Friday, August 10, 2007

What Is It About Conservatism That Bothers Me

Over at Right Wing News, there is an interesing discussion taking place in the comments section to John Hawkins' Q&A Friday posting regarding liberal "mis" perceptions of conservatives. (And, no, I'm not going to pick on Hawkins this time!)

The debate is actually quite interesting. But I wanted to jump off of this debate and pose my own main perception of conservatism that ultimately turns me off from it. At least conservatism as practiced by the modern rightwing in America today.

For me, it seems that modern conservatism as defined by folks like John Hawkins has as a fundamental characteristic an aversion to fallibility. I guess Andrew Sullivan would call this a kind of "fundamentalism" that he would say is anathema to real conservatism, which is (or should be) essentially skeptical or doubtful. There is a rigidity of thought in modern conservatism that not only disagrees with other perspectives, but also fails to even accept the legitimacy of core differences of thought within any substantive dialogue. I have heard time and again conservatives equate liberalism to a mental illness, as if every liberal must be somehow mentally imbalanced. The mantra "we must agree to disagree," followed by a respect for the intelligence and principled positions of intellectual rivals, seems to be rather unacceptable to modern conservatism.

There is a strand of this rigidity in hard-left liberalism as well, but most liberals I know embrace a kind of liberalism grounded in a constant questioning. Conservatives seem to want to embrace absolutes and tend to brook no room for dissent or divergence from orthodoxy. It is the moral absolutism as well as its accompanying lack of intellectual curiosity that comes with the critical questioning process that turns me off to what passes for modern conservatism today.

It is no coincidence that the academy tends to lean leftward. Conservatives always like to point this out and to then unfairly make the jump to the conclusion that higher education is nothing but liberal brainwashing. But anyone who is honest about his or her college experience will have to recognize that colleges and universities are places where all kinds of ideas and different perspectives are in a vigorous exchange. If colleges and universities really were the hard core leftist propagandist machines conservatives make them out to be, there wouldn't be as many conservatives with college degrees out there.


President Friedman said...

"There is a rigidity of thought in modern conservatism that not only disagrees with other perspectives, but also fails to even accept the legitimacy of core differences of thought within any substantive dialogue."

I don't have a problem with dismissing an opposing viewpoint out of hand if it violates certain principals. Some viewpoints are arbitrary, but not all.

If I'm with a group of friends and they say, "Hey, let's go to a strip club.", as a married man, I don't feel the need to even listen to their reasonging about why I should go. I dismiss the notion out of hand because I have already settled that issue in my own mind, and am convinced that my life benefits positively from the conclusions I came to.

I don't know if it is completely fair to equate dismissal of an opposing value as "rigidity of thought". There is nothing wrong with constant questioning, but at some point you have to base decisions off of something.

Huck said...

I agree with you, President_Friedman. I am not a moral relativist, or any other kind of relativist, for that matter. I do believe in absolutes. Perhaps I needed to go a bit further and say that what I was hoping to convey was not just that holding to an absolute is bad in itself, but rather that expecting and demanding others to agree to and live by that absolute is where the rigidity comes into play. As someone with Libertarian tendencies, I'd think you would agree with this point.

Modern conservatism is rigid not because it embraces absolutes, but because it holds that what is absolute for one is an absolute for all. And then it tries to get government to impose this.

And at root, there is no space within this modern conservatism for accepting the legitimacy of differing absolutes, much less a questioning of it.

I may think it is absolutely wrong under all circumstances to smoke a joint; but my liberalism leads me to be open-minded to the possibility that there is space for someone else who holds a different opinion to argue with me about why I might be wrong. And as a liberal, I would at least listen to what he had to say.

President Friedman said...

"expecting and demanding others to agree to and live by that absolute is where the rigidity comes into play."

Agreed, but liberals are just as guilty as conservatives when it comes to attempting to force others to live by their rules.
For every conservative who would take away a woman's ability to have an abortion, there is a liberal who would force a wealthy person to give part of their fortune away to complete strangers.

Both sides have issues they aren't willing to put on the table for discussion. Both sides are at times willing to dismiss the other side's value judgements out of hand. Conservatives often do so in the name of religion. Liberals often do so in the name of the public good.

I just think it is wrong to label conservatives as intellectually uncurious because of this, while giving liberals a pass.

I have plenty of problems with modern conservatives myself, but I don't consider them to be any less intellectually flexible than their liberal counterparts.

Huck said...

You have a point. There certainly is a rigidity among parts of the left. But I wouldn't call these people liberals. They are the antithesis to liberalism. And certainly there are conservatives who are intellectually curious and questioning and sincerely open to dialogue and debate.

But, on balance, I would argue that liberals tend to be generally more committed to critical thinking and generally tend to be more open to dissent than modern conservatives. The nature of modern conservatism, especially of the social variety, tends towards an embrace of fundamentals and the status quo, a resistence to change, a discomfort with challenges to conventional wisdom or orthodoxy, and a myopia. While there certainly exists a similar kind of rigidity on the left, liberalism (and the "liberal" part of libertarianism, I'd say) better accommodates the cacophany of different opinions and is much, much more comfortable with heterodox ideas.

