Social Conservatism is Suffering

We cannot make permanent what is inevitably impermanent, and insisting otherwise brings distress. Better to embrace dynamism and social diversity.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering isn’t. Pain results from raw facts about the world and our place in it. We’re embodied, and our bodies feel pain from injury and illness. But suffering comes from how we react to the world and what happens to us. 

Understanding suffering in this way—as something we inflict upon ourselves—and recognizing its causes points to an uncomfortable truth: Social conservatism, the belief that social dynamism should be slowed or stopped and that others should live in line with conservative lifestyle preferences, isn’t wisdom, but instead suffering.

If this is true, then the proper response, culturally and politically, to socially conservative demands isn’t to accommodate them by reining in dynamism, but rather to encourage social conservatives to give up social conservatism.

Social Versus Personal Conservatism

Before going too much further, it’s important to draw a clear distinction between “social conservatism” and what we might call “personal conservatism.” In fact, the general lack of seeing these as separate attitudes, not necessarily entailing each other, obfuscates important political issues and makes our thinking about social politics muddier than it needs to be.

To be a personal conservative is to choose to live your life according to fixed values or preferences. This could be mainly an aesthetic choice, and a low stakes one, such as, “I will only read print books, and never get a Kindle” or “The only good music was made before 1975.” Or it can be much deeper, such as living by the strict moral code of your religious faith. The nature and intensity of the conservatism in personal conservatism isn’t what distinguishes it from the social variety, but rather its boundaries. To be a personal conservative is to direct your conservatism inward, at your behaviors, beliefs, and values. It is to construct your life in such a way as to keep it in line with your preferences.

Social conservatism, on the other hand, is, as it says on the tin, a social project. It moves the borders outward to encompass society itself, and thus the other people within it, even if they don’t share the conservative’s values. The social conservative says, “It is not enough that I hold to my values and preferences. Everyone else must as well.” Or, in a softer form, “While others don’t necessarily need to internalize my values, it is wrong for them to live in ways conflicting with my values, or that make it harder for me to live a conservative life, or simply make me uncomfortable.”

A personal conservative can remain so even in a dynamic culture. He can hold to his views and tastes, and follow them, while the world around him changes and the people in it go about wildly diverse lives. A social conservative, in contrast, will always find such dynamism a problem to be fixed, because his expectation is that society at large will reflect his personal preferences. If it doesn’t, he will demand that people keep their non-conservative ways limited enough that he can comfortably ignore them.

Thus one can be a personal conservative without being a social conservative (“I’m going to live how I want, but I’m not going to expect you to live that way, too”). And one can be a social conservative without being a personal one (“I expect society to conform to conservative values, but behind closed doors, I’m going to get up to all kinds of non-conservative behaviors”). 

With that distinction clear, let’s move on to the nature of suffering.

What is Suffering?

“Suffering results from the distance between our desires and our situation, a failure of the world to fit our [plan],” writes the philosopher Jay Garfield. We suffer because of a disconnect between the way things are and the way we want them to be. “We want things we don’t have, and that is a source of suffering,” Garfield continues, and “we want to avoid things that nonetheless befall us, and that is a source of suffering.” 

The ancient Sanskrit term for suffering is “duhkha.” Joseph Goldstein explains that etymologically it “refers to the empty axle hole of a wheel. If the axle fits badly into the center hole, we get a very bumpy ride.” The central idea, then, is that we suffer because the idea we have of the world, or the idea we have of how the world ought to be, isn’t reflected in the world as it is. This creates a sense of discomfort or unease and we continually bump up against that difference, and so we suffer.

Of course, there often are features of the world we want to change, and are right in doing so. Injustices exist and if we have the opportunity to undo them, we should work to achieve that. People can be made better off, and our compassion for the pain and suffering of others directs us to help them to the extent we can. But it is important to recognize a difference between unease at injustice and unease at difference. The former calls out for action, the latter for relinquishment. A bright line doesn’t exist between the two, but if we put effort into introspection, examining the sources of our own suffering closely, while cultivating feelings of goodwill and sympathetic joy, we will be better able recognize which side of that line a particular fact about the world falls.

The Suffering of Impermanence

One source of suffering—one kind of disconnect we can feel between how we want the world to be and how it actually exists—is impermanence. Change is a raw and constant fact of the world. Not just in cultural matters, but everywhere. We’re born, we age, we die. We’re not exactly the same person today we were yesterday, and we’ll be rather different a year from now. The world around us always evolves, and even its physical parts come and go, grow and decay. Dynamism isn’t a preference, it’s the base nature of reality.

To fight against dynamism then—to demand stasis—is to attempt to force upon the world a feature it cannot have. Social conservatism is always doomed to fail, and clinging to and insisting on permanence for what is inevitably impermanent, results in suffering and stress. A happier, more flourishing life is one that not just accepts dynamism, but finds ways to embrace and celebrate it. There’s a reason the battle against the acceptance of alternative lifestyles, against social change, against religious evolution, and against shifts in racial and gender status is always so angry, its warriors so anxious, enraged, and resentful. They are demanding something that cannot be, and angrily blaming others when they can’t have it.

Social conservatism posits a world of essential natures, of natural hierarchies, of unchanging truths embedded in static traditions. It is an ideology of permanence, a fixed way of doing and being, and an assertion that any deviation from these isn’t just wrong, but is a denial of nature itself. But this view gets things precisely backwards. There are no essences, not in any permanent sense. There is only evolution and change. Personal conservatism can give us a way to live with that fact, by exerting a degree of control over ourselves and holding to a set of principles through which we experience the world. But social conservatism, the demand that dynamism be excised, is a sort of ignorance about the fundamental truth of ourselves and our world.

“[S]uffering is not inherent in the world of impermanence; suffering arises when we cling,” says Gil Fronsdal. “When clinging disappears, impermanence no longer gives rise to suffering. The solution to suffering, then, is to end clinging, not to try to escape from the transient world.” 

Social conservatism is an ideology of clinging in an environment where everything we might cling to inevitably changes. Rather than letting that inevitably lead to suffering—rather than insisting that the impermanent become permanent—social conservatives would be better off giving up the “social” part of their project and embracing the dynamic nature of society and culture. Their suffering is self-inflicted, their anger at social change unnecessary and self-defeating. Social conservatism is suffering, and the way out of that suffering is to just let it go.

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