Conservative Focus on the Negative

Considering ideological predispositions, there is one study I came across that I’ve never focused on before. I realized it allows for useful perspective on a particular distinction and on general confusion.

The study had to do with what people focus upon. The conclusion of the results was that conservatives spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as negative whereas liberals spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as positive. Now, that is beyond interesting.

It makes sense according to other research.

Conservatives are shown to on average have a higher fear/disgust reesponse. It’s easy to see this just by observing politics where conservatives often have long lists of all the things they are against. This was obvious with the Tea Party. It can lead liberals to calling them obstructionists.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be drawn toward the new and different, toward possibility and change. Liberals often push visions of hope wtih optimism and expectation about what good can be achieved. This was heard particularly in Obama’s first campaign. But conservatives see it as naive and moreso dangerously naive.

Liberals point out the positive results being blocked by conservatives. And conservatives complain about the negative results they fear from the agenda liberals push.

This made me wonder about the debate on the nature of conservatism. Is conservatism most fundamentally about defending tradition against change? Or is conservatism more primarily motivated by reaction to what it is against?

This could appear like simply a difference of emphasis, but it is an emphasis that might make a world of difference. A difference of emphasis could cause a drastic difference in political behavior and policy. This is what Corey Robin argues in his theory of reactionary onservatism. He actually argues that it goes past just emphasis, and he makes this argument by pointing how contemporary explanations of conservatism don’t fit the actual ideological history of conservatism.

What is intriguing about Corey Robin’s argument is that I don’t think he is claiming or even implying that conservatives are necessarily trying to be deceptive. Most conservatives probably believe the narrative told of conservatism as traditionalism.

The disconnect maybe just comes from the typical human challenge of self-awareness and self-understanding. Often, outsiders have more perspective to objectively assess a group or movement. This would be true for liberals as well, and I’d love to see a non-liberal write an equally compelling analysis of liberalism.

I have no desire to repeat Corey Robin’s argument here. Instead, I’ll follow a recent line of thought I’ve had about popular entertainment. What many see as liberal entertainment I’d argue is actually conservative in the reactionary sense. Two examples of this are film noir and action movies.

The argument for these genres being liberal is that authority figures often aren’t the heroes, sometimes the authority figures are challenged by or even disrespected by the heroes who not unusually are lone vigilantes. Furthermore, these movies often glorify what traditionalist-identifying conservatives claim to be against: sex, violence, etc.

The argument for reactionary conservatism, however, brings forth an explanation that seems to be confirmed by the study I mentioned above. These movies are conservative precisely for the reason that they are obsessively focused on all the issues that cause conservatives to feel fear or disgust. They are being invoked in presenting a sense of moral order or the need for renewal of moral order, even if only manifest in the hero fighting the good fight or standing by his personal principles.

This is where the confusion is brought to the surface. At least for conservatives, the best way to see what they are about is by looking at what they are against. Film noir and action movies probably will tell you more about conservatism than even the most scholarly tome written by a conservative thinker.

19 thoughts on “Conservative Focus on the Negative

  1. Now yer gettin’ to the good stuff!!!! And from an “integrated” perspective, every viewpoint contains a partial truth, the trick is to discern what they are, and prioritize them according to some value.

    It’s easy to see if we focus only on a bright future and don’t anticipate problems and don’t see what we dislike about the present, we’re not going to be fully successful, but if we focus only on what we feel fear and/or disgust about, trying to remove those, we’re not going to go forward much!!

    This spectrum you call attention to is kinda like the tension in human nature between xenophobia (and we could say neo-phobia, haha) and novelty-seeking.

    • I like the good stuff. No one is stupid enough to be wrong about everything which means everyone is right about something. If you look long enough, you can find truth and maybe even wisdom almost anywhere.

      The tricky part is to figure out what “integrated” means according to which value(s).

