This essay was written a few years ago and certainly shows its age in some
respects, though it seems all too timely still in others (at least IMHO)…
Conservatism is an often used term. We can talk about conservative politics as adhering to a fairly strict set of norms, often roughly derived from Christian beliefs. We can talk about conservatism as conforming to the status quo of a society’s mores or power structures. We can talk about environmental conservation. We can talk about conservative economic policy. A person of conservative attitudes might be someone who ‘strictly’ follows a given code or body of religious ethics, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Communist, etc.
It seems the term conservative can be applied to a lot of different things, and I think that this can sometimes obscure important social, political and spiritual issues. The purpose of this essay is to untangle some of the uses of the term and offer a redefinition.
Part of the problem is that different senses of the word are sometimes used as though they meant the same thing. A prime example can be found in the politics of mainstream conservative governments such as the Howard Liberal Government in Australia.
Howard’s Government maintains that it is conservative in a few senses. It says that it believes in ‘traditional family values’ – which seems to mean it believes in the unbroken nuclear family with bread-winning husband, householding wife and dutiful children. It appears to believe in Christianity as the conservative person’s religion of choice (at least insofar as Australia is rooted in Western society). It perceives its conservative mandate to include the view that ‘White Australia’ must be conserved against immigration and refugees. It has little interest in citizens whose relationships are not based on Christian notions of exclusive marriage and definitely isn’t interested in non-heterosexual relationships. It appears to believe its conservative mandate requires strong law enforcement powers, and the prioritisation of corporate interests over broader social concerns and the environment.
Certainly in some sense these attitudes seem aimed at conserving a notion of 1950’s, Menzies era Australia, when Red paranoia, moralism, rigid gender roles, and the White Australia Policy ruled. But does it actually conserve these values (I take it that my reader would agree that at least some of the Menzies era values were pretty flawed)? I think that in some respects Howard misuses the notion of conservatism, specifically in the context of the economy, the environment, and in the area of the family.
Howard’s socio-economic policy has been to deregulate industry, dissolve trade protection laws, and bolster the voice of corporate interests. The general effect has been to relax restraint on the business world. This has seen the country’s social fabric suffer. So for example we now find that the telecommunications industry remains just as inefficient, but now also suffers destructive corruption (c.f. the One.Tel collapse), and ever-rising prices (despite the promise that deregulation would cause a price drop). Traditionally centralised services have been cut loose, as protection for the rights of employees are systematically assaulted.
In short, this kind of socio-economic policy is anything but conservative. Rather than reflecting an attitude of restraint and continuity, it relies on the dubious notion of self-regulation and on apparently uncontrollable market forces. It may seems slightly contradictory, but a somewhat Socialist-influenced economic policy might actually be a lot more stable and conservative (not to mention less destructive to a social fabric assaulted by ever more rampant consumerism and self-serving corporate interests).
The Howard Government’s policy on the environment is that it can get stuffed. It has generally refused to even keep the issue of the environment on the political agenda, let alone take or support steps to conserve the environment. Australia and the US are the only nations who have refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Reduction of Greenhouse Emissions.
Conservatism, however, means prudence. It seems prudent, regardless of the debate for and against, that
we make very significant steps to reduce our impact on the natural environment. This may mean a short-term restriction on industry, but industry is very adaptable, especially in this non-conservative economic climate. So the notion of environmental conservation, which seems to fall into a really genuine sense of conservatism as prudence and caution, has little support from Australia’s current, ‘conservative’ government.
Howard’s perspective on marriage, homosexuality and Christianity has been referenced to the conservative writer Edmund Burke. He simply believes that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Unfortunately, the social fabric in this country simply has changed. Christianity is a waning force; marriage is viewed with much more perspective, caution and even disregard; and folk are becoming more confident of expressing their sexuality rather than hiding away in shame and suffering. Not only that, but one could argue that the Menzies era never was that great anyway: it was built on an endless yet largely manufactured fear about faceless hordes from communist Asia; on the subjugation of women; on genocide against Indigenous Australians; on the punishment of any variation from a one-dimensional notion of the good.
Here is the crux of the problem: a lot of folks want to vote conservative in the spirit of prudence and caution. Yet this weds them to the irresponsible socio-economic and environmental policies of leaders such as Howard. It also weds them to the often hysterical and flighty paranoia which under Menzies’ reign was named ‘conservative’. Surely a genuine conservatism would not be so lacking in confidence, prudence, and caution in forming judgements.
