“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”
~ Margaret Thatcher
* * *
I watched Iron Lady, the biographical movie of Margaret Thatcher.
My following thoughts are mostly a response to the portrayal of Thatcher in this movie. Besides some limited websearches done in the process of writing, my analysis is intentionally limited in scope for I have no desire to spend the time that would be necessary to provide a more complex and thorough analysis. Instead, I’m using the movie as a jumping off point for my thoughts on a particular variety of conservatism that has dominated politics for decades.
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I can’t say I ever had much curiosity about Thatcher. I’m not a conservative and I’m not British. Still, her impact on the world (along with that of Reagan) continues to be felt by people far and wide… and so it is hard to be indifferent about her or about what she represents. We are still living in the world of Thatcher and Reagan. The recent worldwide economic problems are the culmination of the neoliberal era. Deregulation, privatization and globalization has finally come to its inevitable conclusion. Maybe that is why a movie about Thatcher is so relevant right now.
To balance my liberal bias, it was helpful to have watched the movie with my conservative parents. As members of an older generation now retired, they have more of a memory of Thatcher. And as strong supporters of Reagan, they are sympathetic to Thatcher’s politics and worldview. My parents, of course, would disagree with my assessment and considering their perspective makes me think more deeply about that era of politics during my childhood.
I asked my parents if they thought the movie was fair. They considered it to be a fair portrayal, although my dad thought her ideas were given short shrift. My dad probably would have preferred a more straightforward political biography. I liked the focus on the personal as it helped me to understand the motivation behind the politics, but like my dad I would have appreciated more focus on ideas or else on the real world consequences of her policies.
Actually, I would like to have seen those two aspects combined (along with the personal). What came across to me in this portrayal is the sense of psychological division, maybe even dissociation. Thatcher had sacrificed so much that it felt to me like she may have sacrificed something of herself, that some aspect of her humanity was lost or blurred or somehow not fully present in her politics, in her professional persona. Showing her as an old lady dealing with the onset of dementia seemed to get at this division… between the personal and the political, between ideas and consequences. She was ‘principled’ and everything else was sacrificed for her principles. The movie seemed to be largely about how much that sacrifice cost on the personal level.
* * *
There was a scene where she recalled her now dead husband proposing marriage to her. She explained to him that she would refuse to be a simple housewife who dies cleaning the tea cups, an apparent reference to her own mother. She told him that she wanted her life to matter.
This could be taken as how even women on the right were beginning to make feminist demands by refusing to be limited to traditional family roles, but it also could be taken as a revelation of how much she hated manual labor and those who make their living by doing it, i.e., the working class. She knew she was better than that, better than the kind of person who lived their life that way. She had more important things to do, more important than simply raising a family as most humans have done since humans have existed. Her hatred or else lack of compassion for the lower classes seemed obvious to me, although she didn’t see herself that way (nor, of course, would conservatives such as my parents see her that way).
She spoke of not being disconnected from average people and she attempted to prove this by demonstrating she knew the price of basic food items that people depended upon such as milk and butter (prices she was aware of because of her having grown up as the daughter of a grocery store owner). To me, this just further demonstrated how disconnected she was. The price of milk and butter is one of the lesser worries of the poor, especially the poorest of the poor who might choose to spend their meager money on more basic necessities than relatively expensive dairy products. There was irony in her self-defense also in that she was responsible for cutting the milk program for public schools.
Anyway, the marriage proposal scene was centrally important to the movie. It was subtly referenced again at the end of the movie. She is an old lady, her husband now dead and her kids grown up, her mind and her self-independence is slowly disappearing. In a sense, she ends up in the place that she thought she was hoping to escape, essentially no better off than her own mother who apparently was a housewife and no better than all the working class housewives, aging as the great equalizer. All the meaning her life might have had is now just a fading memory. The reality of her life is portrayed by the very last scene: standing at the sink washing a tea cup.
