Orderliness and Animals

There is another example that demonstrates the conservative mind. It comes from my parents, as did the last one I discussed. This one is also about the conservative relationship to animals.

My parents have a lovable fat cat, Sam. He is getting old and this requires more effort than it used to. This past year he was diagnosed with diabetes and he has to have an insulin shot twice a day, which makes traveling anywhere difficult.

There are always clear rules in my parents’ house, the way things are supposed to be done and what is not allowed. This was true when I was a kid. And it still is true for Sam who lives under their roof. One of those rules is that cats are only allowed on particular pieces of furniture, such as the furniture in the basement and footstools on the main floor. But Sam has a fondness for a couple of chairs he isn’t supposed to be on.

Just the other day he barfed on the chair. It’s a high quality chair that was expensive. My parents have had it for a long time and it matches the way they have their house decorated. The cat barf doesn’t seem to be cleaning up or else some of the dye came out of the fabric. This is unacceptable, as this chair is directly where they entertain guests.

I could see how upset my mother was. Sam then barfed in some other places as well. One of those places was a silk rug. My parents wouldn’t normally buy a rug that was made out of silk, but they didn’t realize that is what it was when they bought it. The barf came out fine with the rug, but it added to the stress.

This made me think of a couple of things.

My parents always threatened that any pet that caused too much trouble would be gotten rid of. They like Sam, as they’ve liked other pets we’ve had, but my parents aren’t bleeding-heart liberals. They wouldn’t feel the kind of sadness I’d feel by putting down an animal. They, in particular my mother, have a more practical view of pet ownership and death. Their attitude about such things is very much an expression of a thick boundary. It’s easier for them to cut off emotion, specifically as compared to my namby-pamby soft heart.

The other thing about the thick boundary type is the need for orderliness. My parents go to great effort to create and maintain an orderly house. Not just clean but but also well decorated, well organized, and generally well kept. Nothing broken or with a burned out light is likely to remain that way for very long. In the middle of a conversation, my mother will start wiping the counters that didn’t look dirty.

A pet, like a child, is a potential agent of disorder. My parents are fine with pets and children, as long as they are well-behaved. But a pet, in particular, is secondary to the home itself. A cat that adds to the good feeling of a home is allowed, but if the cat detracts it might quickly wear out its welcome.

My parents have an idea of what house and a home should be like. It’s a very specific vision built on a conservative worldview and conservative social norms. If you watch a Hallmark movie or an early black-and-white sitcom, you know the guiding vision of this conservative attitude, expressing a desire to fit in and be normal. Rules are put in place to ensure this is maintained.

None of this is a judgment of this conservative-mindedness. Nor is this the only way conservative-mindedness can be acted on. For some conservatives, a sense of loyalty to a pet such as a dog might override orderliness or else the kind of order considered the norm might be far different. My parents are filtering their conservative-mindedness through a particular middle class attitude, specifically as idealized in mainstream culture and as seen in mainstream media. A working class conservative, however, might conform to some other social norm, such as keeping religious paraphernalia in a particular way or having regularly cooked family meals. But however it is perceived and given form, one thing that conservative-mindedness strongly correlates with is orderliness.

What is clear is that, for conservatives, the social order is prioritized. This is true of both the larger sense of order in a society or as defined in ideological worldviews and the smaller sense of order in a personal living space or an office. Order is greater than the individual or, pushed to the extreme, that there is no individual outside the order. One way or another, individuals are expected to conform to the order rather than the structuring the order to conform to individuals. It’s the job of the individual to remain in the place allotted to them and to follow the role demanded of them; or else to work hard and compete for the opportunity to gain a new social position, which then would require new expectations and norms to be accepted.

On the other hand, a strongly liberal-minded person would have a less clear cut or more malleable sense of order. If the cat kept getting on furniture and barfing, the liberal-minded would tend toward arranging the house to accommodate the cat. Liberal-mindedness also correlates to a weaker sense of disgust and so occasional barf wouldn’t be as bothersome and distressing. Of course, it depends on how liberal-minded a person is. Many self-identified liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded in all or even most ways, and so such liberals might take a more conservative-minded attitude about order and cleanliness.

