In the course of exploring the history and dynamics of bigotry, of moral exclusion, and the history of money (particularly the similarities between the goldzone Great Depression and the Eurozone Great Recesssion), it has become clear to me how very poor conservatives tend to be at learning from history. Which is not, of course, how conservatives typically see themselves. On the contrary, they usually regard themselves as respecting the lessons of history.
Alas, this is not often not true. What one sees instead is a repeat of past mistakes. So, just as during the Great Depression, we now get “hard money” conservatives worrying about the prospect of inflation even as inflation expectations are low and falling. The same people economist R. G. Hawtrey characterised in the 1930s as shouting “fire!, fire!” in Noah’s flood. They cling to what gives them a sense of order, what dangers resonate for them, rather than seeing clearly what is before them.
Been here, done that
Similarly, the current debates over queer* emancipation are literally a re-run of past debates over Jewish emancipation–right down to exactly the same accusations being made against queers as were previously made against Jews (being an offence against God, being against the Christian basis of Western civilisation, that they corrupt everything they touch, that they prey on children, that they spread disease, etc etc). Ever since the Enlightenment, and particularly the Industrial Revolution, the opponents of equal protection of the law have always, in the end, lost. Yet here conservatives are, mounting the same barricades all over again in a cause it is clear they will and are losing.
Upon examining these recurring patterns, you build up a checklist of the standard evasions. For example, Rafe Champion’s recent comment that:
That is why I have so much contempt for the Same Sex Marriage brigade. Nobody is suffering for want of same sex marriage. Get your freaking priorities in order and do something to help people in genuine need.
Anyone familiar with the history of unequal legal standing recognises this one: it is the “wait your turn” response. And, strangely, it turns out never to be “your turn”, there are always more urgent matters. It is, of course, a nonsense view of social action, as if there is a single set of priorities that everyone must follow and things can only be changed or approved in a single sequential order. It is a way of dismissing the group seeking equal treatment as “clearly” morally deficient because they do not have “proper” moral priorities.
It also shows a deep failure to engage in that act of moral imagination that Adam Smith called sympathy and put at the heart of his moral analysis in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. Of being apparently unable to project from the importance marriage has in one’s own life, and the life of those around one, to others.
SF writer John Scalzi has expressed how unequal standing in society works quite nicely with his recent post on different levels of social difficulty. (With follow-up posts here and here while fantasy author Jim Hines has one here.)
The lack of any sense of history among conservative-minded folk can be striking. Consider the efforts of CIS sociologist Peter Saunders, who has been getting some mileage in conservative and libertarian circles with this spectacularly stupid effort:
Two thoughts strike me about all this.
One is Friedrich Hayek’s warning about the vanity of the intellectuals. Intellectuals are affronted by social institutions (such as free markets and monogamous marriage) that have evolved over hundreds or thousands of years without people like them ever having consciously invented or designed them. They think evolved institutions are not ‘rational,’ and they believe they can do better. The only argument for leaving marriage unreformed is that it has been this way for a very long time, but that is never going to win the day with ‘modernisers,’ in whose ranks we have to include Prime Minister ‘Dave’ Cameron.
The second thought is that gay marriage will not bring the bourgeois social order crashing down, but it is one more step in Antonio Gramsci’s call in the 1930s for a revolutionary ‘march through the institutions.’ Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, realised that Western capitalism would not be destroyed by economic class struggle, for it is good at meeting people’s material needs. What was needed, therefore, was a long-term campaign against the core institutions through which bourgeois culture is transmitted to each generation. Break the hold of the churches, take over the media, subvert the schools and universities, and chip away at the heart of the citadel, the bourgeois family, and eventually, the whole system will fall.
To see how empty this is, ask yourself this question, which of the following would the above not be an argument against?
(1) Equal rights for Jews.
(2) Equal rights for Catholics (in Protestant countries).
(3) Equal rights for Protestants (in Catholic countries).
(4) Equal rights for women.