The notion of conservatism peddled to voters in Australia and other countries (especially the US) is not really very conservative at all. It lacks a sense of solid grounding; it constantly needs to reiterate and insist on a single, abstract dimension of national identity. Conservatism seems to mean having a strong sense of stability. But as Nietzsche so adroitly pointed out, a culture which cannot tolerate any variation from the ‘norm’ must be very weak. It takes a very strong culture to permit variation and difference in opinion. If conservatism means taking the time to strengthen ourselves, surely that would mean encouraging a self-confident society that can span many different perspectives! Instead, Howard is committed to a very brittle backwardness – as exposed in the lack of much or perhaps even any return for our military and political subservience to the US.
As an aside, Nietzsche’s dictum reveals why dictatorships, though built on a notion of strength, can prove to be quite fragile: the tyrant is only one person, and even with modern mass communication, they can only exert so much uniformity. In their passing, all that has slept underground will quickly reassert itself. We are seeing this in a destructive aspect now with post-Saddam Iraq. A similar process can be seen in the radical upsurge of Christian and Islamic extremism in the former Soviet Union.
So if folk are seeking in the notion of conservatism a sense of prudence, stability, roots, and strength, then they’ve been hoodwinked by the notions of conservatism presented to them by ‘conservative’ interests and political parties. Another example? Hitler was a highly radical leader – his actions brought destruction and suffering, and were driven by a lack of confidence, roots, security, sense of self. Yet he appealed to successfully, and was supported by, those seeking the conservative promise of stability and prudence.
It seems that we have established that the word conservative has been used to refer to any number of different agendas. If this is granted, I would go further to suggest that some very radical (and imprudent, and hysterical, and unethical) acts have been given a conservative pretext by the current crop of political leaders.
So having considered the present situation, I would like to suggest some dimensions of what a ‘real’ conservatism would look like. In the process, I hope to reclaim the word for better purposes than those to which it has been set.
Conservatism as prudent foresight
We associate being conservative with being cautious or prudent. To be prudent is to seek many perspectives on a situation before making a decision on how to act. It is to reflect on the extent to which each perspective is true to itself. The more self-contradictory a perspective is, the less we can trust it.
By foresight I do not mean magical divination, but rather our ability to project towards possible futures. We may not be able to anticipate exactly how things will be, but we are able to imagine roughly how things could turn out.
My suggestion is that conservatism entails an attitude of prudent foresight. This means that we live with a certain wariness about the status quo – we recognise that things can change, or that things once thought positive can become negative over time.
Pseudo-conservatives would generally suggest that things should be kept the way they are, or even taken ‘back’ to some more or less mythical golden age of the past. However, our genuine sense of conservatism – as prudent foresight – would require that we be open to modifying our ways and values in order to adapt to the challenges of change. This does not mean that we are compelled to abandon the essence of our worldview or social structure – far from it! But it does mean that, for example, a person of conservative views would take the arguments of conservationists and environmentalists very seriously. Why? Prudent foresight, warily conducted, suggests that the consequences of ignoring the current environmental problems far outweigh the short-term difficulty caused by changing our current, polluting ways. Even if it turns out that things are not as dire as they seem (which I believe is an infinitesimal possibility), the green option is still more prudent. If we bury our heads in the sand and call that ‘conservative’, then we are being neither prudent nor realistic.
Some pseudo-conservatives claim that the jury is still out on issues such as global warming. They appear to be engaging in prudence by not jumping at what they think might be a false alarm.
Unfortunately, the scientists who say there aren’t major problems are funded by those bodies that perceive short term benefit in the status quo – petro-chemical corporations in particular. Meanwhile, it has become ever clearer that the earth’s forests are being decimated at increasing rates; that the seas are rising fast; that pollution levels are rocketing; that weather patterns are becoming more unstable. It seems absurd to suggest that our actions have not been at least a major contributor to these changes in the world’s environmental state. I understand that insurance companies are becoming highly vocal advocates for making our way of life more sustainable – they know that they are the ones who will be forced to pay out as global warming destabilises world weather patterns more and more.
So, no – it is not prudent to ignore the environmentalist call at this stage in the game. There is simply too much evidence indicating the seriousness of the situation. Surely it is conservative to change human industry and activity in order to protect our very survival! For those with any doubts as to this situation I would recommend Tim Flannery’s remarkable book, The Weather Makers.
