As anyone who’s spent any time at all on this website could tell you, I am not a politically conservative person. I care about issues as broad as the environment, political accountability, gay rights, and even dry stuff like the pitfalls of capitalism. I’m what most people would generally describe as a ‘lefty’, though as I’ve argued before, that label covers so many (often completely contradictory) ideas that it’s pretty much meaningless at this point. But one thing that I am not is a conservative – I believe in change; progress towards better, smarter, more just ways of doing things both as individuals and a society, abandoning outdated ideas to history.
Conservatives on the other hand generally take the opposite approach: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The old ideas got us where we are today sunshine, and you’ve got them to thank for all the luxuries and freedoms you enjoy! Who are you to go undermining the institutions that hold up society and trying to force your bright ideas on everyone, all on the completely unproven hope that they might be slightly better? No, best we stick to what we know works rather than go meddling with the very fabric of society, thank-you-oh-so-very-much.
Depending on where your own political opinions lay, one of these perspectives is likely sounding very sensible and the other very annoying round about now. And in case the title of this article didn’t give it away, it’s also quite likely that the camp you choose has a lot to do with your age – there’s a reason there are so many jokes about it;
You know, the sort of joke smug wankers like to make after four bottles of sherry.
This is hardly surprising when you think about it; young adults, fresh out of the aimless rebellion of adolescence, see the problems in the world and come to the obvious conclusion that our current ways of doing things aren’t working. On the other hand, older people who have spent the majority of their lives either setting up or participating in those systems, are understandably attached to them and aren’t all that open to mouthy little shits complaining they aren’t good enough. Both sides react more to the perceived attack to their pride than the actual facts and we end up with stupid jokes like Mr Churchill’s up there that contribute absolutely nothing to the debate.
Personally, I think the entire debate is pretty simple: if things can be improved then they should be. Old/current ideas may indeed have been great improvements when they were new, but if we can find a better way then of course we should use that instead – anything else would be deliberately choosing a worse option simply because we are familiar with it.
Listen here you little…
But before we young/progressive folk go getting all pleased with ourselves (and I get swamped with hate snail-mail from my elders and betters), it’s not as simple as all that – it turns out that those curmudgeonly conservatives are critical to the success of any and all progressive efforts. In fact I would even go so far as saying that they are the only thing preventing us bright-eyed lefties from making an absolute fustercluck of everything.
Ok so bear with me here. Remember last week, during my (fairly malicious) destruction of opponents of gay marriage, I mentioned that the burden of proof for an idea should always rest with those proposing the idea, rather than those opposing it? This rule is based on the simple point that expecting people to prove that something is untrue is both very unfair when we are proposing an idea, and also nearly impossible even when the idea is ridiculous. I mean, it may indeed be possible and even plausible that the world’s governments are secretly run by space lizards, if we were to place the burden of proof on critics of that idea rather than its nutty supporters then suddenly anything is possible – because how the hell do you disprove an idea like that? Even if you abducted, killed and autopsied every world leader and found nothing, all the space-lizard-conspiracy lobby would say is that “they were all decoys!” and you’d be back at square one.
Some of our world leaders aren’t helping the situation, mind you.
Well this sort of scepticism of new ideas is exactly why we really REALLY need conservatives around: they provide a critical filter for new ideas us progressives like to come up with, making us sit back and defend those ideas before we are allowed to get up and just run with them. Now you may object to this; after all this sort of caustic, cynical trial-by-fire is poison to creativity and innovation, and puts conservatives in a nice comfy position of power, sniping down at the people doing the actual intellectual leg-work. But these objections tend to overlook the fact that, regardless of how flawed it may be, the current way we do things has one major advantage: it’s working. That’s not to say it’s working fairly or even working well, but it is indeed functioning – which is a sight more than you can say for some of the bright ideas people come up with on daily basis at high schools, universities and cafes around the country.
But hang on, that’s not fair! My ideas aren’t half-baked, undergraduate ideology that I regurgitate straight from an internet forum! My ideas are well thought out and founded on the highest quality reason and evidence! My ideas don’t need some review panel of cranky old bastards to pick them apart to make sure they’ll work – my ideas are the product of some of the finest minds of our generation and if anyone disagrees then they can get stuffed!
