I’ve been thinking out some complex issues and data. In particular, my mind has been stuck on the issue of liberal and conservative.
This relates to personality types and traits, but furthermore it relates to genetics. Scientists have discovered specific genes that correlate with specific tendencies of political attitudes. That isn’t exactly surprising as trait research has already determined many psychological differences are passed on from parent to child. But this is particularly paradigm-shifting on the level of politics.
I plan to write more about this, but I just wanted to outline my thinking for the moment. There are multiple facets that interrelate in ways I’m trying to determine.
There does seem to be an evolutionary angle that would be very important. Different genetics enhanced species survival as humans developed ever more complex societies. One theory I came across proposed that liberal genetics are a more recent evolutionary adaptation. As humans spread out from Africa, specific traits became more desirable: curiosity, openness to new experience, adaptability, empathy, diplomacy, ability to imagine new possibilities and consider multiple perspectives, etc. These are all traits that research has proven are correlated with each other, and they together seem to create the framework for the liberal attitude. Still, the older genetics remained useful because any given society would still need the majority of its population to be fairly conservative in order to create social stability and cohesion.
This development happened when humans were still hunter-gatherers, and so at that time the genetic differences wouldn’t have been as magnified. With the rise of settled agrarian cultures, an entirely new way of social organization became possible. This was a traumatic time in the devlopment of the human species. It’s been a while since I’ve read Paul Shepard, but as I recall he saw this era as being pivotal where something irreversibly switched in the human brain. This was the beginning of civilization.
I was just tonight reading again some of Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe. I consider him to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. I’d forgotten much of the specific ideas in this book, but one particular thing stood out. He goes into great detail about how civilization rests on the back of slavery. Every civilization was built with slave labor (including the early democracies). Even the modern industrialized nations with their supposed democracies and free markets are dependent on slave labor and sweatshops in the third world countries. Many of the earliest immigrants to the Americas were indentured servants and slaves. Civilization as we know it would collapse if there wasn’t some class of people enslaved or in oppressed servitude.
(I also wonder how this fits in with prostitution as the oldest profession and temple prostitutes who lived in servitude. In early civilization, prostitution represented the civilizing of primitive desire as the temple prostitutes served the highest ideal of their societies and the temples they worked in were at the center of those cultures. The example that comes to mind is “The Epic of Gilgamesh” where the wild man is civilized by a prostitute.)
Jensen’s explanation of all of this is just brilliant. Combined with Shepard’s work, this explains a lot about how we became this way. The earliest records of humans are about the laws upholding civilization and these laws speak about slavery (e.g., Code of Hammurabi). The Old Testament in various stories and the 10 commandments promotes slavery. The Christian Gospels even promote slavery. The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all were dependent on slavery. Until modern times, few people even thought too much about slavery being a bad thing.
However, some people back then began to question such issues. During the Axial Age, the origins of modern Enlightenment ideals began to take root. Those early ideals were in complete conflict with the very structure of civilization and that conflict persists to this very day. So, where did this conflict come from?
Earlier in social development, humans perceived the world animistically. According to Julian Jaynes, the very understanding of the individual as clearly separate from the world didn’t even fully exist throughout much of early civilization. It was a slow shift while individuality formed. As division of labor in society became more important, so division of labor within the human mind became more important. The world and the gods stopped being experienced as immediately alive realities. The world became objectified and so did humans. Individuality and objectivity go hand in hand, and this is what allows for the objectivication of humans in the form of slavery.
This growing sense of individuality came to a crisis point during the Axial Age. The brutality of slavery had become very apparent, and people began hoping for something more. People were less satisfied to simply be in servitude whether to other people or to the gods. The divine had become distant within hierarchical society, and in response the desire for divine closeness became extremely strong. Humans started to perceive the divine as being among humans which is reminiscent of the animistic past, but this divine closeness was now built on a relationship of individuals as equals. The first communes formed which was out of which Christianity took root. However, Christianity and all of the Axial Age religions were brought back in line with hierarchical slave society, and the brief glimmer of the Axial Age prophets was almost entirely forgotten for the next thousand years.
However, it was never entirely forgotten. The Axial Age ideals were the liberalism of their day. I wonder if that liberal urge that kept popping up relates back to the genetics that first formed when humans left Africa?
It seems like there has always been this push and pull within human society that is shown in the the earliest historical records. Since civilization began, this concept of progress formed. Civilization is dependent on endless progress and this seems to relate to its dependence on slavery. In order to maintain a slave population, the early civilizations (as well as later civilizations) were forced to be constantly at war by attempting to conquer other people. Enslave or become a slave. Endless progress, endless growth, endless conquering, endless usurpation… which continues to modern civilization as well (even if endless wars now have a larger global context).
