Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination

I feel the impulse to take stock of my thinking, he says with a heavy sigh.

I’m going to attempt the amazing feat of connecting together various strains of thought that have been mulling in my braincase these past few years. This is my way of warning you that the following is going to be a doozy, in which I will discuss: conservatism and liberalism (in the psychological sense), symbolic conflation and empathetic imagination, literalism and imagination, social order and its lynchpin, ideology and analysis, and we’ll just have to see what else gets thrown into the stew.

Bear with me, if you will; or if not, be off with you.

I’ll begin with symbolic conflation, as that is the originating point of my present contemplations.

In explaining symbolic conflation, the example I usually bring up is that of abortion. I just as easily could use sex education or something similar, issues of sex and gender getting at the tasty marrow of conservative values, but any culture war issues would do. These are hot button topics where symbolic conflation gets exaggerated which makes it easier to observe and analyze.

Symbolic conflation, however, isn’t limited to these kinds of issues. Also, it isn’t limited to just conservatives. Nonetheless, my theory proposes that it is more central to conservative psychology and specifically more central to highly emotional issues.

As a side note, my theory of symbolic conflation might be correlated with and supported by certain psychological studies of ideological differences.

Numerous research shows that conservatives on average have higher rates of such cognitive behaviors as confirmation bias and smart idiot effect. Furthermore, conservatism is somewhat correlated with authoritarianism, although no direct causal link has been ascertained, just partial overlap of factors or a loose affinity of interests under some conditions. What this means is that there is a distinct subset of people who consistently measure high on both conservatism and authoritarianism.

Relevant to my discussion here, authoritarian types are predisposed to being drawn into hierarchical relationships with social dominance orientation types.

The most basic definition — or the most basic element in my theory — of symbolic conflation is this:

A particular type of person is prone to a particular style of thought process that conflates symbolism with reality.

This conflation is inherent to the thought process itself and not merely an end result or side effect. Hence, it isn’t observable by those manifesting this cognitive pattern. Symbolic conflation is only effective when and to the degree it operates below the threshold of awareness.

In communicating shared values and beliefs, rhetoric (usually political rhetoric) can employ specific issues or talking points as symbols for something deeper or larger such that the explicit terms and phrases become codewords for something else, either an unstated meaning or context. To an outside observer, that something else may seem entirely unrelated or not directly related to the overt topic. None of this is necessarily intentional and certainly not conscious. It isn’t an attempt to deceive or manipulate by the person under the sway of the thought process, although it would be used this way by social dominance orientation types when they are seeking to shape the collective identity, perception, and behavior of a specific group or demographic.

For most people, they use symbolic language because that seems to be the easiest (simplest and most useful) way to express the (fuller and deeper) meanings that are otherwise difficult or maybe even impossible to communicate in a more direct and analytical manner. The problem is that symbolism plays a powerful role in the imagination, especially at an unconscious level. This is what makes conflation possible and (for certain types of people and certain types of thinking) probable, even if not inevitable.

One could say, to put it simply:

People don’t always say what they mean… or mean what they say.

However, it might be unfair to explain it with what can be interpreted as dismissive over-simplification. Maybe such people can be taken at face value or maybe not, but either way there is a subtext that is more important and I would add more interesting.

Let me use one of the examples I mentioned earlier.

Sex education and sex-related issues, like abortion, has been put under the scrutiny of those doing scientific research and gathering public data. Using such objective knowledge, this issue can be attacked from numerous angles.

Studies show that abstinence-only sex education fails to decrease sexual activity and ends up, for lack of focus on contraceptives, increasing the rate of both unwanted pregnancies and STDs (the unwanted pregnancies relates to the correlation to increased abortions in countries with abortion bans since such countries also tend to promote abstinence-only sex education and decrease access to contraceptives along with decreasing access to family planning and women’s health clinics). These results are predictable based on what is known about biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology. Humans living in pre-industrial and pre-agricultural societies have very different lifestyles and diets that include reaching puberty years later than modern humans and not delaying sexual activity and marriage like modern humans — thus demonstrating how conservative beliefs/values are divergent from and contradictory to the environmental conditions according to which human nature evolved.

This sex issue is what I first gnashed my teeth on in my coming to terms with the conservative mind. I brought up this info with conservatives, but it was all for naught.

I slowly came to realize that it wasn’t about the practical results of decreasing STDs, unwanted pregnancies and abortions. The issue was about culture and morality. Conservatives see society as morally corrupt and human nature as sinful. Conservative beliefs and values aren’t seen as having failed according to actual people and actual society, but the other way around. So, conservative methods not achieving practical results shouldn’t be blamed on conservatism, if anything it is taken as proof that conservative efforts need to be redoubled.

It should be clarified that it isn’t about conservatives not deigning to make their pure ideals filthy with practical results.

From the conservative viewpoint, there are more important results that have nothing to do with the worldly or lowly concerns of a society ruled by progressivism/socialism (i.e., social democracy), secular humanism, and politically correct multiculturalism. What they seek to achieve is the creating, maintaining and defending of the conservative social order along with its underlying vision of conservative moral order.

Sure, people will inevitably fail to live up to the high standards of conservatism. Most people will fail most of the time and all people will fail at least some of the time, but two important results are hoped for:

1) High standards will filter out the unworthy through punishment and enforced accountability while allowing the worthy to rise to the top into positions of hierarchical authority and in other ways be rewarded for their merit.
2) Punishment, as a threat and an enforcement, will cause people to fearfully cleave closely to the conservative rule and order, thus creating dutiful conformity and social stability.

