Let’s begin with a story. I was raised in a politically active (Canadian) conservative household, so I grew up licking campaign envelopes and doing door-to-door drops and meet-and-greets for the then-Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. This provincial party included politicians like Mike Harris, who as premier was loathed by teachers and nurses for aggressive cuts to public spending, including incredibly punitive reductions to the welfare system–but who in my household was The Guy. I was probably the only kid I knew the year of that election who had read the Blue Book (the document the party was using advocate for greater “fiscal responsibility” through slashed public spending). And I was an outsider in my class, as the only Tory in the bunch.
Now, most children eventually realize that their family background and education has shaped their sociopolitical views, and often that realization gives a child a chance to reassess the views themselves. So it is that children raised religious sometimes reach adolescence and atheism. Likewise, so it is that children raised conservative sometimes reach adolescence disagreeing with what a conservative mentality says about what we owe to one another as fellow human beings.
For me, obviously, I realized two key differences as I grew up: 1) fiscal debt is not the only debt we create with our political choices, and 2) all this talk of punitive action–in the welfare system and prisons especially–wasn’t fiscally responsible at all. It seemed guaranteed, rather, to keep people from being able to reintegrate into the economy as contributing members with any chance at upward mobility.
But whereas I made that journey out of knee-jerk adherence to my family’s values, I noticed that a lot of children raised into more liberal households never went through similar transformations, which meant that a fascinating cognitive disconnect often emerged. They would advocate for inclusivity, because that was the banner they were born under, and yet… often maintained a caricatured view of conservatives as villains or chumps. It never seemed to occur to many of them that people with more conservative views of how society should function are formed by their circumstances, too.
And why would it, when those raised on the left never had to lean out of their I’m-on-the-side-of-righteousness comfort zone?
It would be a few more years before I learned both the cause, and its consequences.
We’re Animals, Baby
Because, quite simply, we are more small-c conservative than we want to believe.
In my last essay, on primatology’s place in political discourse, I highlighted how uncomfortable many religious folks are with our animalism–but it really isn’t just them. When it comes to political discourse, quite a few of us forget that we’re not radical Lamarckians, able to will ourselves into more enlightened evolutionary states of being through discursive change alone.
Rather, we mammalian group species, with our extended childhood dependencies and soft and squishy bits, have remained obstinately predisposed to tribalism over all the tremendous technological leaps of the last few millennia. As such, even if the tribe we’re a part of today happens to be the more “enlightened” from the outset, it still takes work–it takes serious, lifelong work–to keep at bay our individual preferences for choosing ongoing comfort over transformation.
NB: Conservative Mentalities Are Logical, Too
Woah, but wait a second, you might be wondering: Why should I choose transformation over ongoing comfort? I’m a human being with a finite lifespan! I work for a third of my days–and I don’t always get much say as to where and why!–and I sleep for another third. Don’t I ever just get to arrive at a plateau of enlightened thought and good living for that last third? When do I get to enjoy what I have?
Fear was a huge motivator of action in my household. So too was pride. It would be years before I fully understood how neatly those behaviours mapped onto socioeconomic precarity. Fear of losing everything was not as bad as fear of being seen to lose everything, and being regarded as an object of pity. To being offered–shudder!–handouts.
As a kid I just saw the “user side” of these anxieties. Every fieldtrip form with a request for five dollars to cover costs just made my heart drop, and whenever there was any opt-out (e.g. joining another class for the day, or staying with the school librarian), I just didn’t tell my parents about the trips, rather than set off ire over the school having the audacity to ask for more when it already had “plenty” from taxes.
In hindsight, though–because I’m the sort of atheist who also doesn’t think their parents are larger-than-life; who recognizes that they are just humans who make their share of huge mistakes while learning-as-they-go in an indifferent cosmos–I came to understand how painful these situations were for them, too. How every fieldtrip slip asking for five dollars only highlighted how close economically precarious families always are to the sheer horror of needing charity.
Now, granted, some financially precarious families get outraged differently. They see the uneven playing field of early childhood, and advocate for more comprehensive safety nets so that every child truly can have a better shot at success when they start to live as adults. They call for the affluent to pay even just a slice of the higher tax rate that was paid during the supposed golden era of 20th-Century North American culture. (Although they also call, shockingly enough, less for a return to that racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic ruse of a paradise, and more for a world where the benefits of proportionate taxation are used to raise the standard of living for everyone.)
But the widespread number of financially precarious families who vote conservative are also being logical, inasmuch as they’re voting for a system they believe will minimize personal shame. Many feel, for instance, that if the school system just used its budget on the basics, public education would be more financially egalitarian without anyone having to ask for handouts. No one would then need to feel ashamed for not having enough to go around, or for not being able to buy the best of everything for their kids. There would be no need to ask for help, and in the process no need to risk being looked down upon for asking at all (an even worse possible outcome than being declined).
The Conservative Side of Liberal and Radical Activism
Now, there’s a lot of talk about how we need to be careful not to sympathize too much with folks whose choices manifest in the support of public policies that perpetuate–among other things–ongoing racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism. However rooted their political choices might be in fundamental human drives like fear and a desire to belong, our culture writ large has a terrible track record for focussing on the perpetrators of brutal systems, and not on the victims.