This is where I’m feeling a bit murky. Civilization is simultaneously built on this ruthless progress, but civilization wouldn’t have been possible without those early liberal traits of diplomacy and whatnot. This seems to be a part of that internal conflict that is the very fabric of civilization. As society became more hierarchical and more divisioned, the liberal traits of curiosity and experimentation were focused towards technological innovation. Even fairly early in Greek society, a well-educated leisure class had already taken hold (with Socrates being the ultimate representative). The liberal instinct in some ways became even more important as empathy and diplomacy would’ve been absolutely vital during this time of cultural clash.
There was a shift that happened after the Axial Age. The liberal instinct had a temporary burgeoning in society, but the liberal instinct was looked upon with ever greater suspicion as Empire building became the central impulse. The Roman Empire as it was inherited by Christianity was quite oppressive, and it didn’t take long for the heresiologists to oppress the liberal impulse within Christianity itself. This is where many see the proper beginning of Western civilization.
Ever since that time, the conflict between the liberal and conservative impulses has led to much violence. But, with the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance, the liberal impulse began to have greater influence than it had in a long time. Also, progress began to happen more quickly. The liberal impulse is the gas pedal of civilization, but this is balanced with the brake of the conservative impulse. The fight between the two hasn’t been pretty.
The main issue isn’t specific beliefs or values. Liberalism and conservatism are relative tendencies. What was liberal during the Axial Age has become the norm for modern Western civilization. Generally speaking, even modern monotheists have forsaken their own texts in denying slavery. The conservative impulse wants to hold on to what has become the norm which is perceived as being traditional. It’s not important, however, that the perceived traditional values actually correspond to the actual historical tradition. For example, family values have been centrally important for all of Christian history, but what Christians today consider as family values isn’t what the early Christians considered family values (and Jesus himself didn’t value family at all). So, liberal and conservative are dependent on the historical context which is always changing with the endless progress that we call civilization.
This has served us moderately well up to this point. Even so, we find ourselves at a new crisis point and so some people conjecture that we’re experiencing a new Axial Age. It does seem that the level of cultural mixing in modern society hasn’t been seen in Western civilization since the earlier Axial Age. The religious sensibility forming now is to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism, and I think this would explain why fundamentalists have essentially created a new religion that has little to do with early Christianity (which fits into the ideas of Karen Armstrong).
Much of what I’ve talked about can be explained using the model of Spiral Dynamics which would add a lot of much-needed detail. The history following the Axial Age I somewhat explained in my post Just Some Related Ideas and Writers which basically follows a Jungian view of Western development. But there is a further aspect that is more central to my thinking at the moment. Along with Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe, I’ve also been re-reading Compass of the Soul by John L. Giannini. The two books make for good companions as they both analyze Western society from different perspectives.
Giannini’s book is helpful because he is coming from the Jungian tradition, and more importantly he combines his roles as Jungian analyst and MBTI practitioner. He carefully considers Jung’s view on personality as it fits in with Western sociohistorical development. He sees a split in our society between tendencies towards the personality types of ESTJ and INFP with the former dominating the Western psyche since sometime shortly after the inception of Christianity. Essentially, ESTJ and INFP are just a more complex way of saying conservative and liberal.
However, this more complex language is helpful because it’s grounded in decades of psychological research. Also, it brings me back to where I began this post.
(I want to note one other book: The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen. The author discusses two issues relevant to this post. He discusses Max Weber’s theory about how rationalization and bureaucratization increases as society becomes more complex and hierarchical. He also discusses Ernest Harmann’s boundary types. He mentions research that shows thick boundary types with their conservative attitudes tend to promoted to upper management in hierarchical organizations. Any major organization is hierarchical and so our society in general is ruled by thick boundary types which is just another way of stating the theory Giannini puts forth. These highly promoted people tend to have thicker boundaries than even the average person and so the people at top perceive and behave differently than the lower classes. A seeming implication of this is that even Washington Democrats will be more conservative than the average liberal.)
The reason I’m so interested in all of this is two-fold.
The most obvious reason is that the conflict between liberals and conservatives is the most intense that I’ve seen in my lifetime. And it’s a rather personal issue as I’m liberal and my parents are conservative.
