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Tagconservative

the deviant’s tale

From this article by Kathleen McAuliffe:

Using a far cruder tool for measuring sensitivity to disgust — basically a standardized questionnaire that asks subjects how they would feel about, say, touching a toilet seat in a public restroom or seeing maggots crawling on a piece of meat — numerous studies have found that high levels of sensitivity to disgust tend to go hand in hand with a “conservative ethos.” That ethos is defined by characteristics such as traditionalism, religiosity, support for authority and hierarchy, sexual conservatism, and distrust of outsiders.

Now, imagine that the article had said this:

Using a far cruder tool for measuring sensitivity to disgust — basically a standardized questionnaire that asks subjects how they would feel about, say, touching a toilet seat in a public restroom or seeing maggots crawling on a piece of meat — numerous studies have found that low levels of sensitivity to disgust tend to go hand in hand with a “liberal ethos.” That ethos is defined by characteristics such as a dislike of tradition, low religiosity, a lack of support for authority and hierarchy, sexual exploration, and trust of outsiders.

Can’t really imagine it being written that way, can you?

In social science and popular writing about social science, liberal views are always the norm and conservative views are always deviations from that norm, deviations in need of explanation. Liberal views don’t need to be explained — after all, they’re so obviously correct.

the call to maintenance

I’m full of ideas after reading this amazing essay by Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care: Fixing a Broken World”:

In many academic disciplines and professional practices — architecture, urban studies, labor history, development economics, and the information sciences, just to name a few — maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause. This is an exciting area of inquiry precisely because the lines between scholarship and practice are blurred. To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.

Mattern links to the site of The Maintainers, who set themselves in ironic opposition to “the innovators”:

“Innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

The Maintainers is a global, interdisciplinary research network that takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

This converges with David Edgerton’s marvelous book The Shock of the Old, with its account of how familiar technologies get continually renewed and repurposed, but also resonates with the great call of Tikkun olam: the repair, the renewal, the maintenance, of the world.

As a Christian and a professor of humanities, I find all this especially intriguing because it offers a subtle but vital correction to more familiar ideas of “conserving” or “upholding” a tradition. Traditions, seen from the perspective of a Maintainer, need active caring for. They must be kept in constant repair. To put them away in glass cases is to render them useless, so they must be taken out and used, but that exposes them to wear and tear to which the Maintainer must always be sensitive. They must be actively tended to, like an internal combustion engine, or a garden. There’s a whole Theory of Life here. Or my life, anyway.

God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath. And this the more, because it is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witnesses of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success. Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.

liberalism as normcore

Attempts to demean the conservative temperament — even assuming that there is such a thing as the conservative temperament — bother me less than the attempt to insist that such demeaning is merely neutral analysis. And I’m not only referring to the popular press: this Vox post by David Roberts takes its chief talking points from recent scholarship, for instance this article from Current Biology.

Let’s consider a key passage from that article, one that Roberts quotes. It goes like this (footnotes deleted for clarity):

Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This heightened sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with conservative orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala. Indeed, voting behavior is reflected in amygdala responses across cultures. We therefore further investigated our structural MRI data to evaluate whether there was any relationship between gray matter volume of the amygdala and political attitudes. We found that increased gray matter volume in the right amygdala was significantly associated with conservatism (Figure 1B) (R = 0.23, T(88) = 22.22, p < 0.029 corrected).

Interesting, no? But what if the research had been presented in this way?

Liberals respond to threatening situations with less aggression than do conservatives and are less sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This lowered sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with liberal orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala. Indeed, voting behavior is reflected in amygdala responses across cultures. We therefore further investigated our structural MRI data to evaluate whether there was any relationship between gray matter volume of the amygdala and political attitudes. We found that decreased gray matter volume in the right amygdala was significantly associated with liberalism (Figure 1B) (R = 0.23, T(88) = 22.22, p < 0.029 corrected).

Precisely the same conclusions — but notice how differently the argument reads when it treats liberalism as a deviation from conservativism rather than the other way around. Note that the article says that the conservative response “might exhibit differences” — but from what? From the norm, of course. The assumption that liberalism is the default (and presumably rational) position, and that any deviation from that position is what requires scientific explanation, not that position itself, is deeply embedded in the article, and indeed in the ideological framework of American social science tout court.

So David Roberts thinks that in writing his article he and the research he draws on are totally neutral — “Whichever of these personality traits, or clusters of traits, you might prefer, the research itself does not characterize any as better or worse” — so when conservatives get annoyed by posts like his, it surely must be tempting for him and his liberal readers to attribute that to more of that good ol’ conservative “heightened sensitivity.” (You people can’t even tolerate neutral description!) And so the liberal ideological bandwagon rolls on, and on, and on, serenely confident in its neutrality, its clarity in seeing things just as they are, its normalcy.

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they’re wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.

We value these things not because they are triumphant and invincible but because they are precious and vulnerable, because they weren’t fated to happen, and they’re not certain to survive. They need us—and our gratitude for them should move us to defend them and to build on them.

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