      With my Jungian influence, some values that appeal to me are that of wholeness and balance. Or maybe those aren’t so much values separate from the ideal/principle of “integrated” as they are different facets. What is the underlying value or else what value could be held as a standard of evaluation?

      Going deeper, I know that one of my ultimate values is compassion which to me is implicated in wholeness and balance…the or a motivating factor behind the “integrated” perspective? Empathizing with and caring about others ould seem to be impossible if you are so imbalanced as to feel divided from and against others.

      But this gets trickier in that different preispositions will lead to different understandings of even basic concepts such as empathy. It’s hard to get to the rockbottom of the human psyche that might precede and poteentially encompass such differentiations. I struggle with getting past my own biases in thinking about this. There seemingly isn’t a neutral position that one can take, even if some positions offer slightly higher vantage points in any given context.

      For certain, the human psyche includes many spectrums. I try to approximate neutrality by holding enough of these in mind simultaneously which helps me to avoid the most simplistic of judgments. I tend to think that an “integrated” perspective is more a process than a result. So, maybe we should more corectly refer to it as “integrating”.

      • Totally agree, a process, not a result, and a never-finished process. There is always more possible.

        For a long time I have thought Ayn Rand was pretty darned close to the highest or widest truth or perspective with “Life as the standard of value.” Especially as she meant all of life, not just human.

        But now I think perhaps consciousness is more ultimate, or prior, and the expansion of consciousness is my current best guess for MY ultimate value by which all others can be “measured” or shall we say calibrated.

        And values cannot be imposed, so everyone is always finding their own….and each has consequences which can be assessed….

        One of the things I most admire about you is exactly what you describe as your approach to all this: seeking balance, having compassion, always stretching your awareness.

        • The values of life and consciousness are both central. I’d see them as two of the building blocks of compassion. Or I could think of them as being two paths that compassion can take.

          Compassion obviously happens within consciousness. You can’t empathize with and care about another without awareness of self and other. Compassion is how consciousness reaches out to consciousness. Compassion via empathy is the moral component of consciousness. Without compassion, consciousness can exist, but it would be sociopathic.

          Life is an interesting value to posit. I like that you pointed out that this includes all life. This is a fundamental value in that it is where the rubber meets the road. Consciousness and compassion aren’t disembodied attributes. Any value exists in this world full of life. Without life, no value would matter for there would be no one living to do the valuing.

          When I think of life, I also think of what makes a life what it is. All of life is fundamentally social, communa, collective, interdependent or however you may describe it. All life exists in ecosystems. Even our bodies are ecosystems of interdependent lfe forms from cells to bacteria. Also, life needs other life for protection, for procreation, for eating, etc. No man is an island.

          Compassion is made manifest in the details of life. Suffering isn’t disembodied either, rather involving factors of physical health, mental health and social health. That is precisely where the rubber meets the road.

          It’s not based on abstractions that I sometimes critiize conservatism. It is the real world consequences that I care about. Going by one study, conservatives seem clear in not valuing all life equally, as shown in how vastly different their empathy is expressed such as admitting they don’t feel strong empathy for animals and foreigners. As a bleeding heart, this deeply bothers me.

          This area of criticism is also where I begin wondering about certain questions: Why does the experience and suffering of certain groups/categories of people seem less viscerally real to the average conservative? Why don’t as many conservatives take seriously the data that describes the suffering of others? There is this blindspot in conservative empathy and compassion. It’s not that conservatives don’t care, but that with certain issues they don’t recognize that there is something there to be cared about.

          This seems not just problematic for moral behavior and policies. If one side of a political spectrum doesn’t recognize the fundamental reality and significance of certan people and data, then useful debate that precedes moral action becomes impossible. I’d be wlling to debate the meaning of such things, but I refuse to accept their being dismissed out of hand.

          Truth is in some ways a more important value to me than even compassion. It is necessary that the truth of something or someone be recognized so that morality can be understood on the level of human reality. Without truth, no other value can have a coherent or meaningful basis. Without truth, value itself becomes mere opinion.