This doesn’t seem all that important on a personal level. How someone wants to maintain their house is a personal issue, since it doesn’t generally effect others. Whether you have barfy animals in a cluttered house or the opposite, it is mostly irrelevant in the big picture. But these personal attitudes are inseparable from our social and political opinions.

This relates to an insight I had many years ago. The abortion issue isn’t about the overt issue itself. The whole debate is ultimately about the question of social order. Conservatives wouldn’t support liberal policies, even if it meant that the abortion rate would be lower than under conservative policies. The reason is that the social order about relationships, sexuality, and family values are more important than even the lives of fetuses.

Someone who gets pregnant, to the conservative mind, must suffer the consequences. It is irrelevant how actual people act in the real world, such that abortion bans lead not to fewer abortions but simply to an increased rate of illegal abortions. That is irrelevant, for those who are harmed by botched illegal abortions would be getting the punishment they deserve. If they were a good person, they wouldn’t be having sex when they don’t want kids. And if they were a good person who did have sex, they would take responsibility by allowing the pregnancy go to term and then raising the child. The conservative social order never fails, for it is individuals who fail the conservative social order, which in no ways disproves and invalidates it.

Order is at the heart of the conservative worldview. More than anything else, this is what motivates conservative-mindedness. Through the lens of a thick boundary, there is right and wrong that must be defended even at high costs. The greater the conservative-mindedness the greater the willingness to enforce those costs, even when it is personally harmful. Psychological research shows that a fair number of people, presumably the most conservative-minded, are willing to punish those who break social norms even when it doesn’t personally benefit the punisher. Maintaining the social order is worth it, within a certain worldview.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that few people are at either extreme of conservative-mindedness or liberal-mindedness. Most people want some social order, but most people also have clear limits to how far they will go in enforcing a social order. The average person can switch between these mindsets, to varying degrees and according to different situations.

That is true of my parents. As conservatives go, they are actually quite liberal-minded. Even though they strongly prefer order, they aren’t willing to enforce it at any costs. They have their breaking point where order would come to the forefront and be prioritized over all else, but they would have to be pushed fairly far before they got to that point. Sam would have to destroy some other pieces of furniture and cause other problems as well before they finally got around to getting rid of him, which at this age would mean putting him down. Plus, my parents have softened quite a bit with age and so have become more tolerant, one might say more liberal-minded. Still, this kind of thing bothers them in a way it would less likely bother someone much further up the scale on liberal-mindedness.

Plus, my parents know that I love Sam and would be heartbroken if they put him down. Family is important to conservatives. With that in mind, my parents realize keeping Sam around is a way to get me to visit more often. They are manipulating my soft liberal-mindedness, not that I mind.

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7 thoughts on “Orderliness and Animals

  1. “Most people want some social order, but most people also have clear limits to how far they will go in enforcing a social order. The average person can switch between these mindsets, to varying degrees and according to different situations.”

    My fiancee has three kids, ages 6-10, and we can see this dichotomy very clearly in the both of us through the way we relate to them and run the household when we have them on weekends. Becca and I both were raised in relatively high-discipline Christian homes, so that’s what we’re used to if you dig deep enough. Being a single parent though, Becca’s authoritarian streak had softened quite a bit since the kids were born (she was actually married most of that time, but her ex husband was away for work usually, and in any case he didn’t do much in the way of parenting when he WAS around).

    Now that I’m on the scene, the dynamic is changing… partly because I’m less accustomed to kids in general, and particularly to sometimes-disobedient ones, so my tolerance is lower… but also because having another adult observer around is shining new light on the situation for Becca, so she realizes it more when the kids are being “bad”. And thirdly, all the kids are old enough now that they can pretty reasonably be expected to be obedient and orderly, more so than when they were younger.

