Why Political Labels often Hurt Dialogue

I’m going to try to avoid becoming pedantic here.  Good luck, everyone.

I do not obscure in my tweets (or my blog) that I am largely conservative in my positions (Dear Toni Airaksinen: I am one of those hard-to-find conservative professors.  I work at >>University Redacted until PhD Defended<<).  That is, I think a lot of identity politics, “microaggressions”, government intervention, socialist financial positions, social justice causes, and so on, are silly.  I don’t look for a fight with their advocates, but I do like to poke fun; partially because so many ultra-progressive ideologues have little-to-no sense of humor, which just ends up making it funnier.

While thinking about this–and thinking about some of the people who are very close to me, personally, of a different background, with different and much more liberal opinions–it occurred to me that a lot of the anger and hatred in political dialogue comes from the uncritical application of poorly defined labels to our opposition.  After all, what is a conservative, or a progressive?  Is a progressive different from a liberal?  Is a conservative different from someone right-wing?  Answering these questions requires the establishment of clear principles.  That is: what are the principles of a conservative, as opposed to those of a liberal?  Or of a progressive?  Or the “right-wing”?

Convention dictates the meaning of a word, and so these labels often shift in their “correct” application over time.  For this reason, and for the fact that the words are often used in a way loosely (and poorly) connected to the more-proper meaning, we cloud our political discourse with imprecision.

For instance: conservative.  Oftentimes this label will be considered interchangeable with “right-wing”, which, I believe, is a profound mistake.  “Right” and “left” are relative terms.  When I talk about something being “to my right”, that label can change; if I move myself far enough to the right, it becomes something “to my left”.  To be “right-wing” or “left-wing” is to be measured by a shifting, relative, and unfixed political categorization.  Someone who is a conservative today and considered “right-wing”, if consistent in his principles, could be considered “left-wing” in 50 years.

I would add that, just as if you go far enough east or far enough west, you end up in the same place, likewise with the political “left” and “right”: which is why we are seeing increasing numbers of political totalitarianism on both sides.

But I digress; conservative.  What does it mean to be a conservative?  Well, at the face-value of the word: someone who believes in the conservation of things.  If things are proven true, good, useful, and beneficial to society, individuals, and institutions, they ought to be kept; and we should maintain those things, at least until proven wrong, in the face of a rush to adopt whatever shiny new ideas may crop up.

By the same token, then, the opposite of a conservative is not a liberal, but a progressive.  For a progressive, as the name indicates, is one who believes in progress–not in the progress-towards-X or progress-towards-Y, but progress-because-progress-is-always-better.  The mistaken identity of liberal with progressive comes from the misapplication of the word “liberal” to mean “liberating from old positions”.  A liberal–a classical liberal–is one who believes in liberty as a fundamental value for human beings.  I would argue that most genuine conservatives are also liberals in this sense, because liberty is good.

The break within liberalism, broadly construed, and the point at which progressives splinter off, is over the meaning and application of the term “liberty”.  For the progressive, it seems that the end goal of liberty is the ability of anyone to do whatever they would like, no matter what, not simply such that it does not in fact hurt anyone else, but that it cannot hurt anyone else: absolute freedom from anything harmful.  This can be seen in the radical progressive positions which hold things like teaching old dead white men in colleges to be an assault on personal freedom and well-being.

I think the real ultra-progressive dream, whether or not they realize it themselves, is that every human be capable of upload his or her consciousness into an infinitely-life-preserving experience-machine so persuasive that it is believed to be reality in which each human being is capable of experiencing exactly what it is that he or she would like.  This way no one is hurt, and every desire is fulfilled–or at least, the false fulfillment is indistinguishable from the true.  Personally, I think this is insufficient and ignorant of human nature, but that’s another post unto itself.

Assuredly, there are some ultra-progressives who probably have vague but nevertheless higher ideals than this; for certainly it would be the death of progress to have everyone confined to continual-pleasure machines.  Discontent is that which drives all progress, good or bad.  To put a limit on the good which human beings can achieve is to be anything but progressive, except, perhaps, in the worst sense–of progressing to a single, insular point which considers pleasure alone that which is good in life.

In contrast to this sense of liberty as an “absolute freedom from” is the sense of “appropriate freedom for”.  This is the idea that there is a definite, complete human good, which consists not in everyone being able to do whatever they please–and the possibility of harm being an evil which we attempt to avoid through social contract–but rather in that efforts should be made to remove obstacles and give support to human endeavors aiming at this fulfilling good.  That is, humans should be free to pursue being good humans.

Of course, that raises a pretty big question about what it means to be a good human.  It isn’t an easy question, and so it seems that a lot of people have stopped earnestly asking it.  Instead, they choose a presumptive position and adamantly, obstinately, and thereby idiotically defend it.

At any rate, the point I am attempting to make, amidst my near-aimless ranting, is that these labels require principles, and without clarity about the principles, we might misapply the labels; and in so doing, misunderstand our interlocutors.

So yes, I’m a conservative (gasp, shock, oh nooooooeeeee), and I might tell you that I think religious institutions actually do quite a lot of good, that government mandates on many issues actually do quite a lot of bad, that maybe your biological nature is not an obstacle to be conquered but an integral element to your personhood, that maybe, juuuuust maybe, some prohibitions on things you want to do are not just antiquated impositions aiming at your conformity to the patriarchy/religious powers/white supremacy, but actually at offering you a channel to a fulfillment of your whole human existence.

That’s not to say that I cannot be corrected, or my positions cannot change.  I am always seeking the best reasons to believe in anything: including the best reasons for that in which I currently believe.  But if you present me a better reason (or a well-constructed set of arguments reducing to certain common first principles… woops, pedantic) to believe in the opposite?  Well, sign me up baby, I’m on board.

First you just need to understand that I’m also a liberal, in the sense of “appropriate freedom for”.  I believe in human fulfillment through free choice; and I believe it requires more than being a petulant adult-child who thinks it consists in having whatever he or she wants.

Whatever.  I’m gonna go drink (another) beer.  Cause I want to.


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