How to talk to a conservative...

Image by <a href = "">Billy Alexander</a> on Stock.XCHNG
Image by Billy Alexander on Stock.XCHNG
Getting back to the basics

One of my more memorable moments during Sex 2.0 was Saturday at lunch with @Cunningminx, @Graydancer, and @TalkingFigLeaf. The discussion danced around the topic of politics.  There were some off comments made about Ann Coulter, after which one of the people patted my arm reassuringly.


Why did they do this, you may ask?  I'm very open and upfront about being "right of center" politically.  My views are such that I could be labeled either a moderate Republican or Libertarian (closer to the latter). The assumption was that I either liked Ann Coulter or was a fan of her views.


You know how each subgroup has those people that you wish didn't get to talk in public? That's how I feel about Ann Coulter and the other wingnuts.  Not all conservatives think in such extremes.  What do they believe and think? I'll run through the basics of conservative logic.

The conservative worldview

Before I jump into this, I want to give credit to Moral Politics by George Lakoff.  I already had a lot of the language on discussing the differences between conservatives and progressives (modern liberals). The book helped fill in the logical steps to get to those views.

The nature of morality

When talking to a conservative, understand that they see the world as an ongoing struggle against Evil.  They may or may not be able to explain what evil is.   However they may be able to articulate the qualities of evil.

Conservative language describes a person's character using metaphors that give those qualities physical substance (ex.: a heart of gold, rotten to the core).  They also describe Evil as a tangible force, one that must be struggled or fought against.  The ability to do good and resist the temptation to do bad things is a major element of the conservative paradigm.  They use the language to give morality three qualities: strength, purity, and health.


Strength: Think about it for a moment - what terms are used when someone acts immorally? They were weak. They fell to temptation.  The conservative paradigm not only sees the committing of certain acts as immoral, but the inability to resist doing those acts as immoral.

Purity:  This describes that which is moral as pure, and that which is immoral as impure. Think about how some describe actions or people as pure, clean, dirty, or rotten. What does that imply?  What could that justify?  Just as a rotten apple can spoil a barrel, some conservatives would argue that immoral acts (or immoral people) could corrupt those around them.

Health: This metaphor conceptualizes morality as health and immorality as disease. Just like the purity metaphor, the implications of using the language of health to describe morality allows others to justify separating (or curing!) those they deem immoral.


Now that you have a high level overview on how morality is described within a conservative paradigm, I'll show how the rules of morality are set.


Legitimate authority decides what is moral within society

Think about family life. Children are not allowed to run amok. Dad and mom set various rules of behavior to protect their kids.  Those rules exist to help their children build moral strength, and to protect them as they become self-sufficient adults. Once the children are on their own, their parent's authority over them diminishes (at least in American culture).  Using this example, the parent's authority is considered legitimate until the children reach adulthood, after which said authority loses its legitimacy.

To recap, here are the reasons for authority within the conservative paradigm:

  • Protecting citizens
  • Developing self-discipline and self-reliance (more on this later)
  • Defining "fair distribution" (more on this later as well)
  • Maintaining order so that society can function - in other words, authority affirming its own authority

Here is one of the places where you see diversity among conservatives.  Those that are social conservatives tend to see the fundamentalist Judeo-Christian institutions as having legitimate authority within society as a whole.  These are the people that oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians, drug use, sex workers, etc.  There are also conservatives that deny the moral authority of the church but accept the government's authority to create laws to protect its citizens. 

Lastly, there are conservatives that believe that government should have little to no authority in the lives of individuals and business - especially on the fair distribution aspect. They believe that the real authority should be in the hands of the people and their local communities. This last group is what defines Libertarianism.


Focus on the Self

Another important element of the conservative paradigm is its focus on the individual.  Children are taught self discipline; the strength to follow the rules of morality on their own. They are also taught that it is moral to be self-reliant and immoral to have to rely on others to meet one's basic needs. In order to become self-reliant, children are taught that the pursuit of one's interests are moral, as long as they don't break other moral codes in the process. Self-discipline plus hard work is supposed to lead to self-reliance.

There are two consequences to this viewpoint. The first is the individual is reliant upon the authority of another (at least in the beginning) in order to build self-discipline and become self-reliance. Hence, this model legitimizes authority, assuming that it is responsible for nurturing self-discipline and developing self-reliance. The second is that acts of welfare - helping someone without providing them a means of developing self-discipline or self-reliance in the process -  are considered immoral.



Justice and the big balance sheet

We use multiple metaphors in our language about justice and morality.  The main one is that we consider morality to be a balance sheet.  We believe in reciprocation - giving back positively (or negatively) based on prior treatment.  To help us apply this logic in multiple areas of our lives, we use additional metaphors to describe qualitative elements in a quantitative manner (like wellness).  We're able to talk about costs and gains in things like suffering or pleasure even though we're not actually able to define them numerically.  