* * *
Thatcher said what she cared about was ideas, not emotions; but emotions are what makes us human, what separates mammals from lizards. She saw emotions as weakness. Human life consisting of body and heart, manual labor and emotion, that was weakness, moral weakness. She wanted a life of the mind where thought and principle ruled, the mind relating to the body as God relates to the fallen world.
In another scene, she shared her philosophy with her doctor. It was in response, as I recall, to his asking her how she was feeling. She told him that people were too obsessed with emotions these days, that it is thoughts that matter. Thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions… and then eventually to character. There was also irony in this scene. The doctor was asking if she was experiencing any problems, any halluncinations, etc. She lied to the doctor in saying she was fine. She seemed to believe that by thinking she was fine and saying she was fine that therefore she was fine. Thought trumps reality, at least in her mind.
The way her logic was portrayed in that scene reminds me of something reportedly said by Karl Rove while in the Bush Administration (the aide spoken of is Karl Rove):
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This emphasis on thought and ideas over everything else directly relates to the perception of someone like Thatcher being ‘principled’. To my parents, this is admirable. To me, less so. I can admire principles and those who hold to them… when those principles are worthy… but ideological beliefs detached from or forced onto reality doesn’t appeal to me. Principles that have such a relationship to reality easily become talking points, rhetorical devices that close down the mind and close down all possible debate.
How my parents see it is that conservative politicians are no longer principled. I sort of understand what they mean, but I also think they are romanticizing the past. Yes, many politicians these days are without principles. However, was Thatcher really all that different?
For example, she supported terrorists in Afghanistan because they fit her agenda, despite her claim of being principled in not bowing down to terrorists. Principles are tricky things when applied to reality for we inevitably interpret our principles to rationalize our actions. Using the Afghanistan example, to remain true to her principles all Thatcher had to do was call the Afghanistan fighters something other than terrorists which is what she did and so they were no longer terrorists, at least in her mind (assuming she was deceiving herself instead of just deceiving others).
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In speaking about another area of fighting, she had to deal with the Falklands conflict. I don’t know if her actions were morally justified or if it was merely the British government defending its colonial empire, but what interested me was the portrayal of her response in the movie.
Thatcher explained in one scene (speaking to other politicians questioning the war) that she knew what the soldiers experienced because she too had to fight hard as a politician and in another scene (writing to the parents of deceased soldiers) that she too was a mother with a son. This further demonstrated how disconnected she was. Her metaphorical fighting in politics is no where near the same as soldiers fighting where they are forced to kill and to risk their own death. Also, just because she was a mother doesn’t mean that she had any possible hope of understanding the experience of the actual mothers of those soldiers. Her political persona was that she was a normal Britain and that she shared in the suffering the country was undergoing, but that is obvious bullshit whether it was a lie told to others or a rationalization told to herself.
This reminds me of what could be called empathetic imagination. Research shows that liberals test higher on the measurment of ‘thin boundaries’. One attribute of ‘thin boundaries’ is empathy. Other research shows that liberals are more distracted because they are constantly paying attention to other people such as watching eye cues. In this way, liberals are more tangibly aware of the people around them. This makes sense when one considers liberal philosophy which focuses on empathy and compassion, on considering the larger collective of humanity rather than just the individual or the group the individual belongs to. For liberals, this isn’t just a set of beliefs but an actual experience of reality.
There is an example of this.
Stem cell research is supported by liberals because, whether or not they have personal experience related to the issue, they can imagine and empathize with the suffering of those who could be helped by medical procedures developed through stem cell research. On the other hand, conservatives on average don’t support stem cell research, but conservatives who have a loved one who could be helped because of stem cell research show a majority support for it. The key difference between the two categories of conservatives is personal experience. Conservatives depend on personal experience more than liberals when it comes to empathizing with others and treating them compassionately.
Everyone, whether liberal or conservative, can understand the suffering of others more easily if the person suffering is a loved one or if the suffering touches upon some other personal experience. However, only liberals show the propensity to care about suffering to which they have no personal connection. It is easier for someone with a liberal predisposition to imagine how others experience the world (empathy, imagination and liberalism are found to be correlated in the research done on MBTI ‘intuition’, FFM ‘openness to experience’ and Hartmann’s ‘thin boundary type’). This is why conservatives perceive liberals as moral relativists for the liberal mindset is more open to considering such subjective and intersubjective factors, rather than narrowly focused on emotionally-detached principles.