Yeah see, funny thing about that – literally everybody else feels the same way. Including the space-lizard-conspiracy lobby. And of course they do! After all, everyone believes in their ideas for a reason and that reason is generally that people think they are right. Sure they beliefs may seem insane to an outside observer, but so what? Their ideas are excellent and they don’t care what anyone else has to say about it!
“I AM THE PINNACLE OF RATIONALITY LA LA LA!!!”
At this point you might be wondering if I am seriously comparing ‘space lizards rule the world’ with mainstream, sensible progressive movements like gay marriage, and from a certain point of view, yeah I am. See just because an idea seems totally sensible to us (the people proposing it) doesn’t mean it’s true and absolutely DOES NOT excuse us from having to justify it to critics – in fact if we’re so confident that our idea is justified then we should in fact welcome criticism from conservatives as an opportunity to improve understanding of our case. Sure there are limits to this (the cases for gay marriage or climate change for example, have been made conclusively thousands of times) and there’s a fine line between criticising an idea and simply howling it down, but the fact remains that no idea, no matter how obviously excellent it may seem to us, is ever exempt from critique.
But surely this applies to everyone’s ideas, right? So why am I picking on progressives in this article and holding conservatives up as better? Because sadly, people who want to change the world have one major disadvantage that people who want it to stay the same usually don’t have to deal with – deciding which direction we should go in next. It’s all very well to say “things need to change!”, that’s a message most people can get behind. But it’s entirely another thing to decide what we should do instead, and as anyone who has ever attended a conference for any left-wing group can tell you, this apparently simple question is a recipe for total, unmitigated catastrophe.
One second the room is a united front against the evils of the current system, committed to the overthrow of outmoded thinking and achieving justice for all… then someone suggests what the new system should look like and BOOM. The Socialists turn on the Communists, who won’t even look at the Anarchists. Meanwhile the environmental faction is attacking all three of them for their willingness to exploit the earth for economic justice – only for them to fall to infighting when the Deep Green activists realise the Techno-environmentalists aren’t all that keen on returning to the trees. The Feminists try to unify the entire mess, only to be accused of bigotry by the Transgender community and racism by the Black Feminists. Meanwhile anyone who was just concerned about the issues and not aligned with these factions is beating a hasty retreat out the exit, followed closely by a Free Palestine splinter group which has decided to get down to business and chain themselves to the town hall bike rack, in protest of the lack of level crossings in Northcote.
The meeting breaks up in chaos and not a god damn thing is achieved.
Meanwhile the conservatives sit around a table and have a quiet disagreement over whether taxation is too high, or MUCH too high.
Remember that time we occupied a few thousand cities for a month and achieved absolutely nothing?
One big advantage that conservatives will always have over progressives is that they stand for something that already exists, and as such can be shown to work. But while progressives will generally agree that that system is flawed and needs to change, building consensus on where we should go instead is not only extremely difficult given everyone has their own pet plan, but also kinda risky since we are, by the nature of the thing, venturing into unknown territory. Sure, getting the money out of politics is a great idea, but how are we going to achieve that? Will the system we put in place actually achieve the goal we want? Will there be unexpected side effects that we didn’t anticipate and don’t know how to deal with? And when lobby groups can no longer influence politicians with donations, will they just give up? Or will they look for alternative ways of influencing politics, perhaps that we don’t detect? Or maybe they’ll start lobbying for a new system of their own devising, backed by all the money at their disposal? What if the new system we come up with is worse than the way things are now?
These are the sort of questions that backers of big, shiny new ideas rarely care to ask themselves for the simple reason that we believe in those new ideas. But conservatives? They’ll tear into that mess with gusto and while the process may we painful, ultimately the process of tearing up the idea, putting it back together, attacking and defending it will help us to iron out all those nasty flaws we didn’t notice the first time around. Does this delay progress? Does this allow injustices to last just that little bit longer, hurting people in the process? Yeah it does. But when we are talking about society-level changes we are talking about affecting the lives of everyone for generations to come – this is not something you want to cock up, even if the cost of getting it right is a the welfare of a few individuals.
So while I have no love for tradition, old ideas and backwards thinking, and while I will continue to campaign for change, for progress and improvement in all aspects of our lives, I will nonetheless maintain a respect and appreciation for conservatives. Not because I agree with them, but rather because they do something for me that I will never be able to truly do for myself – they will keep me accountable, and whether they realise it or not, in doing so will only make me stronger.