To take a different angle, consider the current prison system in countries such as Australia or the US. Pseudo-conservative politicians habitually call for tougher sentences, meaner prisons, and less empathy for those that commit crimes. They dismiss any consideration of social context; they are not interested in the vicious socioeconomic cycles which sow the seeds for crime and most criminal behaviour.
The result is that prison recidivism rates immensely high in some Western countries – as many as four out of five people see out their prison terms and then commit more crimes (for which they are caught). This suggests that prison don’t actually reduce crime.
The conservatively prudent, far-sighted response would be to ask about the broader social patterns which produce crime, to ask why prisons fail so miserably to reform their inmates. If something isn’t working, it seems wise to ask why. Piling on more and harsher treatment of criminals doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.
These examples provide a fairly clear explanation of what I mean by prudent foresight. If we agree that prudent foresight is an aspect of conservatism, then we will also agree that what often passes itself off as conservatism is something else entirely.
Conservatism as sheltering mystery
For this section of the essay I must acknowledge the profound influence of Martin Heidegger’s later writings.
For most readers, the title of this section will seem a little odd. What could I mean by “sheltering mystery”? I will provide an example of this kind of conservatism at play.
My example is a practice performed by the ancient Greeks. They had a holiday each year where offerings would be made to placate all the divine beings that were as yet unknown to the Greeks, but which might be out there, somewhere. These beings might be from other cultures, or they might still be awaiting ‘discovery’. Rather than insist that they had the final word on the limits of the divine world, the Greeks were willing to actively face the uncertainty of their knowledge, the uncertainty of their experience of the world, and affirm it.
This ancient Greek practice reveals a deep respect for mystery, for the limits of human understanding. By declining the temptation of claiming knowledge over all things, the Greeks allowed themselves the possibility of being surprised by life. To shelter mystery is to allow space for it in one’s life, in one’s culture. It is to acknowledge the limitations and provisional character of one’s relationship to the world. Insofar as the horizon of all our experiences is the unknown, sheltering mystery means holding our place in the world in high respect. It means that we attempt to understand things on their own terms. It means that we do not attempt to force all experiences into one way of understanding life.
This is not to say that sheltering mystery requires a commitment to relativism. However, it does require that we take different ways of talking, seeing, and experiencing the world seriously. Who knows, perhaps by remaining open to mystery we might find ourselves drawn to new or different ways of experiencing the world ourselves?
Heidegger argues that no amount of measurement, analysis, dissection, or counting can capture the essential character of something – in this case, let us take the example of a flower. I can weigh it, break it down into component molecules, talk about its role in the reproduction of plant life, dissect it for scientific diagrams, or write a manual on the best way to grow it. And yet the essence of the flower cannot be captured through any of these methods. Indeed, Heidegger argued that the more you analyse, the more the thing’s essence slips away from view. This is the mystery of the flower’s essence.
Now suppose my wife gives me a flower. Here the mystery of the flower’s essence steps forth. Suppose I view a brilliantly evocative painting of a flower. Here again, the character of the flower stands revealed. These kinds of revelations are not total, absolute, or quantitative. They are always partial, incomplete. They always ride on the horizon of mystery.
Sheltering that mystery is the finite ‘thingly’ character of the artist’s canvas and paint. Sheltering that mystery is the look in my wife’s eye as she offers me the flower. These ways of experiencing the flower do not have the reassuring absoluteness of exacting measurements or chemical analysis; indeed, they are explicitly wedded to all that we don’t know about the flower. And yet these ways of experiencing the flower always precede any possible analysis or scientific understanding. Without these ways of experiencing, we would not be able to hold in our imagination something we call a flower, to which we might bring the weight of sophisticated interpretation and analysis.
So if this what I mean by sheltering mystery, how might it be conservative? I regard this attitude towards the world as conservative on two counts. Firstly, it always carries with it a sense of the mysterious horizon of our lived experience – a very prudent perspective to hold. Secondly, to shelter mystery is to conserve it, to protect it from being lost in the temptation to sacrifice everything to rational empiricism (which so easily becomes irrational technocracy). Implicit in the attitude of sheltering mystery is the decision to decline rigid adherence to any one way of interpreting one’s experience. “Back to the things themselves”, as Husserl famously remarked, is our watchword here.
Once we adopt this aspect of conservatism into our life, we are likely to acquire a healthy disrespect for the manipulative ‘spin’ with which many authority figures use to sanitise and neaten their rigid attitudes and simple-minded power plays. The call to offer shelter to mystery is an invitation to ask “has this logic been used in a meaningful way?”, rather than “is this logic valid?” It requires that we remain open to the presence, the character, the being of everything we encounter. It tends towards an experience of the world which, if articulated intellectually, might be called animism.
