Yesterday I gave a talk on political framing, the audience was mixed, but leaned heavily toward favoring environmental protection – which likely meant there was a majority of progressives in the room. One of the comments and questions that was put forward was, “is authority truly the ultimate conservative value?”
Those that are familiar with this blog or the works of George Lakoff know that authority and tradition are stated to be the primary and highest priority of values of conservative opinion. A few people questioned whether the word “authority” has positive or negative connotations itself – the word “authoritarian” seemed to lean negative, while the word “tradition” seemed to lean positive in the general frames they evoke. Labeling a school of thought -conservatism- with a word that conjures up negative feelings, might not be the best way to get folks from that school of thought to start talking, so it is worth a look.
First of all, when we talk about the conservative view on any issue, it is not necessarily describing the person with that view. You may have a conservative opinion about a particular policy, yet overall describe yourself -and behave as if – you are liberal, libertarian, or another political orientation. For any issue that “authority” does not feel right, I would propose that one is not very conservative in their stance.
The popular conservative opinion around unwanted pregnancy is that a woman should not be allowed to have an abortion. The values behind this position may vary, they are
- religious values – God has forbade the taking of human life – it is a simple case of murder for some
- family values – a woman is going against the “natural order” of having children and a family, perhaps the pregnancy is out of wedlock, or a result of premarital sex
- personal ethics – a person believes that sexual activity should be reserved only for times when a baby would be welcomed into a more appropriate situation
- personal responsibility/accountability – a woman must live with the consequences of irresponsible behavior
I’m sure these ideas could be stated in other similar ways.
In any religion with Deities, the ultimate authority is obvious. This is true in modern Christian Conservatism – there is one God and He is the ultimate authority (note the implied gender as well). If the ultimate authority gives instruction – His followers carry out those instructions without apology. This describes many, many “pro-lifers”.
In the above case of “family values”, we think of the natural order or nuclear/traditional families and it begs the question, “says who?”. When comparing ourselves to the animal kingdom in general, it is difficult to find a unifying family system, so we must assume that the “traditional family” refers to human beings, yet within the human family, we can also find lots of different traditions. Mixed families due to death, birth, migrations, disagreements, governance, culture, and economic status have existed since humans have existed, so again I would ask, “who determines what is “traditional””? By what authority?
I believe the conservative answer might once again turn to God – the ultimate authority. If not, it is likely that they would cite their own family tradition and once again you butt up against authority – unwritten or not, there is a code of the “right way to live”, and it should be followed.
Even the idea of personal responsibility and accountability has an authority attached to it – any punishment system does, and that’s the bottom line of this thinking. If a woman has sex without wanting a baby or making certain that birth control is working – she deserves to be punished and the punishment in this case would be the task of caring for a child. For a progressive – and perhaps a conservative too – this is outrageous and insulting; no child should be a part of a punishment. It could be argued that terminating a pregnancy is being personally accountable for a “mistake” – a sexual act that results in an unwanted pregnancy, but even this suggestion is likely offensive to some because their logical flow chart would go back to reason #1.
The purpose of this analysis is to ask whether or not conservatives or conservative views rely on the ultimate value of authority. I’d love to hear from some conservatives on this. What do you think?