This tendency, after all, has nothing to do with specific political parties, or other outward manifestations of humanity. Rather, it has to do with the Big Five behavioural traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. These factors are used to assess personalities not just in humans but in species across the animal world, and they have strong heritability components, with openness to experience (or lack thereof) being the most heritable of these measures.
Simply put, then, being born into a household that waves a banner of greater inclusivity and stronger social safety nets does not guarantee that any given child is waving that banner on its own merits. To believe otherwise is part of the flawed cultural model of “Oh, just leave kids alone, the little darlings; they don’t need an education in injustice because it’s a True Fact that all children are born superior breeds of homo sapiens sapiens, and will all grow up to be angels of greater inclusivity, magically attuned to the undercurrent of wordly suffering, if we just leave them to their own devices!”
Maybe they will.
Or maybe they’ll feel uncomfortable around people who don’t look like the people they grew up with, because they’ve never seen someone who looks so different before. Maybe they’ll take what they have for granted, quietly assuming the world’s a meritocracy, and attribute other people not having what they have to other people’s bad choices.
And maybe they’ll especially still develop into status-seeking, hierarchy-affirming, personal-comfort-zone-reinforcing tribalists. It’ll just so happen that their personal comfort zone is under a flag more radical than the people who carry it.
The Academic Examples
Academia is, unfortunately, a good example of a place where this small-c conservativism thrives under liberal-leaning banners.
I remember, for one of my comps exams as a PhD student, reading a whole book on how the negative portrayal of Asiatic persons in Charles Dickens’ later novels was actually a cipher for Dickens’/the culture’s anxieties about white women.
And I remember thinking, Dear Dog, this white female academic has perfectly employed the supposedly enlightened language of our discipline, with all its appeals to renegotiate 19th-century lit through a more critical and racially conscious lens… so as to stay right where she would have been as an academic if post-colonial discourse had never happened. For all her deftness with the jargon of contemporary intersectional activism, she’s managed to use it to keep the focus of her work squarely on the most incurious possible endgame: how Dickens wrote about people like her.
A similar example, on the other side of the spectrum, has recently lit up some information silos adjacent to mine–which is my delicate way of saying that I have a few white masculinized friends whom I listen to, quite carefully, as they absorb news about “cancel culture” and identity politics “going too far”.
In Seattle, a program for public educators, “Washington State Ethnic Studies Now,” has apparently sparked outrage for its definitions of what constitutes “refusing the white gaze” in a classroom environment.
NB: The “white gaze” is a very common term in humanities discourse, and refers to the well-documented centring of white people as persons of agency in Western books, movies, news, and history: forms of media that at the same time tend to focus on non-white persons only in ways that reinforce white stereotypes of other racialized people. Most white people only get a glimpse of this concept in action when uproar follows a casting decision in major Hollywood movies–but non-white people tend to live with day-to-day awareness of how rarely people from their own racialized backgrounds are presented with agency and dignity in contemporary media.
In this Seattle program, one of the paths to “refusing the white gaze” involved accepting late work, which has caused quite a bit of lashback… because how is punctuality a consequence of the “white gaze”? Well, it reminded a “hot take” writer on the aptly named infotainment site “twitchy” (I would also have accepted “trigger finger”) of a PowerPoint slide earlier in the year that offered an equally absurd list of characteristics of white supremacy. These were taken from a 2001 “study” for a workshop striving to dismantle racism, and included nonsense like “Either/Or Thinking,” “Sense of Urgency,” and “Perfectionism.”
But while some of my friends in this adjacent information silo have latched onto this news item as an illustration of how diversity advocacy has “gone too far” (and have overlooked some perfectly sound suggestions in the quoted content in the process), I’m seeing instead a group of small-c conservative thinkers, thoroughly ensconced in the academic world, using highly classist forms of activist language to establish a place for themselves within existing power structures. I’m seeing a group of people not seeking to dismantle power so much as to place their ideas at the fore of the existing hierarchy.
It’s an academic workshop, for heck’s sake.
Resisting Comfort across the Political Spectrum
I’ve touched on this issue in relation to gender, too–another arena in which our fixation on labels also reveals a belief that if we just play the institutional game right, if we can just get society to recognize this one last term for human experience, then we’ll have safety and resources and access to opportunities within our existing power structures.
None of this is as radical as we’d like to believe–not the folks fearful of diversity discourse and cancel culture run amok; not the folks thinking that if they just take the right electives in university they will have arrived at a higher state of social justice enlightenment. Radical action certainly isn’t showing up outside an abortion clinic to bully people on some of their hardest days, but it’s also not going to a protest where white supremacists will be, just hoping you get a chance to punch a Nazi.
Truly radical political action, rather, is political action that keeps ourselves uncomfortable. It’s action we pursue with passion and vigour–but also with the integrity to recognize that if any given act of protest seems easy… maybe it’s because it’s not actually at odds with existing power structures at all.
Maybe it’s something we’re just doing to perform that we belong to a given tribe.