It is no accident that I used an example of ancient Greek religious practice. While religion tends to be more about human institutions than it is about divinity, it in turns gains its life from spirituality. Spirituality, the task of remaining open to (sheltering) the mystery in things, is a crucial aspect of my reclaimed conservatism. Whether we choose to equate the mysterious with the divine or not, myth can be a powerful vehicle for shaking loose our complacency and reintegrating us into an inherently mysterious universe. Mythologies that invite psychological, socio-historical, and magical interpretations are particularly suited to this purpose. Some examples would be the pre-Christian Germanic/Norse traditions; Buddhism; Sufism; or Indigenous Australian traditions.
I suspect that the pseudo-conservative insistence on dogmatic religious devotion (be it Christian, Muslim, or something else) may contain a sliver of forgotten concern for the need to shelter the mystery of things. By comparison, the primary ritual of Sufism is called the Zikr and is literally an ‘Act of Remembrance’ of the divinity of all things. It is not necessary to take myth literally in order for it to help us remember ourselves and our world; all that is needed is a willingness to offer shelter to mystery.
It is no accident that above I talked about this aspect of conservatism as being ‘at play’. Playfulness is often equated with folly. And yet, nothing sends a problem out of control like overbearing, grumpy seriousness. Nothing closes down possibilities or understanding like telling ourselves that ‘this is serious business’. Nietzsche called this attitude the ‘spirit of gravity’, and could not bear its stodginess. His antidote, ‘Gay Science’, is an attitude that is serious AND playful, hardworking AND imaginative. Would it not be exceedingly imprudent to close ourselves off to new possibilities for solving challenges and experiencing our lives? If we are serious about participating in the sheltering of mystery we will regard the ‘spirit of gravity’ as an unfortunate and rather bad habit – and little more.
Conservatism as empathic action
Pseudo-conservatives often express little empathy or concern for the wellbeing of those handed the short end of the socio-economic stick at birth. ‘You get what you deserve’ seems to be their attitude to life. This is not to say that to a greater or lesser extent each of us is not responsible for our own actions. But life is not a blank slate onto which we are free to impose our unfettered desires. All kinds of social, biological, familial, economic, religious, and other limits shape and define what an individual may choose to become.
Thus, the ‘just desserts’ attitude betrays a kind of egomania, a taking credit for achievements which the individual had massive help for by way of their family wealth, social standing, etc. According to social psychologists, people tend to claim credit for the positive things in their lives while blaming others for the bad things in their lives. One never hears a poor person agree with a rich person that one’s wealth is a reflection of one’s virtue.
If we can imagine stepping past these kinds of mind games we are free to seriously ask – where does being truly conservative position us with regard to compassion, empathy, and community?
While I accord postmodernism full marks for refusing to impose one way of seeing things onto a wide range of cultures, I nevertheless think there are some universal aspects of human experience. It may seem obvious, but food plays a pretty big role in every human being’s life. Similarly, I doubt that anyone can truly thrive without sharing some kind of love with other people. I don’t mean to trivialise the great differences that can exist between two cultures or even between two individuals from the same culture. But I do assert that empathy is possible across any boundary – given sufficient time and effort of course.
Empathy is when I experience your life from your perspective. Empathy is when I both understand and feel where you are coming from. In an age of clashing extremisms (e.g. US capitalism versus Extremist Islam), there seems little room for empathy. Since both of the camps in my above example are radicals who think themselves to be conservative, it would appear that empathy has no or little place in pseudo-conservatism.
And conservatism as I have tried to outline it? Would it be prudent, a sign of wit and wisdom, to attempt to understand the challenges and celebrations of other peoples’ lives? Would be it common sense to try and appreciate the manner in which different individuals, communities, cultures, nations, are separate and the manner in which they are related? If our foresight invited us to strengthen the webs of our social fabric, would that insulate us against future, unexpected dangers? The New Orleans disaster is a testament to how dreadful the consequences of not acting on this foresight can be – plenty of resources had been allocated to reinforcing the canal banks that flooded and destroyed the city, but a complacent attitude led to this money being rerouted to military and political purposes instead.