(5) Abolishing slavery.
(6) Giving workers the vote.
(7) Abolishing racial segregation.
(8) All of the above.
(9) None of the above.
If you answered (8) all of the above, yes precisely. If a civil rights struggle is safely in the past, then it becomes sanctified and “of course” conservatives do not want to go back and revisit it. But, the current civil rights struggle; that is a threat to the social order, just as all previous civil rights struggles were threats to the social order. Including, in yet another repeated trope from Jew-hatred, giving a small minority amazing corrupting power to bring down, or at least seriously threaten, the entire social order.
Part of being conservative is having a sense of the fragility of social order. Likely too strong a sense; as Adam Smith famously observed, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.
But that sense of the fragility of social order seems to often come with a notion that, unless the current limits are adhered to, there are no limits. Hence, for example, assuming that unless heterosexuality as a compulsory norm is accepted, somehow one ends up with bestiality. Hence also the notion of the enormous corrupting power of small groups. They are outside the set limit, so acceptance of their legitimacy destroys all limits.
Yet, one of the striking things about the various emancipation struggles is how society ended up working better, not worse, from their success.
There is no great mystery as to why. Not only are the talents of the group made much more accessible to the wider society, social resources are also no longer wasted repressing them. Moreover, the group in question then becomes invested in the existing social order, rather than alienated from it. The problem is not having a sense of the fragility of social order, the problem is thinking that social order requires people be confined in very unequal social cages. Again and again, this has proved to be flatly not true. The society conservatives were “defending” proved to be much more resilient, with far greater capacities for renewal, than they were willing to admit.
But it is worse than that. Not only does the false belief in the “necessity” of unequal social cages cause a great deal of utterly unnecessary human misery, it also creates real dangers through the exclusion contagion effect; if you habituate people to the notion that there should be unequal social cages–that unilaterally morally and legally excluding people by category is fine–then there is no reason that you and yours will not end up on the losing side of that idea. We can see that playing out in front of us as conservative Christians have begun to receive milder versions of the social (the moral and legal) exclusions that they have so long advocated and practised for queers. Conservatives who complain about the constraints on political correctness on them, but then insist on much more vicious constraints being imposed according to their sexual correctness, illustrate the point nicely.
But it has a much longer history than that. Jews wanting to oppress queers and pagans because they were against the message of God found themselves being repressed by Christians who–entirely agreeing with the Jews about the queers and pagans–then added the Jews into those to be repressed for being against God’s message made flesh in Christ. Then along came the conquering Muslims who–entirely agreeing with the Christians about the queers, the pagans and the Jews–then added the Christians into those to be repressed for being against the Messenger of God, Muhammad. A sense of history and its lessons should provide a sense of the dangers of unequal moral cages, of putting people into categories of moral exclusion.
Which is precisely the sense of history that is lacking in so much conservative commentary. The same lack of a sense of history which talks of “the definition” of marriage as being between a man and a woman, completely failing to notice Biblical polygyny–but then, “the definition” of marriage as between a man and one or more women does not have quite the same ring to it. Add in Himalayan polyandry, and “the definition” of marriage as being one or more men and one or more women starts to really get out of hand. Add in the same-sex marriages and unions which were recognised by lots of cultures (including Amerindian cultures and Roman law) and one can see that the much touted “by definition” notion of marriage is simply the legacy of past imposed exclusions enforced through brutality. What has been going on in the drive for queer emancipation is not modern “decadence” but the withdrawal of the necessary enforcing brutality. Consequently, natural human diversity is openly re-asserting itself; particularly as lower transport and communication costs are making it so much easier for dispersed minorities to organise.
The notion that the social order requires unequal social cages entails a commitment to treat people badly and then sneer at them for attempting to change things so they are no longer treated in such a way. This can extend to sneering at them for voting for or supporting people who promise not to treat them like crap–such as sneering at gays for voting Green when that is the only significant political Party that stands forthrightly for equal protection of the law.
