I expend a great deal of time and effort in the disparagement of conservative ideologies. They oversimplify complex issues to the point where the ‘solutions’ that arise from such ideologies are often more harmful than the problems they purport to ‘fix’. Reality is a multifaceted state of affairs with a lot of moving parts that defy the panacaea of upper-class tax cuts and ‘common sense’, and yet those who hold conservative ideologies are often openly contemptuous of the nuanced view of the world that is required to make any headway or improvement.
Despite my irritation, I must confess a certain sympathy for conservatism. Not a sympathy borne of pity (considering the way in which conservative policies are decimating not only my own country but others around the world, there is no room left for pity), but one borne of understanding. The conservative impulse, in its essence, is the human tendency to grind to a halt when new challenges face us. To put that another way, it is to address new problems with the solutions that have worked before – tradition and ‘common sense’ (which, in light of this view of conservatism, is simply what we call those things which used to confound us but we have answers for now).
William F. Buckley’s description of conservatives as those who would “stand athwart history yelling stop!” is perhaps an uncharitable view. Not an inaccurate one mind you, but still a bit unfair. Conservatism is the antithesis of progressivism – a completely sane and defensible reaction to new (and potentially dangerous) ideas. Not all change is good – some change is downright deadly. Eugenics, for example, was an idea with great promise for mankind – use our knowledge of heritability to destroy human biological frailty. However, in practice it led to monstrous ethical abuses that could have been foreseen had someone slowed down the headlong rush toward the promise of a glorious new age and given it some sober thought.
It is good, it is vital that we give heed to the urge to stop and carefully think through the likely consequences of our actions. It is helpful to re-use intellectual tools and traditions developed by our forebears rather than trying to re-invent the wheel every time we are trying to figure something out. Conservatism, as an intellectual tool to safeguard our path forward as a society from those impulses which could lead us to calamatous outcomes, holds inherent value.
Science, particularly science that is properly grounded in methodological skepticism, is an inherently conservative enterprise. It is the job of skepticism to wrestle lofty claims to the ground and demand that they justify their continued existence. While new and potentially fruitful ideas swarm around our societal discourse, skeptics are those who stand athwart the conceptual herd and shout “how do you know that?” Failure to ask this primarily important question leaves us vulnerable to ideas that range from merely silly and frivolous (aliens, chemtrails, psychic mediums) to potentially deadly (religion, racial supremacy, “alternative medicine”).
There is an inherent paradox in this reality, though. When we hold traditional ideas up to this conservative process of scrutiny, many of them fall apart. Religious and supernatural claims wither quickly under the searchlight of scientific inquiry, despite the fact that they underpin much of our societal structure. Without the iron-clad certainty that accompanies those claims, we find ourselves awash in liberalism – the practice of developing moral arguments rather than simply obeying commandments; the use of sociology rather than grade-school biology to unpack things like race and gender; the principle of ‘do whatever you like, so long as it hurts no-one else’ – these are all ideas that are in deep conflict with the ‘truths’ we have developed through traditional understanding.
The great irony of this conflict is that modern North American conservatism is deeply distrustful and dismissive of science. Skepticism, of the methodological rather than the knee-jerk cynical kind, is not a practice common to conservative discourse. Rather than weight claims based on observed evidence, ideology and principle reign untrammeled by the inconvenience of fact. What forms as a result is a world that is run through with conspiracies and biases (never defined) wherein reality itself is stacked against you. Any worldview that is grounded in tradition is immediately adversarial to any force that spends its time uprooting everything it touches.
There is further irony in the fact that in order to appreciate and wrap your head around the irony of a conservative force being one of the greatest tools toward greater liberalism, you have to have a certain affinity and capacity for nuanced thought. It is a cognitively challenging thing to find harmony among disparate and seemingly self-contradictory thoughts, and there is emerging evidence that avoiding cognitive challenge is the birth of conservative ideology. It is therefore difficult to see the unity of the ‘liberal science agenda’ with one of the pillars of conservative thought. In a sense, scientific inquiry is the ultimate act of conservatism, because it stands athwart everything and demands answers.
The challenge before us then is to learn to make this kind of inquiry, of stopping to think when new information arises, of using these tools for testing claims, a reflexive reaction. Turn the old tradition of relying on revelation and convention into a new culture of carefully considering evidence before deciding a course of action. Make science and skepticism something that qualifies as ‘common sense’ rather than an extraordinary effort expounded by liberal elites hell-bent on destroying our way of life and turning us all into effete atheist Muslims. Yes, of course there is a further paradox in the idea of making it traditional to be skeptical of tradition, but if you think about it too much you’re going to end up looking like Leo:
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