Empathy, be it towards our best friend or towards someone we never have and never will meet, seems to be part and parcel of prudent, sensible conservatism. And yet its justifications are not just utilitarian. If we are committed to the sheltering of mystery we recognise the ethical, spiritual, and psychological importance of being open to the ways that things speak for themselves. Empathy, understood as an attempt on my part to appreciate your experience as though it were my own, is not a mercenary activity.
If we are to be empathetic, how will that guide our actions? Presumably the most important lesson of empathy is that we should not assume that everyone else thinks the way that we do, or that everyone else has the same values as we do. If we want to understand why someone does something, we are free to ask them. Their reasons may or may not hold water in the grander scheme of things, but we at least owe them the right to be heard and related to.
Secondly, empathy implies a commitment to ethics, to personal honour. If I can appreciate your experience of the world and then do something to harm you then I have also harmed myself. Just as I expect to be treated, so must I treat. A good lesson to learn for the arrogant business executive and his or her harried administration underlings! Would I want another country to offer me refuge from political persecution? I’ve no right to expect such treatment if I will not offer it to others as well. Do I expect others to speak the truth and act according to their word? Then I had better be able to respond in kind. In the current climate, it would seem that almost no Australian politician is truly conservative, if we judge them by the standard of personal honour outlined here.
Finally, empathy impels us to offer support to those suffering more than we ourselves are. It impels us to seek to strengthen and deepen social bonds, to offer resources, our time, our imagination, and absolutely not just grudgingly dole out our cash. It requires us to own up to our own ‘spin’, the excuses we make to ourselves for living in ways harmful to ourselves and others. It requires us to take responsibility for ourselves and for others. To act in this manner conserves and promotes the health and happiness of individuals, communities, and cultures. There is nothing conservative in concocting dubious justifications for absurd and inexcusable xenophobia. Our rejection of others is also a rejection of ourselves, a rejection of the parts of ourselves we would like to imagine are ‘really’ the sole province of someone else. To wound another is to wound ourselves.
Pseudo-conservatives often talk about family or community values, and yet generally seem to have very little empathy or compassion for themselves or anyone else. How on earth can community be deepened without empathy?
Does empathy stop with humans? Should we extend as much regard as offered to humans to animals, plants, even inanimate objects? Am I a hypocrite to advocate humanism, spend much money and time working in the environment conservation movement, and then still eat meat? Here I find challenges to my own sense of self, which I cannot easily resolve. I can only conclude this section by inviting my reader to undertake the same challenge.
Conservatism as regenerating roots
Regenerating roots means a few things, but in essence it refers to the view that postmodern humanity is alienated from him/herself, from other living things, and from the world in general – and that we need to put a lot of energy into changing this!
If we are to conserve ourselves and the world we live in we must first have whole relationships with urselves and the world. If I am split within myself, if I experience other people or the world around me as alien or fractured, how can I possibly even have anything worth conserving?
History, it must be said, has burdened us with many contradictions. In Australia we celebrate the festival of Easter in Autumn. Easter is generally regarded as holy because Jesus Christ died and was resurrected at this time. And yet a little research tells us that the Easter festival in Germanic Europe well predated the coming of Christianity. It was a celebration of spring and rebirth. The word Easter is literally the modern version of the name of the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre, whose continental German equivalent was Ostara. Easter, good old Christian Easter, has never stopped being a heathen occasion.
There are so many contradictions in the history of our modern Australian Easter festival. Can a spring celebration make sense when transplanted to southern hemisphere autumn? Does the Christian overlay implicitly keep and set to work heathen motifs? How can we make sense of the too and fro of Germanic and Roman cultures that have left us with this bizarre cross-breed? And how can any of this make sense in post-colonial Australia – a place that Europeans came, partly in the name of Jesus, in order to destroy the Indigenous Australians, whose traditional ways of experiencing life have much more in common with pre-Christian Germanic spirituality than with the Christianity that the Germanic peoples have by and large adopted?
Given the blood and suffering that the fractured history of even one annual festival reveals, it seems clear that we need to make some effort to understand where we have come from. It is tempting to idealise the history of one’s ancestors, to gloss over the bad and deify the good. In some cases someone else’s more exciting or exotic history is co-opted as one’s own – Germanic Europe did this with Roman Catholic culture, throwing in Greek, Arabic, and now perhaps even New Age elements as it suited.