Huck said...

P_F - As a post script to what I'm saying, let me give you an example from the profession that I know: higher education.

I would agree with the observation that the academy tends to be decidedly left leaning. Yet, even within this context, especially at colleges and universities most known for its liberal proclivities (and some might even say its rigid radical leftism -- i.e. UC Berkeley), there always exists strong pockets of conservative "resistance," if you will whose rights to exist and function are almost universally accepted.

But, if you look at colleges and universities known to be bastions of reactionary conservatism, policies of exclusion and conformity make it such that a "liberal" resistence is not tolerated.

I am not aware of any "liberal" college or university, public or private, that operates in the way that places like Oral Roberts does, or Liberty College does, or Bob Jones University does.

And I would contend that the reason why this tends to be so is because of the nature of modern conservatism being, on balance, more intellectually (not to mention socially) rigid and uncompromising, and less intellectually tolerant (if not less intellectually curious), than what constitutes the nature of modern liberalism.

Don_cos said...


I have been a student of Liberty University's DL program for a couple years now, and never have I been required to state a political affiliation in order to participate in their programs.

I have twice heard statements in classes by a professor that clearly revealed their conservative ideology. But I have never had to show that I am conservative.

Huck said...

don_cos - It is not that you are required to show a political affiliation to participate. Rather, what I am getting at is whether being a vocal advocate for liberalism and liberal causes is tolerated and permitted speech at Liberty University.

Even UC Berkeley has a College Republicans student organization which is free to promote conservative and GOP causes.

Yet, Liberty University doesn't have a College Democrats student organization. And my question is: Would Liberty University support the creation of such and allow College Democrats to organize events that promote Democratic causes? Maybe. Though I find it hard to believe, since many of the Democratic Party positions on issues like birth control, abortion, and homosexuality are anathema to Liberty University's principles. And it's especially hard to think that liberal positions would be tolerated at Liberty University when I have read somewhere (and this could admittedly be just rumor) that Jerry Falwell himself once exhorted Liberty University students to burn the school to the ground if it ever turned liberal. If that is true, it doesn't sound like Liberty University is a place where liberal political and ideological dissent from conservative Christian orthodoxy is even permitted, much less tolerated there.

Don_cos said...


I would have to say that it would not be allowed for a group to protest for abortion or homosexuality on campus for the simple reason that as a Christian college these things stand as sin. However that would not mean that a woman who has had an abortion could not attend, or that a gay man could not.

As a Christian college, Liberty has principles that are based on the Bible. The Bible teaches that these things are sin. But it also teaches that we are all guilty of sin. The true question is repentance. I am (in case you haven't guessed {-; ) a conservative Christian, yet I have had close friends who are openly practicing gays. Some people believe that a gay man or lesbian woman and a conservative Christian cannot be friends, but they do not really understand. I am a sinner as much as any homosexual. The key is acceptance of Christ first. Then to do our best to live a Christian life. That means that we try to resist sin. Though we are doomed to fail.

This same principle applies at Liberty. Sinners are welcome. But those who would preach that sin is acceptable are not allowed. If I protested to allow premarital sex or polygamy, or hatred and lying, I would not be allowed to continue.

And disagreement is allowed. One of my classes had video tapes lectures in which the professor spent time explaining to the students how Jerry Falwell misinterpreted this or that passage. Do you really think that such criticism of Jerry Falwell himself would be allowed if differing opinions were taboo?

Anyway I gotta get busy. Have a good evening.

Huck said...

Thanks, don_cos. I understand what you are saying. I should perhaps be a bit more specific. My question is whether a College Democrats organization would be allowed to exist even if the group never organized a pro-homosexual rights or pro-abortion event. Is the fact that they simply identify as Democrats enough to get them banned? I am not talking about advocating sin. I could understand Liberty University not permitting organizations to exist that advocate for something that it believed compromised its moral code. I would disagree with such a policy because I think of the college or university as a place where the free exchange of controversial moral positions should be a part of the educational culture, but I could understand. What I can't understand is why simply identifying as a Democrat and a liberal, and publicly organizing as such, would be impermissible. Now, perhaps Liberty University wouldn't have a problem with someone like me establishing a College Democrats club there, but is it also possible or likely that University officials wouldn't allow it on the principle that being a Democrat is inherently "sinful"? I can't say with confidence that Liberty University wouldn't behave in such a restrictive way. And, getting back to the original question of what it is about conservatism that bothers me, it's this kind of thing that I notice as a difference between modern liberalism as I understand it and observe it in practice, and modern conservatism as I understand it and observe it in practice.

Don_cos said...


I honestly cannot say. I would like to beleive that it would be allowed, but I do not know if anyone has tried to start a campus Democrats group. I will try to find out.

Don_cos said...


I just left LU's site and I could not find a Democrats group. I still have not found out if anyone has tried and been turned down or not.