From my liberal perspective, someone like Margaret Thatcher seemed to lack empathetic imagination. She could privatize public property and public investments because of her lack of a personal connection to the average working person who was negatively impacted by unemployment and because of her personal connection to her crony friends who profited from the deal. The inability or unwillingness to see outside of one’s personal experience is something all humans struggle with to some degree, but obviously not everyone feels the need to struggle with it for it simply isn’t as much of a priority for some people (not as much of an emotionally pressing issue, just an abstract set of data to be unemotionally analyzed or else ideologically dismissed). In fact, such empathy is often seen as moral weakness by those on the right and so liberals are perceived as ‘bleeding hearts’.
This saddens me. There is so much heartlessness in the world, so much lack of genuine understanding. It seems that, if we have to wait for conservatives to have personal experience to actually care about the worlds’ problems, then we will be waiting a long time.
* * *
Let me return to my parents.
They aren’t heartless as conservatives, but it seems clear to me that neither do they have an overabundance of what I personally experience as empathetic imagination, not to say that they are entirely lacking in this. They care and they are good people, something I want to strongly emphasize as they are some of the most morally principled people I personally know. It’s just that they don’t seem to have a tangible sense of concern about the poor and disadvantaged, not in the bleeding heart liberal sense. They feel bad about the suffering and struggle of others, but they see it as being to some extent separate from their personal lives (by which I don’t mean to imply that we don’t all to varying degrees feel this constraint of separation between our experience and the experience of others, but the difference in degree of this emotional disconnection is very important).
I sense this fundamental difference, although it is hard to explain for I can’t claim to know my parents’ actual experience. However, I do know my own experience and I can sense the difference. For me, the suffering in the world is tangibly part of my sense of self as if an extension of my own body. I intentionally worded it that way. My dad likes to share an example from Adam Smith where the body is used as a way of arguing for the limits of empathy:
“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment…And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.“
The argument is that empathy is limited to proximity, that we are more likely to identify with the suffering of our own potentially lost finger than the suffering of massive numbers of strangers. This is true, but research shows it isn’t equally true in all ways for all people, for example:
“We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians.”
So, it may be true that all humans will care more about their own finger for fear of physical pain and the related potential of death is a strong instinct, although I would argue that if empathy for strangers wasn’t also a strong instinct then large-scale civilization as we have wouldn’t be possible. The difference isn’t that liberals care less about their own finger but that they care more about strangers. Unlike the implications of Smith’s argument, caring about one doesn’t inevitably limit the caring about the other. For conservatives’ relationship to strangers, though, there would seem to be a perceived conflict between the two for conservatives have more of an instinct of fear and mistrust toward strangers. What conservatives don’t understand is that liberals don’t share this strong instinct which isn’t to say liberals entirely lack it.
In speaking to my dad, he didn’t understand this view. I can, as a liberal, accept that there are differences between types of people and that some differences are just differences with no inherent moral superiority for one or the other. Sometimes fearing strangers is evolutionarily advantageous and at other times empathy is the better option. Conservatives, especially social conservatives, tend to see this as moral relativism whereas liberals are more likely to just see it as reality (or what science has so far been able to discover about the reality of human nature).
Part of the reason liberals are better at empathizing with others, especially others who are different, is that liberals don’t require one side to be entirely right and the other side to be entirely wrong. Data shows that liberals are the only American demographic to have majority support for compromise (i.e., making personal sacrifices in order to avoid unnecessary conflict, in order to find a middle ground of agreement or possibly just a good enough solution).