Secondly, I suffer from obsessive curiosity syndrome. I feel compelled to try to understand the society I was born into. There seems to be a narrative to our culture and I suspect that it’s our collective unawareness of this narrative that keeps us stuck in it. We play these roles we are given and we come to identify with them. Some of this is genetics and so can’t be changed, but genetics are just predispositions. I want to believe that the liberal and conservative impulses don’t have to be eternally at odds. Maybe I’m just a dreamy-eyed liberal with my head in the clouds.
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Let me give this some more contemporary context.
I’ve been doing some web research on personality types/traits, political attitudes, and career predispositions. Here are some of the ideas I’m tossing about at present:
The problem with liberal and conservative as labels is that they’re highly relative.
The vast majority of scientists and journalists identify as liberal (or at least they do in the US), but it just means that these groups of people identify as more liberal than how they perceive the general population of their particular society. In the most general usage, conservative means what is traditional or conventional and liberal means what is not limited to the traditional or conventional. As such, liberal journalists are only moderately liberal. They’re liberal because they aren’t perfectly aligned with the average person (or rather they don’t perceive themselves as such), but they’re clearly moderate in their being closer to the mainstream than they are to radicals on the fringe.
However, different societies will vary greatly in their political spectrum. It’s probably true, though, that scientists and journalists in any society will be comparatively more liberal because those professions seem to demand a liberal mindset (at least liberal in terms of personality traits).
The further issue is how close is the correlation between liberal as political self-identification and liberal as personality trait. Research on personality traits show that they can’t be categorized as either/or, black/white. Some people are on the extreme ends, but most people are near the middle.
There is no one way to define these terms. Liberal and conservative can apply to many issues, and so a person can be simultaneously liberal on some issues and conservative on others. And any given issue can only be labelled as liberal or conservative relative to the context of the societal norms and the historical era. Many political positions that seem conservative in a modern industrialized society would be deemed liberal (even radically liberal) in pre-modern and non-industrialized societies. Liberal and conservative are labels that are inseparable from confounding factors of individual and collective development.
With development, other issues such as intelligent and morality have to be considered as both of those relate to intelligence. There is a correlation between liberalism and IQ (i.e., traditional methods of testing intelligence), and so that probably explains much of the reason for scientists and journalists identifying as liberals. As a personality trait, liberalism signifies openness towards new experiences and curiosity towards new information. Higher education is largely defined by new experiences and new information.
Nonetheless, plenty of people with more conservative personalities go to college as most of the population is fairly conservative personality wise (or rather according to MBTI statistics the conservative SJ temperament represents the largest portion of the population; the question then is how well does the SJ temperament represent the normal definition of political conservatism). These college educated conservative types tend to be drawn to careers in law, politics, and business. Most interestingly is the fact that policymakers tend to identify as conservative. But, even in liberal fields, the top administrators in hierarchical organizations (which includes every major private and public organization) will be more conservative than what is the norm even for the general population. Scientists may be liberal, but the administration of scientific labs and the corporate funding for science likely is controlled by conservatives. Journalists may be liberal, but the editors, owners and CEOs of media companies are generally more conservative.
(The so-called liberal media bias is false. It may have once been true when newsrooms were independent and reporters were more free to do their own thing. But in recent decades (because of pressures to increase profits) reporters have been increasingly told what to do by upper management (this is based on a lot of research I’ve done and isn’t an just an ideological claim). However, this isn’t to say that media is precisely conservative biased in any simple sense. Let us just say there is conflict of biases where the conservative bias at the moment has gained the upperhand.)
Social liberals are going to be more interested in intellectual inquiry and social conservatives will be more interested in ideological norms. Because of this, most social scientists and those interested in social science will be moral liberals (research supports this conclusion). As for moral conservatives, they’re either less interested in or else actively mistrust social science research and theory. For example, the evidence that certain psychological traits and types (personality, moral inclinations, political ideology, behavior, etc.) are largely inheritable undermines the idea that everyone is completely responsible for themselves as individuals (which is a major aspect of moral conservatism). The tendency to see human nature as complex is more attractive to the social liberal, and so the liberal attitude is more open to the possibility of nature being equal to or greater than nurture (which could explain why they have a more open view of family values). The reason why evolution vs creationism seems so central to the culture wars may be because it reflects on the large-scale the same issues of nature vs nurture (I’m a bit unclear on this point).
I’ve come across the theory that conservatives tend to look at media and art in terms of how it serves or undermines their ideology (i.e., the perceived ‘norm’). This would be supported by the Christian cultural critic who I heard speak a few years ago. She discussed the need of morally conservative Christians to use film and pop culture to promote their views. Immediately after this talk, I went over and looked at a William Blake exhibit which presented his vision of the relationship between religion and art.
