Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Solved: The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives (Happy Midterms)

On this Election Tuesday, I think I’ve cracked the difference between Liberals and Conservatives.  Bear with me a minute here.  I'll get to the library connection at the end.

Conservatives are more comfortable—and more capable—of thinking in terms of the individual, and less capable of thinking in terms of aggregates of people, things, or phenomena, and liberals would be the opposite or inverse or whatever of that trend.  These traist can have positive and negative consequences, but generally I think the conservative bent toward almost militant individualism is harmful to society.  By this I don’t simply mean that conservatives are more selfish than liberals, but that is part of it.  Let’s look at how this works on a few policy issues.

On voting rights, both liberals and conservatives likely subscribe to the notion that “every vote counts.”  But, whether they realize it or not, they mean two very different things.  When a liberal says it, he knows that it is not strictly, literally true; we get that it takes lots and lots of individual votes, working together, to make a difference, but you still need to count each and every one of them to have any effect.  Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to believe, on some level, that it is literally true that every single vote counts.  That somehow one or two votes can decide national elections.  Thus their ravening for voter ID laws, the disenfranchisement of wide swathes of people in hopes of stopping a statistically negligible cadre of election fraudsters.  The cannier, wonkier conservatives know all about the numbers and statistics and the effects of disenfranchising minority voters and such, but for the average conservative, that’s all just kind of sound and fury; what matters is that one malefactor has been thwarted in his attempt to cheat the system, and thus, on the grounds of that “success” alone, democracy is saved.  And if it happens to ensure that more conservatives win elections, that just confirms that their way of thinking is right.  (Actual politicians exist in a grey area between the wonks and the voters, I think.  Intellectually, most of them understand, probably, the wonky reality; but in their actors’ hearts they have convinced themselves of the voter-in-a-tizzy sentiment, and sell it accordingly.)

The environment is another obvious realm where this dichotomy holds sway.  The liberal-minded has absolutely no problem reconciling everyday weather phenomena with the overwhelming evidence of a dangerously shifting climate.  But the conservative is incapable of making, or unwilling to make, that distinction.  Snow, to them, at any time and in any part of the world, is irrefutable evidence that climate change is a “hoax” or, at best, that “the science is not yet settled.”  They remain secure in their self-constructed womb that everything is as it should be, that no levees are bursting and that God put oil there for us to burn.  Again, there are layers to this.  Those at the top, working with a high level of information, can be perfectly intellectually aware of the real dangers posed by climate change, yet it is in their interest to serve the interests, in turn, of the corporations and systems that benefit from climate business-as-usual.  It then becomes their job to convince the public of the lack of danger and the need for the status quo.  And those down the food chain, to varying degrees, swallow the image of reality put forth by the worldview of the individual phenomena as trump card in the game of Truth or Fiction.

Then there are various –isms and –phobias, which, for this purpose, can be reduced to a single social phenomenon: name-calling.  (Obviously there’s a lot more to this issue than that, but the way we treat each other on the most basic level is pretty much where the rubber meets the road.)  To the conservative mind, a few catcalls, the occasional “sissy,” “queer” or “fag,” and even a sprinkling of well-intentioned “boy” or “macaca” never hurt anyone.  The people who take offense are no-fun wusses with paper-thin skin, and don’t blame me if they can’t take a little locker-room name-calling or an honest-to-goodness compliment!  That’s lizard brain thinking, though, folks.  Decades of (liberal-inspired) sociological research has shown the harmful impact of slurs and unwanted advances.  The conservative sees the individual with, as he would have it, unjustified bruised feelings that, unseemly as they are, at least have no apparent impact beyond the aggrieved party.  The liberal, on the other hand, sees thousands of youth suicides, radicalized minorities, rape and the fear of rape, and generally negatively-impacted psyches that lead to all kinds of suboptimum life results.

It seems that this trait makes it difficult for conservative folks to comprehend how an event that impacts one person can also deeply affect the rest of his or her community.  For example, some conservatives have blasted activism in Georgia around the Michael Ferguson killing as “playing the race card” and “importing a problem from another state.”  They don’t seem to get how communities can be rocked by what happens to just one member.  That’s the privilege of being upper-echelon, where no matter what happens to someone similar to you, your own position is secure; they don’t see that other groups are not so lucky—that things that happen to one member could easily ripple through to them, or be repeated on others if the conditions that caused the initial incident are not addressed.  (It should be noted that this doesn’t break down on strictly racial lines.  The Republican to whom the above negative sentiments toward the Georgia activism can be attributed is a black man—but a more insulated, more secure, and more conservative black man.)

It’s funny how far this extends.  As a liberal, I can recognize that my characterization here is very generalized and that there will be liberals whose attitudes resemble the way I characterize conservatives, and vice versa—but the aggregate effect is, I think, accurate.  Meanwhile, it's more likely that a conservative is incapable of seeing that nuance, and, if confronted with this argument (or others, like discussion of sexism and misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc.) would grow resentful and defensive—unable to separate the arguer’s statements on a system in aggregate with the way it reflects on the arguee individually.

We see it happen every day in political debates (“my opponent just had to play the race card,” “why do they flaunt their sexual lifestyle choice?”, “I’m not a misogynist—I love my wife and mother!”).  Maybe this understanding should lead liberals to approach some of their arguing in a different way—and I am certainly in favor of trying that in the social sphere, where strident pop sociology holds sway, where individuals’ personal outrage has been calcified into academically-anointed aphorisms and paeans that serve no purpose but to turn one’s interlocutor away in disgust—but I am loathe to give ground on this in the political and policy arenas, where there are so many objective truths that have an impact on our everyday lives today and into the future, and where change may be incremental, but nonetheless needs to happen in order to ensure our progress and survival as a society.

This is, to me, yet another reason why librarianship is essentially liberal and we must accept ourselves as such.  We are all about accuracy, and the concept of the individual-as-everything-you-need is just so false.  In order to be accurate, you must look at trends, statistics, repeated results.  And I feel like we do all that in libraryland—very liberally.   Similar to the example of “every vote counts,” we have a sense of “every reader counts,” “every book read counts”—but we look for the results of that reading in the aggregate: a more literate and informed society.  We’re a liberal profession, people, in underlying philosophy if not in everyday belief.   It is, however, my humble opinion that we should all be voting liberally.  Because conservatism is the philosophy that tends to think, “That one guy looked at anthrax on the computer; he’s a threat to all society!” and “This handful of books is amoral and should be banned, because if they reach just one person that’s too many!” and "Information is a commodity and should be priced as such!" and so on.

But guess what?  Even if a few librarians still vote Republican, I feel like it’ll all be okay—in the aggregate, we're fighting the good fights.

In any event, I hope you all voted today, and I hope you voted for Democrats.

1 comment:

  1. This fine post is being read and shared. Head up, and don't despair. Remember, the peasants lost the revolt but they changed the world. The trajectory is ever upward. Progress is an immutable force.