One of the problems I see as a liberal is that the more that empathy is limited the more projection becomes inevitable. Conservatives genuinely believe that their view of human nature is simply right and so they tend to project their own conservative predisposition onto everyone else. Liberal’s higher propensity for empathy offers more protection against this kind of projection, but there is another kind of weakness to the liberal position. Liberals have a hard time understanding and accepting that conservatives either don’t have as strong of an ability to empathize or else don’t have as strong of a desire for it. Empathy is the very foundation of the liberals experience of reality. It’s mind-blowing to the liberal to consider someone who puts principles over empathetic compassion. To a liberal, the only principles that would be morally worthy are those that originate from empathetic compassion. Conservatives just see this as moral weakness, moral relativism.
So, even my desire for compromise between conservative principle and liberal empathy is just another liberal bias.
* * *
My parents are very principled, more principled than I am in terms of acting on what they believe (although that may have more to do with my severe depression than with my morally relativistic liberalism). Even if they don’t have a strong liberal response of empathetic imagination, they do respond compassionately based on their principles and act accordingly.
It isn’t that conservatives lack the ability to be compassionate. It’s just that they would experience it differently and act on it differently, constrained as it is to conservative biases and predispositions. For my parents and many other conservatives, compassionate action is seen as part of their religious duty, organized religion representing their ultimate sense of moral order. Religion is one of the greatest forces humans have for mobilizing individual and collective action, both for good and evil as history shows. I have tons of respect for the ability conservatives have in getting things done through organizing around religious authority, even if I don’t always respect the purposes to which this is used.
I’m not exactly criticizing conservatives. Many conservatives do a lot of good in the world. There are some clear advantages to the principled way of relating to other people, assuming that the principles are worthy. However, according to my liberal bleeding heart, naive as it may seem to conservatives, I feel the world would be a better place if conservative principledness was combined with liberal empathy… or at least if the two could work together instead of being in conflict.
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Let me end with some commentary on the quote I began with. Margaret Thatcher said:
“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”
When I first heard that, I was utterly amazed, baffled even. There was no way, it seemed to me, that someone could honestly believe such a declaration, especially not a political leader of society. It had to be political rhetoric. Of course, society exists for civilization couldn’t exist without the social quality of humans, that tricky element that differentiates once again between mammals and lizards… and, I’d add, between higher primates and most other species. I understand the modern focus on the individual, but one would have to be detached from reality to deny the inherently social nature of the human species.
There goes my liberal bias again, rearing its ugly head.
This issue of ‘society’ came up last night while I was perusing some books about liberalism. In The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe, he quoted James Oakes (p. 12):
“Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.”
It is ‘society’ that is the key element that many conservatives don’t understand, even when they acknowledge it. This connects back to Adam Smith.
It wasn’t just about a person’s finger vs the faceless masses in a distant country. No, more fundamentally it was about the individual vs the group (i.e., society), in particular the individual vs someone else’s group. In saying there is no society, Thatcher was saying that this ‘society’ proposed by liberals isn’t my society (isn’t the group I belong to as a wealthy person, as a political elite, as a conservative Christian, or whatever else). Liberals like to see humanity as a whole (as seen with their tendency to care about strangers) whereas conservatives see humanity divided up into separate, competing groups. Thatcher was willing to admit that humans exist in basic social groups such as families, but she refused to admit that her family had anything directly to do with the families of the working class or the families in a poor country (earthquake or not). It’s an individual attitude of me and mine. It is groupthink combined with a sometimes implicit but often explicit xenophobia.
Conservatives see the idea of a greater society as a threat. Liberals, however, see it as a reason for hope, a potential for progress. Instead of being isolated in a world of fear and violence, liberals want to live in a world of shared humanity with a shared destiny, shared sacrifice and shared benefit. Progress is the central part in this different response. As Mike Kane explained it:
“Might it be that the whole of my disagreement with Smith lies in this: that an event in China was so remote to the European “man of humanity” in 1759 as to be near negligible? If so, then the greater proximity, the so-called global village, that technology enables, does serve to broader both the depth and scope of empathy. It seems to me that distance in the 18th century created the same remove that time continues to do for us. I feel more empathy for, which is another way of saying I feel more in common with, the victims of the Japanese disaster, than I do with the victims of the Irish potato famine, who are some of my ancestors, or more than I do with the millions of victims of the “Spanish flu”, with most of whom I have a greater cultural, religious, and linguistic fit than I do with the Japanese.