There couldn’t have been a better contrast between the conservative and liberal views. Blake’s art was inspiring because it didn’t represent ideology in any simple way (i.e., no overt political messages, no promotion of group norms). Instead, Blake’s art pointed towards truths that transcended mere politics. I sensed that Blake wasn’t limiting himself to his own preferred bias.
Is the conservative view of art as ideology comparable to the conservative view of news as ideology? I’ve noticed that many conservatives don’t see a difference of the bias of Fox News from the bias in more liberal news, but to many liberals this is an insult. I’ve noticed that quite a few liberals seem to idealize intellectual objectivity as a moral value, and they’re not content with the cynical view of extreme conservatives. The social conservative tends to see humanity as fallen and traditionally this fallen nature included the failure of human reason. Social conservatives are more mistrusting of reason which explains why they mistrust science (be it Darwinian evolution or climate change).
By the way, this also relates to the tendency of most comedians to be liberal. Humor is very much related to curiosity and openness to experience.
Anyways, it’s all very interesting. Journalists, Scientists, and comedians all are dominated by self-identified liberals and Democrats. I remember offhand that only 6% of scientists (including in the hard sciences) identify as Republican. That does seem to be saying either something about human nature (psychology, genetics, etc) or something about modern culture… or, as I suspect, a bit of both.
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I’m, of course, speaking of liberal and conservative in their most extreme manifestations (i.e., exaggerated stereotypes). It’s important to keep in mind that as personality traits the population distribution is found mostly in the middle rather than on the polar opposite ends.
Also, liberal and conservative don’t always equate with Democrat and Republican. For example, earlier last century Republicans were the liberal party especially in the South. So, when I speak of liberal I’m talking about an attitude based on personality traits and not party affiliations which represent shifting labels of shifting demographics. I was looking at data from the Pew Research Center. Their definition of liberal corresponds with Democrat only slightly more than it corresponds with independent. I’m willing to bet, though, that if Democrats dominated for a couple of decades the number of liberals identifying with independent would increase just as how recently many have left the Republican party.
As for psychological attitudes, I do wonder if the way society is structured is causing these genetic traits to become increasingly magnified. I was thinking that this possibility could be a contributing factor to the present intense political conflict.
Here is a theory I’ve been thinking about the last couple of years.
I’ve looked at mappings of demographic data. Liberals are concentrated in urban areas in and around cities. Conservatives are spread out in rural areas. However, a confounding factor is that ever since the Industrial Age began people have been slowly migrating to cities. This is how liberals became concentrated in cities in the first place, but the population in general has now become concentrated in cities. For this reason, cities are more ideologically diverse and so liberals have been forced to adapt to diversity which happens to be one of their talents anyhow.
The other result is that rural areas have become less diverse and more extremely conservative. This makes me wonder if conservative politics has become more radicalized partly because of this concentration. Even the moderate conservatives would tend to move to the cities leaving behind the most extreme conservatives (those who are so resistant to change that they’d rather remain even in poverty-stricken areas).
Ignoring the possible genetic component, our political system by itself would magnify the concentration of extreme conservatives in the rural areas. American democracy is representative. In an attempt at fairness, sparsely populated rural areas get more representation per capita. What this means is that extreme conservatives get more representation per capita. The result of this is that public debate gets pushed to the right.
This is important as sometimes presidents get elected even though the majority of the population voted against them. How does a president lead a country when he doesn’t represent a majority of the population?
Also, the media focuses on the extremes. The rural areas represent the far right-wing. The Republican politicians tend to be moderate conservatives, but the more radical conservatives of rural areas hold great sway.
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I don’t know what to make of this, but it’s very interesting. It seems our entire political system is rather messed up. I’m hoping by placing US politics in a larger context that I’ll be able to see beyond the polarizing tendency of public debate as it gets shown in the media.
Anyways, it goes without saying that all of this is largely speculation and hence tentative. I am basing my speculations on actual data, but it is very complex. Trying to disentangle the threads is difficult if not impossible. The challenge of making sense of it is only slighly lessened by the fact that some great minds before me have written some insightful books.
Filed under: Christianity, history, Humanity, Philosophy, Psychology, religion, science, Sociopolitical | Tagged: Axial Age, Carl Jung, civilization, conservative, Derrick Jensen, development, Ernest Hartmann, George P. Hansen, history, John L. Giannini, Julian Jaynes, Karen Armstrong, liberal, Max Weber, MBTI, Paul Shepard, politics, Psychology, religion, society | 4 Comments »