          This isn’t just an area that I struggle with. It is the crux of conflict for our entire society.

          • JEEEESUS, Ben, that’s the most beautiful and eloquent and therefore moving thing I’ve read in a long time. wow. Thank you! I love the weaving of life, consciousness, compassion, and truth together like that. Triple wow! I shall contemplate at more length, but essentially I feel totally aligned and you’ve laid things out clearly which most folks don’t contemplate.

            To engage on a difference, I would say that liberals are blind to certain sufferings, too. They are not systems-thinkers and cannot trace through the systemic downstream suffering-effects of their short-term bleeding-heart thinking/actions. So they do not value all life equally, either. They are not aware of harm (to life) which is not right in front of their noses. So they do not value life which is outside of their immediate ken.

          • There are distinctions I always keep in mind. There is ideological liberalism and psychological liberalism. There is fiscal liberalism and social liberalism. All of them are correlated, at least in the US and countries like the US. But not all the correlations are meaningful beyond specific cultural phenomena.

            As far as I know, there is no research showing a fundamental connection between fiscal liberalism and social liberalism. Those who are perceived as liberal politicians in the Democratic Party, whether or not they self-identify as liberal, seem to be more defined by fiscal liberalism than social liberalism. Fiscal liberalism, however, doesn’t seem particularly specific to just liberalism as most Americans including most conservatives favor social liberalism in practice.

            Social liberalism seems to be the more defining aspect for most liberals. Also, social liberalism correlates the strongest to the liberal-minded traits. A complicating factor, though, is that the label ‘liberal’ has become unpopular. People who identify as ‘progressive’ hold stronger liberal positions than people who identify as ‘liberal’. Another complicating factor is that the label ‘conservative’ has become more popular leading people who aren’t particularly conservative to identify as ‘conservative’, including a significant percentage of people who are ideologically liberal and/or psychologically liberal.

            When I speak of liberalism, I’m referring to the strong correlation between social liberalism and psychological liberalism. Some people who manifest this correlation identify as ‘liberal’ and some don’t. It doesn’t seem meaningful to mean to discuss liberalism in terms of people who aren’t strong in social and psychological liberalism, specifically the so-called liberalism of the democratic Party. Anyway, self-identified liberals are only around a third of Democratic voters with another third self-identifying as conservatives, hardly the party of liberalism, especially when you consider its recent history. Mere liberal rhetoric doesn’t a liberal make.

            To put it simply, it’s complicated. Social liberalism and psychological liberalism correspond to a more radically inclusive empathy. However, the mainstream liberalism of the Democratic Party doesn’t typically express or uphold this more radically inclusive empathy. The most liberal of liberals don’t have their own movement, much less a powerful party to represent them. It is hard to judge liberalism in its unadulterated form since it’s influence on the larger society is mostly indirect.

            Are even the most liberal of liberals blind to certain things? No doubt. All humans have blindspots. Different ideological predispositions simply have different blindspots. The blindspot I see in liberal-mindedness is in not discerning possibly relevant distinctions.

            In thinking about this, we must separate intentions from results to some extent, at least initially. Having greater or more inclusive empathy may or may not lead to less suffering. We must look to the results and see how people respond to those results. Do they seek to improve or to they ignore/deny the evidence?

            That is the part where rubber meets the road. This might be where it is helpful to treat the Democratic Party as the liberal party. It is more liberal than the Republican Party and so we should still be able to observe a difference in results along with differences in response to results. I considered such p arty differences in a previous post which is about a specific set of data:


  2. Addressing the first part of your essay, I believe the underlying principle is entropy. Conservatives have entropy on their side. It’s easier to stay put than to move forward, it’s easier to destroy (or allow to decay) than to build, and it’s easier to fall down than to lift up. Because it takes an input of energy to realize most liberal causes, it appears that conservatism is negative and liberalism is positive.

