What is a conservative?

Posted June 11 2005

Dear Jeff,

Thankyou for your thoughtful email, and for your question. Their is no doubt "conservative" is used loosely, and abusively.

Conservative means to me someone who wishes to  conserve the values they hold, and will not abandon them lightly. In this sense I, too,  am a conservative. In fact I am inherently conservative.  I think a careful conservatism is good and sensible. To adopt willy-nilly whatever comes along seems to me to be naive. It makes a statement about how little one values what one has

A conservative is not a traditionalist. A traditionalist preserves the tradition- almost regardless. The tradition in itself is valued above what it says or does, even too much to be changed where it is lacking.

Without a certain conserv-ation, society could not survive. Society  depends on shared values and understanding, and this means conserving ideas and mores long enough for them to be generally accepted. 

Unfortunately, thoughtful and careful conservatism can easily become more an automatic  habit rather than a considered decision. Rather than appreciation of what is valuable about what currently is, and what might be good in new ideas or pressures for change, it becomes a sign of insecurity, or of unwillingness to grow. It is also the case that a certain approach to life can masquerade as, or be described as, conservative. Being what we Australians call "a stick in the mud" is not intrinsically part of being conservative.

It easy for self interest to control what we aspire to and what we support. Rather than struggle with new ideas and a changing world, we take the easy path of a mental comfort derived by refusing to charge. Where our affluence or ease of life is challenged, we reject the challenge with slurs of "leftism" or "red." We deny the Christ and his compassion to maintain our comfort. Conservatism  becomes aligned with the entrenched power structures of society, or of the church, or our little group (or family). It becomes a resistance to change not so much to conserve the good as to preserve the status quo- especially of those who hold power

The consequence of slurs of "leftism" and "bleeding heart liberals" is that we move into the realm of the stereotype. By applying stereotypes, we invite stereotypes to be applied to us.

I am afraid of being closed in my mind to new insights as much as I am uncomfortable with change. [I say new "insights" rather than new "ideas", because there are few really new ideas. But I am frequently presented with new insights- ie new ideas for me, that challenge me, and which I am tempted to ignore for the sake of comfort.] I think this fear of not being true to new insights over-rides my fears and discomforts about change. To cover my struggle- to make it easier for me- I, too,  revert to stereotypes. I talk about "conservatives" on One Man's Web in a pejorative way, I'm sure. You wrote: "What is a conservative? I have a general idea, but only that projected by certain media folks (i.e. conservative=insensitive moralist)."   I'm sure you'll find hints of the insensitive moralist slur on my site. However, I have learned that insensitive moralists don't have to be conservative- I've met some absolutely insensitive moralists who are radical, leftist and anarchic!

Geoff with a "G", the ISP  who gifts me with this web space was fond of saying back in theological college, "It's all a matter of style." I think he is right. Some of us will always be conservative- slower to change, more appreciative of the past; others are always a bit more impatient with the past, seeing new paths more easily, and so on. Both kinds of people are needed for a healthy society. Both teach each other. Both will be slandered with pejoratives by those who are afraid of them, or what they say. I guess the question is, Do we deserve what people say about us? Sometimes I AM a bloody insensitive moralist. Sometimes I think I am justifiably outraged by something I see.

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