The unhelpfulness of words like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’.

Foto0067People love to live in a simple understandable world, I guess that’s why a lot of people divide the world into simple categories,  and apparently very often in a very polarizing way even, with only two black and white categories, which gives us very warped worldview.

The English example dichotomy between “liberal” and “conservative” for example has little use for me, on the contrary. Firstly because they are often used as a false dilemma: there are many more options than these two (especially when used in the way some people use them),  it just crams everything in two black boxes, which is a bit as watching the big colorful reality on a small black’n white  TV: it’s dangerously reductionist … In itself there is a very diverse and complexe spectrum that falls into multiple dimensions … A worldview that tightly to one of these two sides will sit very definitely false ‘us-against-them “feeling without ever understanding the other while projecting a lot of naive prejudices out of the own ideology onto the other…

Moreover, those words given are no real opposites of each other, “liberal” refers to a school of thought that has its roots in modern thought, and ‘conservative’ is an appeal to a tradition that should be preserved. Ironically  in an American context (where I see those words used most btw.) the tradition to be defended is built on a kind of old-fashioned modernist liberalism, from the time of the founding fathers… The details of what is considered ‘conservative’ will vary enormously depending on the context and tradition: for a Flemish person like m ‘conservative ‘will be quite different from the ‘conservative’ of an American, or Japanese, or Inuit, or Piraha person…

‘Liberal’ is also not quite the same as ‘progressive’, which would be a more logical opposite of “conservative” that gets used as well. But that word is equally problematic, since  it is equally something that is positioned towards a given tradition, so depending on the specific context the meaning will also be completely different. Moreover, it is impossible for any person or group to ever be completely progressive or conservative. There are also things to be conserved and in which one is then  ‘conservative’,  and others that need to change in which one is progressive…

(Left right there are similar unhelpful terms anyway, but let’s not talk about  them here…)

But there is more, and it’s something that we as children of modernity will not notice because it is a way of thinking that surrounds us as the water surrounds a fish. The connotation for many people is that “progress” is something undeniably positive. This is a purely modern idea that people of other times and cultures do not have, and that I fully doubt and reject. One does not need the aforementioned Piraha to see this: for example, in the Middle Ages our culture held to the opposite idea, that the older thing would be better the newer thing. The word ‘primitive’ for example had in earlier times no pejorative meaning (rather the opposite, the primitive church was considered cleaner than the later church for example), in Beowulf we find the idea that an ancient sword would probably be better than a new for example.*

(Maybe there are people on the conservative side that see ‘back then’ as the ideal as the medievals would. Of course that is just as counterproductive and pointless as well)

But we should not give this kind of meaning to progress on the time axis. Advancing in time simply means change and evolution, and that is neutral in itself. Or better, that change can be positive or negative, or neutral. The use of the word ‘progress’ for ‘it becomes better’ might therefore be just a problematic illusion of the Spirit of our age. It reminds me of the modernistic naive optimism of the Enlightenment.**

So let’s stop this polarization, please between ‘conservative’ and either of the 2 other sides please. We make it very difficult for us to really leave behind the things that we have to leave behind on one hand and go forward to something better while going back to the right path were we went wrong on the other hand if we keep in mind two opposite irreconcilable sides.

Now, for a thought experiment to illustrate what I mean, looking at myself to see whether the words do apply to me will every time give both a yes and a no. I’m influenced by modernism Westerner, so I will definitely have some liberal ideas. distinctly theological liberalism is not anything that works for me, but I’ll probably have, like all modern believers and even the very conservative, influences of liberalism-positive or negative-that I can not see myself because of the fact that I live in modernism as a fish in the water… Conservative as in the way of adhering to a tradition I want to preserve  I am, but in a broad sense, with  the great Christian tradition, in mind  but not a specific tradition. Progressive I am too, in the sense that certain things have to change, but that is precisely where I find the terms completely pointless: protection of the environment-and all of creation for example is something I find important, and if there would be any logic in the world this would be a “conservative” idea, but no, it seems to be progressive … (And that while I’ve largely learned the importance of the protection of our planet from my Catholic  teachers in elementary and middle school …) So, none of these words works in describing me or in describing anything that is not me either…



* C.S. Lewis’ essay and inauguration speach as a professor in medieval and renaissance litterature  ‘de Descriptione Temporum’ is very interesting here. It can be read here.

** This modern idea of ​​progress, which we associate with modern enlightened humanist thought, ironically  has  its theological roots in Judeo-Christian eschatological thought of a very strong teleological nature… It only got stripped of it’s religious roots somewhere along the way  (between Hegel and Marx?) . But that does not mean that this way of thinking can be seen as something else than than teleological (working towards a goal or Telos).

4 responses to “The unhelpfulness of words like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’.

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