The view of morality as a balance sheet justifies a system of rewards and punishment. Thus, people should be rewarded or punished based on their actions.


What is "fair distribution"?

Fairness means having an agreed-upon model of correct or incorrect behavior. Therefore, fair distribution means having a system for dividing resources based on an understood standard.  When we were kids, we were taught why each of us got one cookie or a certain amount of play time with a specific toy.  Now that we're adults, we realize that there are many systems for dividing resources; it's a matter of coming up with one that's appropriate based on the circumstances and our values.

Rights are seen as a system of distribution. For an individual to have a right, another has the duty to provide it. If someone has a right to protection or a service, the government and community are typically the duty-holders (the community through taxes, and the government through administration).

Here are models of distribution that most conservatives deem to be "fair":

The conservative model assumes that everyone has an opportunity.  When they think of the "right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness", they see it as the right to pursue happiness, rather than the right to happiness.  Without opportunity, a person is denied the ability to pursue one's self-interest, which is considered immoral.

Also, conservatives believe in a scalar distribution model. This means that the more that you work (or the more value that you provide), the more you should receive. This is also the basic premise of capitalism.

Due to their framework, conservatives also believe in procedural distribution. This means being receiving resources based on following the rules, which means being self-reliant and pursuing one's self-interests.



It is not completely accurate to say that conservatives are against change. The premise of conservatism is to keep that which is good and useful and to reform that which isn't. It is about not dumping out the baby (or in this case the juggernaut) with the bathwater.  For conservatives, change is slow and deliberate. They are the check and balance to the change-now mindset of extreme progressives.


Now that I've laid down the foundation, I can get to the important part of this post ;)


How to talk to a conservative

First, remember that conservatives are not bad people. A lot of our views are the results of the society that we were raised in. We work hard, play little (damn Puritanical values), and worry a lot about the world that we are leaving to our children.  We are not evil overlords. We do not sit in big cushy chairs in high-rise offices - or in our white picket fence suburban houses - stroking our pets and wondering how we could further oppress the common man. Nor do we have big swimming pools of money that we hoarde a la Scrooge McDuck - though having an indoor swimming pool does sound nice.

The arguments that I'm sharing below deal with talking about fiscal issues. Moral conservatism is a tougher topic because it deals with the acceptance of Judeo/Christian/Islamic  authority within the larger society.  Most of the conservatives that you'll find within the sex-positive community will be "fiscal" conservatives rather than "moral" conservatives, so the former will be more relevant  ;)


1) Understand our value structure. If you've read this article so far, you're off to a good start. If you read Moral Politics or similar works, you'll be in a better position to articulate your point. You'll also be considered a saint for the amount of self-discipline required to read a 430 page book :p

2) Avoid using arguments that involve unconditional nurturance. For reasons behind this, see #1.  Providing help to someone - without the person needing to develop self-discipline and self-reliance in the process - is considered immoral.  In the conservative mindset, most situations of need (in adults) are the result of a deficiency of character or effort.  Unconditional aid does not fix the "cause" behind the need, and is therefore considered immoral. Preaching unconditional nurturance to a conservative is like preaching the values of meat eating and leather wearing to a vegan. It does not work.

3) Stick to rhetoric and debate.  Turning the conversation into a battle triggers the "morality as conflict against evil" button in our conservative brains.  Shifting from debate to personal confrontation and stereotypes is like mud-wrestling with a pig. You know how the saying goes... you end up dirty afterwards and the pig enjoys it. 

4) Use arguments that show an unfair distribution in opportunity.  Do not be afraid to discuss privilege - whether it's race, class, gender, ability, etc.  Demonstrate how a person's ability to pursue self-interest and develop self-reliance are inhibited by outside forces, and how your colleague's ability to pursue their own interests was helped by those same forces.

5) You need to help them develop empathy. Empathy is the ability to connect with others in a way where you understand their position, can relate with them, and want to help them. It is not a trait that is developed within the conservative paradigm.  It is also not considered a moral requirement like it is in the progressive/nurturant paradigm. Most of us are concerned with the wellfare of those we consider "our people" - our family, our friends, and our community. You need to help the conservative broaden their definition of "community" to those that are outside of their immediate demographic group.

6) Discuss options that empower others to build self-reliance. There is an old saying:  Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.  A conservative objects to the first part because the man is now dependent on others for sustinance. The latter is more acceptable because the man develops the skills needed to fend for himself.

7) If all else fails, discuss the topic from a position of their self-interest. While the empathy may cause a conservative to act on their own accord, it may not win them over when it comes to social change.  Framing a social cause in the terms of their own self interest helps to build support among conservatives. If you go this route, be prepared for friction later because the two of you will be approaching the same problem from two different sets of values


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