    In the arts, I “feel” a strong association between impressionism and liberalism. I’m not certain why this is; if I had to guess, I think it’s because impressionist paintings look like someone has taken a realist work and shaken it until the rigid connections have started to come loose, thus creating space for the observer to imagine new ones. With “impressionist” bands like Talking Heads, for example, David Byrne selects seemingly unrelated phrases and builds a web of loose connections between them to paint a mental picture in the listener’s imagination. Another favorite of mine is Rusted Root. On their album “Remember”, Michael Glabicki (who already sings even straightforward lyrics like some kind of tribal shaman) seems to draw together sounds and snippets from our primitive memories to weave similar loose, almost abstract patterns. In either case, I feel that the artist is inviting the observer to collaborate, to provide their own positive energy to “finish” the work themselves, and leaving room for limitless possibilities of interpretation.

    Or, maybe it’s my inner Neanderthal, rather than the liberal, that’s attracted to these styles because he fancies that they are similar to cave paintings and primitive rituals. 🙂

    • I REALLY enjoyed your reply, ethicalanimals. The connection with entropy feels right on, and since the flip side of entropy is LIFE, so liberals would be more alive and aligned with the anti-entropy-nature of Life or aliveness. BUT on the political front, IMO many “liberal” ways of relating are quite anti-life. Thus I am left with my original position that the terms liberal and conservative, Left and Right, are essentially meaningless unless defined specifically in a specific situation.

      The connection with and description about impressionistic art/music feels accurate, too, and well-described! And “limitless possibilities of interpretation” are available from anything in life; already an artist has narrowed them by selecting and arranging various things. Yet again, as you say, the artist can invite the creative energy of the observer to collaborate…

      Maybe your inner Neanderthal has something to contribute to the contemporary artistic scene????

      • I more or less agree with ethicalanimal’s speculation about creativity/entropy.

        However, conservatives do end up creating the new as well, even when they claim to be simply defending the traditional social order, but creating isn’t there overt motivation and it usually happens through a process of destruction by way of trying to eliminate/disassemble what liberals are trying to create. Hence, liberal acts of creativity force conservatives into a counter-creativity of sorts, entropy only being what conservatives maybe would do if somehow it were possible for them to be entirely left to their own devices.

        In response to your position, I take ideological labels mostly as useful referrants for social science research. It doesn’t matter that there is no objectively real thing that is conservatism and liberalism. As far as that goes, all of psychology and sociology aren’t objectively real. What matters to me is that people identify with such labels and that such self-identifications consistently correlate with various factors that can be objectively observed such as brain structure and behavior.

        In discussing all values and value systems, we are confronted with the problem of the subjective nature of life and reality. Even so, subjectivity is part and parcel of intersubjectivity and so we aren’t left trapped in isolation, the edges of consciousness being rather fuzzy. Objectivity doesn’t actually exist, but emerges out of intersubjectivity. All of life is in a sense essentially meaningless, other than the meaning we bring to it.

        The specifics are the most interesting points. Speculation can be endless. I like science because it demands specific constraints in seeking specific data. Even if objectivity is only ever an approximation, it is still a wonderful tool for gaining knowlede and understanding. So, I agree we should be careful to use specifics when speaking.

      • OM, thanks for you thoughtful reply! I’m not sure what you mean when you say liberal “ways of relating” are anti-life. When you place the context in the political spectrum however, I guess just about anything could be true. Politics, especially lately, seems to bring out the worst in everyone, and I see many instances of liberals forced to adopt distasteful tactics in order to compete. I certainly would rather see us all working together for the common good.

        As for my inner Neanderthal, he seems to be very un-evolved artistically. I have always had a difficult time learning to play any kind of musical instrument, although I really love listening. When I try to write, it always seems to come out very scientific and technical. About the only area in which I’ve every created anything worthwhile has been poetry, and I suspect that this will sound trivial to a “real” artist, but when I wrote those, I felt like the source was outside of me, that I was just channeling something. In fact, I would say that for this Neanderthal at least, creativity comes so hard to me, that I tend to associate all art with the mystical.