Australian pseudo-conservatives can harp on about the mateship of the ANZAC days – yet this is only one narrative in our country’s rich history. What of the conscientious objectors? The women who kept society running? The children who lost parents? The soldiers who returned broken alcoholics, perhaps making their loved ones’ lives miserable? What of the immigrants whose ancestors fought against the ANZACS, or did not fight at all? What of the slavish obedience to mother Britain that led Australian soldiers into the Great War? The tapestry of our history is profoundly rich and is written in suffering as well as joy. There is no caution, no prudence, no reserve, no good taste in choosing to idealise one thread in the weave and ignore the rest.
Since my own spirituality is so deeply wedded to Germanic archetypes, divinities, spirits, etc., I feel deep sadness at the confused, simplistic, polyglot chaos of our historical sense. Thanks to the colonial enterprise, Christianised Europe has managed to introduce this kind of spiritual and cultural fragmentation to many other parts of the globe – along with, of course, exploitation and alcohol.
The regeneration of roots therefore has three major aspects. The first is for each of us to turn a genuinely curious and critical eye to our implied history, to engage and challenge the easy myths we permit to comfort us, and to ponder the ways in which we bear the mark of each layer and aspect of our heritage. Personally I found that one of my oldest spiritual and historical influences, Germanic heathen beliefs, held the most relevance for my life and character. Perhaps others of Germanic heritage will not have this experience, and that is fine. The same goes for all possible heritages and ancestries.
The second aspect of regenerating our roots is to take seriously the harm that both we and our ancestors do or have done to others, and where appropriate to make reparations. No person and no culture can move forward with their victims or themselves until the debt of blood on their conscience is cleared.
The third aspect of regenerating our roots is to imagine new layers that might be added to our histories. Forging new ways of being spiritual, of being creative, of having community, family, or love. It is likely that this task will be informed by what has come before, or perhaps from cultural influences not directly contained in our heritage. This is the heart of what I mean by regenerating our roots – remaking for the first time our relationships to time, culture, love, the natural world, ourselves. There are so many tools available to us in this challenge to conserve our heritage by reinvigorating it as living tradition. They include reading, writing, meditation, art and performance, psychotherapy, community service, even raising a family.
Ultimately the way we will best be able to conserve ourselves and our world is to constantly reweave the past into new and beautiful patterns of existence that recall their origins and invoke the future. Seen in this sense the term ‘conservative’ may seem a far cry from the pseudo-conservatism so often peddled in recent times, be the peddler John Howard, George Bush, or Osama Bin-Laden. So be it.
Disentangling conservatism and egotism
What is the greatest foe of conservatism as I define it? Egotism.
Egotism is my commitment to myself, to my rightness, to my indubitably, to my unquestionable goodness. It is rigid, brutal to anything or anyone who deviates from its values, and it is highly hypocritical. It is defensive, paranoid, and stupid.
No human being is free of the danger of egotism (I am no exception). Whether we flee to a rigid self concept in the face of death, anxiety, or deep-seated feelings of inferiority, the end result is the same. For some, egotism becomes a cage, a trap within which the person rots. For others it becomes a battering ram, a brittle war machine which shreds all before it until eventually it shatters on the rocks of mortality.
Pseudo-conservatism is used as a vehicle by both of these approaches to life. It enables a person to justify the unjustifiable. It allows irresponsible individuals and groups to shirk the consequences of their actions (at least in the short term). Ultimately, pseudo-conservatism is just the attitude that “I am right and you are wrong unless you absolutely agree with me”. In other words, it is a punitive and ugly manifestation of egotism, which in turn is probably the most wretched and botched element of human nature. Of course, I have more faith in my own opinions than I do in the opinions of those who disagree with me. However I need to be able to transcend my own ego enough to engage with difference. If someone cannot do this then they’ve just failed one of life’s central challenges.
Both egotism and pseudo-conservatism invite us to become lax in our selves, to become hypocrites, to hand responsibility for our lives over to passive fear or desperate rage. Any ideology which de-emphasises the power of human agency for both good and ill lends itself to profound abuse by those without scruples, those driven by ego madness.
One final point that requires emphasis is the interwoven relationship of spirituality and politics. It seems quite common for a person to have done a lot of deep personal, psychotherapeutic, and spiritual growth and change, and yet never have challenged their blinkered political perspectives. The reverse is also true: a person can have a deep appreciation of politics and ethics, yet have great difficultly developing within their own self. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my opinions, but I am always surprised at the ways in which someone can be so committed to growth and insight in one part of their life and yet be unconscious of difficulties they carry in another part of their life. Perhaps this essay demonstrates why I find spiritual, ethical and political concerns to be inseparable.