A better way of understanding the ‘conservative-progressive’ divide

Attempts to categorise people are inherently fraught with danger and, frankly, of little real value – if any. People are individuals, with individual thoughts, feelings and emotions that can never be shared completely. Categorisation leads to prejudice, discrimination and tribalism. Worst of all, it leads people to forget that we are all human individuals with hopes, dreams and a great potential for compassion.

While we now pretty universally seem to recognise that discrimination on the basis of certain traits (particularly unchosen traits like race and gender) is wrongful, we live in a political climate that has become so polarised that it has become hard to look beyond, often arbitrary, philosophical and ideological divides. 

All people, on account of our common human dignity, deserves to be treated as individuals. They deserve not to be pre-judged, but rather judged by their character and their actions. They deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt, presumed good until proven otherwise, and given an opportunity to show their worth.

My strenuous objection to labels duly noted, I believe that a tangible step towards such a world is for each of us to make a genuine effort better to understand those with whom we disagree. Thinking in binary ‘us and them’ terms does a disservice to our public discourse, and to ourselves (the lost opportunity to share a human relationship with a person and the burden of association with people who actually do not reflect our individual values).

To this end, a greater number of narrower, more precise labels is surely better than fewer, broader, less refined. In terms of the social issues that have taken on greater significance in our post-material politics, the tendency to brand individuals and groups as either ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ is intellectually lazy and counterproductive to our universally shared goals. Here is one alternative way of thinking about where people may be coming from.

Conservatives – those I will term ‘conservatives’ are people who place a high currency on existing socio-cultural institutions and practices. Preserving the institutions as they are is of primary concern. Satisfied with the status quo and often at (genuine and/or perceived) risk as a result of change.

Progressives – those who, without harbouring any ill-will towards existing institutions, have no strong attachment to traditional institutions or practices. Instead, motivated foremost by changes in the make-up of contemporary society. In many ways institution agnostic.

Traditionalists – those who have a high regard, even reverence, towards traditional institutions and practices, but a willingness to ‘change with the times’. Open to redefining institutions to adapt to the needs of contemporary society while striving to preserve these institutions, at least in essence.

Revolutionaries – those who view existing institutions with scepticism on account of a belief that they contribute to a broader socio-political powerstructure. The dismantling of institutions themselves (and their influence on the distribution of political power) is of more concern than their content.

Reactionaries – those most (genuinely) threatened by social, cultural and political change. Often their concern for institutions belies a deeper (often material) concern. Abandoned or maligned by the status quo, seek a return to the status quo ante

It should be apparent that the philosophies embodied by these groups interact in ways that are nuanced and complex. For example, a ‘progressive’ might approach the issue of same-sex marriage from a desire for a measure of equality, while a ‘traditionalist’ might find an openness to same-sex marriage in the of values of commitment and family. Likewise, the way to engage with ‘conservatives’, ‘reactionaries’ and ‘revolutionaries’ must surely involve addressing their underlying concerns (often linked to material factors).

Individuals whose views and values align with each of these five classifications can be found in almost all major political groupings. If a politico-legal system is to have true legitimacy, it must find a way to speak to them all.

Sidenote: the following study by Pew sheds further insight into the disutility of overly-broad, simplistic classification of people as ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’: http://www.people-press.org/2005/05/10/beyond-red-vs-blue/

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