Changing Labels: Moving from Conservative to Progressive

I think I’m going to start calling myself a progressive. If one labels place on the axis regarding social or cultural change … progressives want to move away from the status quo toward something new, conservatives are cautious about movement along that axis, and reactionaries also want cultural change … but back toward a past relationship. Conservatives in that light are at the zero point, the origin of a generic “social movement” metric. This is (in the light of prior discussion) not a “retconning” of the definition of progressive, reactionary, and conservative but indeed the standard ones. However it might be noted that in popular parlance, progressive and conservative have come to mean ill-defined but definite political party affiliations … and this is not the usage of these words I am applying here. The other meaning however is also well known and common and I don’t think there are really any alternatives words to use in their place.

Sometime past the topic of Honor/Shame cultures came up in a more sympathetic setting than I had experienced before. I think the so-called ‘conventional wisdom’ regarding H/S cultures is a confused message from the liberal academic establishment. The conventional wisdom is that their treatment of woman (and gays) is appalling and that life in these societies is horrible. Our news services flood us with messages giving us a feeling of superiority regarding our culture, with stories of older men marrying or abusing pre-teen and young women. Yet as was pointed out what is missing in those stories are numbers and any sense of comparison of different flaws which appear in our own society. That is to say, that yes, while women suffer some problems in those societies that is not necessarily the norm but that these are outliers or abuses that appear at the edges. On the other hand, in our society rape, murder, suicide and mental illnesses like depression which are apparently far rarer in those societies and serve the similar role of outliers and breakdowns at the edges of our society. The upshot is that if one sets aside these two sets of outliers people in the Western individualistic society are wealthier people in H/S/non-individualistic cultures are happier.

So, for the time being I’m going to try wearing a new hypothesis. That is I’m going to operate under the assumption that this is correct. That H/S cultures specifically keying on two main principles are superior to our western culture. These two points are individuality and economics respectively. If you measure cultures along an axis of “how much they value or express individuality” our culture is at the opposite pole from the H/S cultures. Likewise in a broad measure our culture sets “worth” by measuring one’s monetary return or status. There is a reflexive notion that the poor that way because of some inherent flaws in their make up. And yes, I know that is not universal or even thought to be true … (only) after some reflection. But it is a default value measure in our society.

There are however some notable good things that Western individualistic economically driven societies posses of which it would be good to keep. Hence I am not going to “become” a reactionary desiring a move to pre-Enlightenment H/S shame Western civilisation standards. The ability of Western technological development and economic growth to foster an historically unprecedented level of wealth in those nations is a good thing. So reactionary is not the solution. What we need is to find a way to foster and move to a more collective personal outlook while sustaining technology and economic growth and prosperity. Is there a solution which maximises mental health that comes from an intense personal family/clan life that also fosters economic and technological innovation?

I would suggest there are ways to begin to foster such things within Western frameworks. Currently, culturally we foster and support individuality via measures enabling single parenthood and which have largely dissolved or weakened larger family bonds. As an example of the latter, there are no laws protecting and promoting transfers of wealth or property beyond the atomic family. That is while you can freely spend any amount on your dependent child, the notion of dependent Uncle or Grandparent between whom transfers of wealth are unchecked and unregulated does not exist. Laws could be drafted which recognise, support, and nurture larger family and extra-familial groups.

And a final note. This is an experiment. If you honestly want to live the self-examined life it is not enough to read and think about new ideas and compare them to your own. You have to put them on and try them on for size. This is what I’m attempting to do.

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2 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    On the other hand, in our society rape, murder, suicide and mental illnesses like depression which are apparently far rarer in those societies and serve the similar role of outliers and breakdowns at the edges of our society. The upshot is that if one sets aside these two sets of outliers people in the Western individualistic society are wealthier people in H/S/non-individualistic cultures are happier.

    Two issues I have with this:

    1. How exactly do we know H/S cultures are happier? Because they have lower rates of diagnosed depression? Well not depressed != happy.

    2. Your list of ‘cons’ on Western society seems a bit one sided. Yes I suppose a woman will agree that her chances of being raped being a single working woman living on her own in a city is higher than, say, being a member of a Saudi household who is not permitted to mingle with unrelated men until her wedding. But I think most women would say two things:

    a. The benefits of individuality for the most part outweigh the risks you cite. If women were trapped behind a RAwlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ most would opt, IMO, to be the single gal of ‘Sex in the City’….granting that carries with it risks that ‘Saudi Gal’ doesn’t.

    b. More importantly many of the above risks can be addressed within the context of Western culture. In other words, the risk of rape can be greatly reduced without resorting to an H/S culture. Depression can be diagnosed and treated if people are aware of its symptoms and nature.

    That is while you can freely spend any amount on your dependent child, the notion of dependent Uncle or Grandparent between whom transfers of wealth are unchecked and unregulated does not exist. Laws could be drafted which recognise, support, and nurture larger family and extra-familial groups.

    What irks me about those who think ‘conservative’ simply means ‘against change’ or that it means a ‘particular political party’ is that they tend to ditch a very rich intellectual heritage that only seems a bit ‘ill-defined’ today because of ignorance of that heritage. For example, both conservatives and liberals once had a competitor in the form of monarchists. The history of England and France (esp. the latter) once had very real arguments made by monarchists. Liberals and Conservatives differed among themselves but also with monarchists which meant that they shared some views.

    What bothers me about your proposal is that it seems, like a lot of Conservatives today, ignorant of Burke, founder of modern political conservatism. Burke argued that society’s institutions were created through generations of trial and error and that the present generation owes its position, good and bad, to prior ones. Burke did accept change but not the type of change that sought to start with a ‘clean slate’ or change that presumed a policy maker could figure out all of society’s ways and craft laws to produce the desired result.

    Unfortunately many conservatives today seem to forget this. They start out with a respect for society’s traditions and how they carry unrealized values. Then end up proposing silly things like ‘stregthening families’ by jiggling the tax code and putting a $25 fee on divorce filings! Burke today would probably say the collapse of larger families and clans into the nuclear family and even smaller is itself a multi-generational change born of trial and error. There’s a reason H/S cultures have become marginalized and left behind in economic growth and its probably that their values cease to work in modern economies. Trying to recreate cherry picked aspects of them by jiggling around various ‘incentives’ is unlikely to reverse that and at best is probably going to be a waste of time and at worse will cause a lot of mischief.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Lower rates of depression may be indicative. Recall Lives of Strangers and the importance of suicide rates and hiding the same.

    I think that women in Western society born and bred to value individualism will agree that individualism is important. I do not agree that an rural Osakan farm villager will agree that her lifestyle and its limited choices is necessarily a bad thing.

    What irks me about those who think ‘conservative’ simply means ‘against change’ or that it means a ‘particular political party’ is that they tend to ditch a very rich intellectual heritage that only seems a bit ‘ill-defined’ today because of ignorance of that heritage

    You are confusing symptom for cause. The Burkean argument is the reason that change is suspect.