“The theory I am testing is that technology exponentially increases the proximity by which people can feel empathy and obliterates cultural differences and geographic distance. The only distance that exempts itself from the compassion-broadening effect of technology is the distant past. The fact that the past is so exempt only goes to show in a new instance the inherent difference between the space and time of human experience.”
Mike’s above response seems like a typical liberal response. Unlike the conservative view, humanity isn’t forever constrained by the seeming limits of human nature for human nature isn’t singular and unchanging, rather human nature contains infinite potential and so is malleable to the degree that potential is tapped. Change the conditions and the human response will change. This is the power of ‘society’, a power that scares shitless many a conservative. A conservative like Thatcher denies ‘society’ not because she doesn’t believe in its power but because she does believe in it and so perceives it as a threat that must be disempowered. Society is to liberals what religion is to conservatives, both forces to be reckoned with.
* * *
I don’t see this difference ever being resolved through discussion. Individual people don’t change for the most part. Change happens over generations as society itself changes. My only hope, as a liberal, is that society has across the centuries become ever increasingly liberal. Even conservatives like my parents, fairly typical conservatives, are ideologically more liberal than conservatives were a century ago. My dad has admitted to me that conservatism needs to change with the times, a very liberal attitude for a conservative to hold.
However, just because society becomes more liberal it doesn’t follow that the conservative predisposition is going away, unless some major genetic engineering project is implemented in a dystopian future of totalitarianism (in which case it would no longer be a liberal society). More reasonably, I suspect that as long as civilization as we know it doesn’t collapse the trend toward a liberal society will continue, however slowly and imperfectly.
Such a liberal society will be forced to find a compromise between the two predispositions, even though conservatives may not appreciate being made to play as equal partners with liberals. That is the only good possibility that I see. A conservative society, almost by definition, can’t allow freedom for the liberal predisposition. A liberal society, on the other hand, necessitates allowing freedom for the conservative predisposition… for that is the nature of the liberal predisposition.
Only liberals care about compromise and so only liberals will be able to find a solution of compromise… or else, in failing, give conservatives the opportunity to create a society of anti-liberalism. I’m not sure that even most conservatives would be happy if conservatives were victorious in creating such a society.
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As a note, I wanted to point out that I’m speaking very broadly here, and so there is plenty of room for pointing out exceptions and criticizing about overgeneralization. Still, I think my speaking in such broad terms is useful for delineating the general meanings of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’.
I have for the most part stopped identifying myself as a ‘liberal’. Mostly what I mean here by ‘liberal’ is liberal-minded in the psychological sense, although there is obvious correlation to various political ideologies. I, however, am not advocating a specific ideology here, especially not the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party. The liberal predisposition has led to minds as diverse as Locke and Paine, has led to ideals as diverse as individualism and progressivism. What form liberalism may take in the future is probably beyond my imagination.
As for specific ideologies of my own preference, I’m less of a liberal and more of a weird combination of socialist and libertarian. So, in reference to a ‘liberal’ society, I’m speaking about an open society of multiculturalism and social democracy. This wouldn’t necessarily require a welfare state or even a strong, central state government at all.
I should also point out that, even though my parents may not be atypical as American conservatives, I’m not sure that they are the best representatives of the conservative predisposition. On the spectrum of predispositions, my parents are nowhere near being far right-wingers (such as, for example, measured by tests for Right-Wing Authoritarianism). I’m not sure that genetically my predisposition is all that different from my parents, but different social environments and life experiences have brought out the liberal potential within my genetics.
Research and basic observation shows that people also can switch predispositions for short periods of time such as during stress or permanently because of trauma. Predisposition is just a tendency, a potential. However, once manifest, most people tend to maintain a particular predisposition as the resting point of their personality.
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In case anyone is interested, I came across an interesting review of the movie in question and a couple of interesting videos about Margaret Thatcher:
The Iron Lady: The Margaret Thatcher Movie We Don’t Need
By Laura Flanders