Thursday, August 1, 2013

Conservative reticence

Out of politeness, we don't say what we really think. Politeness, being grown up, being civilized, is to a great extent about keeping our thoughts to ourselves – unlike children, who can wound and often do, but are forgiven.

There is a story in my family of one of my mother's cousins – as a small child – sitting on the knee of his doting but rather vain grandfather, staring up at him and saying slowly and with great earnestness: "Oh, Grandfather, you do have a face like a dog!"

I said that we (adults) don't say what we really think. Perhaps I should say we usen't to say what we think. Times change, manners change. And digital communications give us many more opportunities to frankly speak our minds – using pseudonyms or not – than we ever had before.

But, strangely, there are still strong taboos in certain areas.

Whereas the old taboos were mainly about form rather than substance (and therefore not really intellectually restrictive), today's taboos are politically or ideologically driven. Today it's not so much how you say something that gets you into trouble (swearing or whatever) but how what you say may reveal unacceptable beliefs about, for example, the significance and interpretation of cultural or ethnic traditions, or about the role of inherited factors in explaining individual differences, or about the appropriate role of markets or the scope and responsibilities of government, or the basis of political authority, or environmental issues.

There are strong social pressures, especially in culturally elite circles (academia, media, government, etc.) not to take certain lines in these contentious areas – whether one expresses them in a restrained and measured way or not – and breaching these increasingly stringent protocols can be fatal for one's career.

It's no wonder, then, that generally the only people who go against these taboos are either not part of that elite (and with no hope of joining it) or those at the other end of the continuum who are rich enough or famous enough to be able not to care how the self-appointed guardians of morality and propriety may judge them. (I have a few names in the latter category in mind, but to list them might imply a blanket endorsement – and would only serve to attract opprobrium without any compensating notoriety.)

It seems to me that the left has largely given up on previous attempts to develop a comprehensive and theoretically coherent worldview, and has become an emotionally-driven amalgam of groups and individuals defined above all else by a strident moralism, featuring what they see as anti-racism as a (the?) prominent element. Leftist thinkers have a strong – and curiously patronizing – tendency to favor the non-white, non-European side in virtually any dispute. Also, of course, to favor women over men, and 'the oppressed' over 'the oppressor'. Because truth, of course, is a social construct...

The upshot of all this is that today's natural conservatives feel more marginalized than at any time in living memory from the political and cultural mainstream and, consequently, are – at least in many instances – finding themselves pushed in radical directions (e.g. towards right-libertarianism, or, alternatively, towards more authoritarian or even neo-fascist options).

They see the traditional modes of being conservative as becoming unviable, as what some decades ago might have been perceived as left-wing or progressive notions have been aggressively promulgated through legislation and broader cultural channels.

These days conservative reticence is more likely to mask a simmering anger and discontent than a Stoic sense of the inevitability of imperfection or a bemused recognition of human foibles.