    • Yeah, I’m generally familiar with Lovecraft’s racism.

      I’d point out that there are quite a few authors of horror who are religious, but for most horror writers you wouldn’t be able to tell if they were religious or not just by reading their fiction. It makes sense as horror fiction and religion both touch upon the supernatural along with human suffering and good vs evil. The common theme of racism and religion would be social conservatism.

      I’m also familiar with PKD’s misogyny. He was raised by a single mother who was overbearing and he had a twin sister who died as an infant which he blamed on his mother. He had an odd relation with women. He would idealize women, at times looking to them for redemption or completion. But his over-idealizing women would inevitably lead him to disappointment and so he’d often portray female characters in a negative light.

      He became self-aware about his issues later in his life. He realized that he hadn’t been fair to women in his past fiction. He was proud of creating a positive female character in his novel The Man in the High Castle.

      Unlike Lovecraft, PKD never succumbed to a worldview of fear and powerlessness. PKD was too curious about the world and liked people too much to give into negativity. But no doubt he had massive personal issues and he knew it.

  3. I still wonder if that is true of liberals under stress. Also leftists of the non liberal variety may also be more inclined towards the negative, but we are future oriented not past oriented.

    • I would never argue there aren’t exceptions. Put any person under stress and you can discover all kinds of extreme or uncharacteristic behavior. Few people don’t negatively react to stress.

      I would, however, suspect that there might be different kinds of responses to different kinds of stress. I’m sure there is research out there that tests people of different ideological persuasions in relation to non-stressed conditions and in relation to a variety of stress factors, but I’m not familiar with this area of research.

      If liberals don’t have a healthy outlet for their positive focus, they probably can become the ugliest of cynics. And conservatives do their best in trying to thwart all healthy outlets for liberalism. But maybe the liberal preference for positive focus isn’t entirely meaningful since they rarely if ever have the opportunity to indulge in it, especially American culture that is so often obsessed with fearmongering.

      I don’t know about non-liberal leftists. I guess it depends on what you mean by non-liberal. Do you mean politically non-liberal or psychologically non-liberal? In America, many leftists seem more socially liberal and more psychologically liberal. But I realize that there have been plenty of leftists, especially in communist countries, that weren’t liberal in any sense.

      • :: nods :: Well, the confusion comes where leftism has some attitudes that are anti-liberal and some that are not: leftists tend to seem themselves as part of a completely separate paradigm in most other places in the world, but would probably meet most of your psychological definition of liberalism, except that they see world in much more stark terms than most American liberals and are not thus not as given to compromise.

        • I wonder about other factors that aren’t part of either liberal-mindedness or conservative-mindedness, yet could increase or decrease aspects thereof, maybe even alter aspects so that they manifest differently. For example, there has been plenty of research about how authoritarianism can influence the psychology of those with different ideologies. I’d like to see more research about other influences that either are opposite of authoritarianism or in an entirely different category.

          In the US, left-wingers seem more anti-authoritarian than right-wingers, including many libertarians who in many cases don’t seem to mind submitting to strong authority per se just as long as it is private. A certain streak of authoritarianism seems to be what has allowed an alliance between libertarianism and conservatism. Theoretically, both libertarianism and conservatism could exist as ideologies and as movements without any strong strain of authoritarianism.

          Still, I sense that liberal-mindedness at its extreme end has aspects that don’t make it conducive to authoritarianism. This isn’t, however, to say that liberal-mindedness is inherently anti-authoritarian. This is an area about which I haven’t seen any conclusive research.

          • Ben, do you have any idea why the time-stamps on your site are so far off? Your above post says it was posted today at 5:09 pm. Or is this just something wrong with my PC? If not, any way you could correct it, so we could see when the posts were put up? Thanks!

          • I’m on London time. I’ve always felt a bit out of sync with the world around me. This explains a lot. Thanks for giving me this new insight about my temporal nature. LOL

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