Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Social Conservatism and Feminism

James Wolcott called himself a social conservative in a recent post*. Reading this made my stomach turn over as I am an admirer of his writings. In one tiny sentence he sentenced me to the dark side. That is how I interpret "social conservatism": that people like me do not matter very much in the important political battles, that my issues are fringe issues, that my rights are optional. Wolcott doesn't care for me.

Of course that is not what Wolcott really said but that is what I read on the screen. The reason is the fuzzy meaning of "social conservatism". It is one of those terms where the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. One never knows what a speaker means by "social conservatism" or by its brother term "cultural conservatism". But to many on the left these kinds of conservatisms are somehow less important or more trivial to fight than other weighty issues, such as political conservatism or economic conservatism. The social and cultural issues can be condensed to a few soundbites: abortion and same-sex marriage, and these are negotiable issues to many liberals and progressive. Especially to some heterosexual men, even to some heterosexual men who blog.

I don't necessarily blame them in taking this attitude. Abortion rights and the right of gays and lesbians to marry may not have much to do with their own lives, and if they are not good at empathy these may indeed seem like peripheral questions of little importance. But then a white person may find it difficult to imagine what it is like to wake up a minority every single morning and to receive those little mosquito bites of racism day after day after day. Racism might look like something that could be fixed after more important issues are settled. When we have time for it. Right before we tackle sexism.

This would be social conservatism, too. Many on the left are social conservatives in the sense of believing that existing social mores and traditions are nonpolitical matters, not worthy of spending time and resources on when there is so much of real importance in politics. It is not an accident that the existing social mores and traditions favor the individuals who think that way. What's not to like in such mores?

This long pre-amble is to explain why I went and Googled for definitions of social and cultural conservatism. I wanted to understand why many liberals and progressives can so lightly dismiss anything labeled as social or cultural as unimportant.

What I found is enlightening and confusing. The official definitions of social conservatism give us great detail but this detail is ultimately empty. Consider these definitions:

Social conservatism is a belief in traditional morality and social mores and the desire to preserve these in present day society, often through civil law or regulation. Social change is generally regarded as suspect, while social values based on tradition are generally regarded as tried, tested and true. It is a view commonly associated with conservative religious groups, militarism and nationalism.

Social conservatives emphasize traditional views of social units such as the family, church, or locale. Social conservatives are a product of their environment, and would typically define family in terms of local histories and tastes. To the Muslim or fundamentalist Mormon, social conservatism may entail support for polygamy. To the Protestant or Catholic, social conservatism may entail support for "traditional" marriage.

Social conservatism means a serious fidelity to those beliefs and traditions which keep us civilized and decent without resort to laws, regulations and bureaucrats.

Note the argument that social conservatives want to have laws which reinforce their beliefs and the argument that they don't have to resort to them. Note that social conservatism is whatever is regarded as traditional in a locality. Thus, bin Laden is a social conservative and so is Jerry Falwell. But this also makes the definition empty of practical meaning. What would be traditional in the United States is not traditional in Iran, and even within, say, the United States what is defined as "traditional" seems to vary by the speaker or writer. If the second wave of feminism took place thirty years ago, isn't the idea of gender equality traditional by now? And why does bin Laden have to dig back a thousand years to get at something he regards as traditional? More generally, a cursory study of history shows all sorts of egalitarian values to have existed at various places and at various times. Why are these not traditional? Why is the right to an abortion not part of social conservatism, given that it was only in the last two hundred years the church turned against the idea of early abortions being acceptable?

In short, social conservatism is not really conservative. It can be quite radical as the bin Laden example demonstrated. What it always seems to be is hierarchical. The view of the family social conservatives embrace has a father as its boss. The religious organizations are seen as determining how the masses live. The government is worshipped as an authoritarian power. And all these hierarchies use some sort of fixed identifiers: sex, race, age, for deciding who will be on top of the pile and who will support the whole pyramid.

Here is the link to feminism. Social conservative pyramids require that women have pre-ordained roles centered around fertility and the service of the home. Anything less is seen as causing chaos, and chaos is what social conservatives fear (unless it's caused by their own radical moves to return the world to some utopian era). Women can't have equal participation in politics and in the public sphere in general because who would then take care of the children? Someone else would have to pick up the slack and as these tasks are arranged at the bottom of the power pyramid this someone else would suffer a drop in power and social esteem.

I believe that social issues are central in politics. If you still doubt me, consider how you would have defined a social conservative in the year of 1850 in America. Surely, this definition would include the support of slavery at that time. And the support of a hierarchical view of the society in general.

The hierarchies of power are not based on gender and race alone, of course. There is also class, the word which must not be uttered in this country. A real social conservative accepts gender, race and class as the determinants of a person's life opportunities. Given this, no social conservative can be a feminist and I doubt that he or she can be a progressive, either. I hope that Wolcott reconsiders his self-definition. Either that or I will delink him**.
*As several commenters noticed, Wolcott was using satire in his post. It's possible that the satire extended to his calling himself a social conservative, but I didn't read it that way. If I'm wrong about that my sincere apologies to Mr. Wolcott.
**This part is my satire.