In the ideal conservative world, premarital/extramarital sex would lead to chastisement, humiliation, ostracism or even banishment and premarital/extramarital pregnancy would lead to the same or else get one forced into marriage, not that any man would want to marry a loose woman in such a society unless he too was forced. Put this in economic terms and you’ll get the ideal world of fiscal conservatism with its austere meritocracy of the haves and have-nots.

This ideal world, of course, will rarely if ever be stated so openly and directly, so starkly and explicitly. Its power resides with the symbolic issues taking center stage like puppets on a string. As the melodrama plays out in public view, the conservative narrative takes hold of the rapt audience.

Symbolic conflation is a very specific way of thinking and communicating symbolically, not to be confused with symbolic cognition in general.

It is tricky trying to grasp at symbolism that seeks to remain hidden, but that just makes it all the more enticing. In my present ponderings, this hidden quality turns my mind toward thoughts of art and the imagination. In considering the liberal/conservative angle, I’m reminded of a similar difference I’ve observed with how art is framed and to what purpose it is used:

With liberals, ideology is expanded through imagination. With conservatives, imagination is constrained by ideology. Both may start with ideology, but go in different directions. The liberal impulse wants to escape or transform ideology into something greater. It’s not that conservatives don’t have a sense of something greater. It’s just that to conservatives ideology itself is an expression of that sense of something greater. Maybe it’s a difference between ideology as means vs ends.

The conservative mind treats art or any other creation of imagination in the way it treats religion. Its natural response is literalism. So, imagination is seen as having no truth in itself. In this way, there is no art for art’s sake, no creative play just for the joy of it, no envisioning of possibility just because one can. Literalism has a literalist purpose and a lieralist end. Literalism is the ur-ideology of conservatism. There is one truth, one reality, one interpretation, one solution (to rule them all).

That constraining of imagination to the ideological seems to be related to the conflating of symbolism with reality. In both cases, imagination or symbolism for the conservative plays an obfuscatory role. In analyzing the conservative worldview, it falls apart because what holds the conservative worldview together is the resistance to analysis. To speak openly and directly about ideology, to factually discuss objective reality, is to reveal the lynchpin of the conservative social order.

As I’ve noted many times before, a core element of liberalism is empathetic imagination. For liberals, imagination is personally and interpersonally real for the liberal imagination is about relating, connecting, merging, crossing boundaries, transgressing the taboo. It’s not that liberals care not about the social order but that they put the emphasis on the social part. Liberals see order serving the social while conservatives see it the other way around.

An inverse relation exists between symbolic conflation and empathetic imagination. Let me explain by summarizing.

What symbolic conflation does is to focus on the symbolic by sacrificing the apparently practical results and real world implications. Nonetheless, the person under the sway of such thinking sees themselves as being perfectly practical. They are indeed being practical, although their practicality is being applied to the covert issue rather than the overt issue. Conservatives’ relative indifference to practical solutions for overt issues would be strengthened or exaggerated by their weak sense of empathic imagination. They are less able to imaginatively empathize with the victims of conservative policies and less able to empathetically imagine it being any other way, even when objective data of other societies proves and demonstrates another way works better in avoiding or solving some problem.

In the conservative worldview, instead of being freed by imagination, empathy is constrained by ideological literalism. Humans are seen as being constrained by their own fallen or selfish nature. As such, human failure and suffering is assumed to be unavoidable, inevitable, simply the way the world works. To imagine otherwise is idealistic utopianism and so imagination gets blamed for this state of affairs for it is seen as offering false hope. Hence, false hope is assumed to exacerbate suffering by creating dissatisfaction with the status quo and, worst still, false hope on the political level is assumed to lead to oppression when the ‘impossible’ is sought to be enforced on the ‘real’.

Conservatives assume the conservative predisposition represents all of human nature. So, they assume the limits of the conservative worldview are the same as the limits of human reality, maybe even all of reality. As a liberal’s imagination is the liberal’s reality, a conservative’s literalist belief is theirs.

My criticisms of the conservative mindset may be related to my wariness to the ideological mindset.

There is a correlation between conservatism and dogmatism, especially as it relates to authoritarianism (maybe dogmatism being the main or one of the main factors where conservatism and authoritarianism overlap). This probably connects to conservatism being negatively correlated to the openness trait and the thin boundary type. A set of ideas only becomes truly ideological when it is strictly systematized and that is precisely what the conservative mindset is good at doing. Conservatives excel or at least are disproportionately represented in careers where systems of rules, beliefs or ideas are central, such as in the legal system.

I’m wary about generalizing ideology too much and extending it beyond that which it most directly and usefully applies. Ideology etymologically originates from ‘idea’. An ideology is a set of ideas, a thought system. Ideologies are involved in or included within but not identical to governments, political parties, cultures, religions, mythologies, worldviews, lifeways, reality tunnels, etc.

It is unhelpful, maybe even dangerous, to think of ideology as representing all (or most) of human reality or, to put it another way, constraining human reality to the limits of ideology. However, to the person who becomes entirely committed to and identified with an ideology, it is experienced as if it were their entire reality. Even though though reality tunnels necessitate more than ideologies, it is an ideology that can play a central role in justifying a reality tunnel and keeping one trapped within it.

In thinking about this, I was doing many websearches and looking through my old posts here on this blog. Here is some of what I came across that was rumbling around in my head as I wrote all of the above:;jsessionid=D58D9FC0B8BFE453E7F846A690C2889D.d04t02?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

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