But, as the excluded have no legitimate perspective, they not thought of in these terms. Blaming them for seeking change is inherent in the way moral exclusion operates to relegate the excluded to being a separate moral species.
Underlying notions of moral exclusion is a massive sense of entitlement–particularly when in deciding who is, and who is not, a “proper” form of the human. After all, who do you think is entitled to declare you not a “proper” form of the human? If the answer is “no one”, then what gives you the monstrous sense of entitlement to do so to others?
Speaking from personal experience, you can tie yourself into knots trying to “prove” that you are a “proper” form of the human until you realise how monstrously improper the entire question is. Not only is it is based on the aforementioned massive sense of entitlement, but it is a question which is posed for no other reason than to oppress, repress and exclude.
But part of what is going on is a deeply flawed vision of the past. The problem is not believing that the past can teach us; that is true. Given that there is no information from the future, we only have past and present experience to guide us. The problem is in failing to fully interrogate that past. The problem is not giving the past credence, doing so is simply sensible; it is giving the past (or at least the legacy handed down to us) a presumption of positive moral significance.
Ironically, constrained vision conservatives tend to make the mirror image mistake that unconstrained vision progressives do. Where the former tend to give the legacy of the past positive moral significance, the latter tend to give that legacy negative moral significance. But in loading that legacy with moral presumption, both outlooks block the learning that comes from intelligently interrogating the past; from giving it credence but not presumptive moral weighting.
Not coincidentally, both groups are attracted to notions of social purity and harmony, which are both ideals of conformity–and thus exclusion–where difference is profoundly stigmatised. In the extreme versions of these ideals, society is purified, and harmony achieved, by simply killing the disharmonous and impure. C20th manifestations of this–in the name of racial purity by the Nazis and class harmony by Leninists–have been characterised by conservative intellectuals as a sign of the “death of God” in Western culture. This is nonsense on stilts, because the notion that society is purified, and harmony with the purposes of God achieved, by killing a vulnerable minority is straight out of the natural law theology of Genesis 19 as developed by Philo of Alexandria and adopted so enthusiastically by Church fathers such as St John Chrysostom, patron saint of preachers via St Paul’s use of natural law terminology in epistles such as Romans. (That St John was such an enthusiastic preacher of Jew-hatred just illustrates the power of the contagion effect.) Purifying killing of members of vulnerable minorities is one of the founding ideas of clerical Christianity.
Natural law theory–with its notion that the form in the world and the form in the mind are the same and its use of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy where the conclusion gets to determine the ambit of its premises–provides both the “authority” to define the human and to exclude contradictory evidence, including contradictory experience, as illegitimate and perversion. Which is the authority to exclude from the “properly” human. (Hence the Vatican treating homosexuals as “objectively disordered“.)
That the greatest exponent of Christian natural law theory, St Thomas Aquinas, was a member of the same order that dominated the medieval Inquisition is not some weird coincidence. That error has no rights was the fundamental principle of both.
In order to see this contagion effect, however, one must not see the morally excluded as some sort of separate moral species the treatment of whom has no implications for “real” people. But the whole point of moral exclusion is to create such separate moral species, thereby blinding oneself to the implications of what one does.
(Still, equal protection of the law; how is this hard? How is it subversive?)
Either way, it is a matter of taking human experience seriously. Moral exclusion is based on massively discounting human experience. But so is failing intelligently to interrogate the past. That is why they march together so well.
*Note on terminology: By queer I mean anyone who is homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, transgender or intersex. That is, anyone who does not fit into the straight category of conventionally male or female and heterosexual. According to CDC data (pdf), queers so defined make up about 10% of the population. In a planet with over 7 billion people, that’s a lot of people. Even in the Anglosphere of the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, that is over 40 million people. Since these conditions are either congenital, or so near to such as to make little difference, it is impossible to have a queerfrei society as queers will just continue to be born. If you are so inclined, you will always have the queers to kick around.