t you see the same faces in leadership roles within those committees? Even if occasionally they change committees to prevent burnout, the same people will rise to leadership again and again. I’m sure your church was not created with a hierarchy in mind, nor was mine… but they all become gentle hierarchies because some people just have more energy, or more charisma, or more of some other thing. Some people talk about things, and some people DO things. And this is true regardless of the faith or denomination: I’ve seen it in UU, Baptist, and Pagan organizations- it’s human nature. Again, the form is following function.

    How do you change these natural tendencies? How do you achieve the egalitarian circle with such individual differences? How do you make the person who fears making a mistake come to a decision and more importantly, act on it? How do you make the naturally enthusiastic and energetic suppress their natures and wait for the others to speak? How do you make people who are natural followers, who don’t want the responsibility of decisions take part in decisions? What you are asking for is not a political or societal change, but a change in human nature itself. And perhaps it’s worthwhile making that attempt- but we should be clear that’s what we’re trying to do; don’t mistake it for mere social engineering.

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