    The most interesting thing about that tug of war on OUR part is thinking about what it means to the children. They have to try to guess which “rules” they actually have to follow and which ones they can ignore and get away with it. For months early on I felt guilty about that, and my answer was to both try and soften my expectations AND to try and enforce more consistency… that way they could at least have an idea what to expect. But the longer I’ve observed and the more I think about it, I think that unpredictability and the constantly changing expectations are actually not a bad example of what adult life can be like sometimes. They’re all 3 learning different coping skills, and developing different tools to get what they want, and when they DO occasionally get zapped for “stepping out of line”… well that’s some valuable education as well.

    I think altogether what this means is that we’re raising them in a more liberal environment than either of us adults grew up with. I never stay worried for very long, because all three kids may push the boundaries at home… or in Sunday school when mommy is teaching, BUT when they are around OTHER adults or it’s someone else’s turn to teach Sunday school, they perform excellently and leave everybody impressed. No matter how chaotic and rebellious they are behind closed doors in the home, one way or another they’re still learning the self discipline that’s my own main concern in trying to impose some sort of order.

    I think parenting is likely always a crapshoot and a guessing game to some degree. There are things I appreciate about my own upbringing with it’s well enforced rules and predictability. But I also reached adulthood with a fairly high expectation that I would find order and discipline there, and that’s not at all how it turned out to be. Maybe the kids are getting a little better equipped than we were for a somewhat chaotic world.

    • I understand where you’re coming from. I was raised in an orderly household. It is what I’m used to. If I had kids, I’d struggle with how to raise them.

      Part of me would be drawn to raise kids in the way I was raised, as social disorder does agitate my introverted nature. I have limited tolerance for disobedient kids, especially if they are loud and obtrusive. Yet my liberal nature would want to find balance and not be too strict.

      I have my own cats. I struggle even in how I treat my cats when they misbehave. I wouldn’t care about the orderliness aspect. If one of my cats barfed on a chair, I’d just clean it up and even a permanent stain wouldn’t bother me.

      The only thing that has really bothered me is when one of my cats pissed on some clean clothes. I’ve just learned not to leave clothes on the floor, as for some reason cats find that attractive. I worry about animal pee also for the simple reason I rent and it would make my landlord unhappy. I don’t want to make my landlord unhappy.

      I suppose you don’t have to worry about your fiancee’s kids peeing on things.

  2. I like bringing up concrete examples like this. It helps me think through issues.

    Orderliness is a strange thing. I’m not quite sure what it represents. I’m also wondering if we tend to think about this in a wrong or unhelpful way. This post was on my mind today. It occurred to me that maybe liberals aren’t any less interested in order. It’s possible that they simply have a different focus on or use of order, or maybe an entirely different kind or expression of order.

    As a comparison, empathy came to mind. Conservatives have strong empathy for those perceived as part of their in-group. But liberals have more empathy for a wider circle of people not immediately a part of their society and personal experience. For example, an American conservative would identify more with an American soldier whereas, even though feeling empathy for the soldier, a liberal would feel even more empathy for the innocent child killed by the soldier.

    Sometimes people speak of liberals as being more empathetic because they have thin boundaries. But maybe it is better to think of it as a different kind of empathy. It might be a wider and more inclusive empathy. Even so, the empathy a conservative feels for those within their circle of concern might be stronger for being less diffuse. It’s not clear, therefore, whose empathy is greater.

    Similarly, a liberal’s sense of order might focus more on the big picture. Maybe that is why many liberals put focus on big government. As with empathy, the liberal is seeking the largest frame for their desired order. In seeking tolerance and fairness, a larger moral order and hence social order is required. Yet they might have less concern for order in their immediate environment.

    That is just a possibility that came to mind. The point being that maybe we haven’t designed research in such a way to measure the kind of order liberals prefer. Even a larger, more inclusive, and malleable sense of order is still an expression of orderliness — is it not? If so, why haven’t social scientists been able to capture this in their research?

    Assuming I’m correct, the opposite of conservative-minded order isn’t liberal-minded anarchy and chaos. It’s simply two different expressions of order. Even ideological anarchists aren’t necessarily against order, although their sense of order might not fit mainstream views.

  3. You bring up a very good point that works with my own observations of the liberal and conservative people around me. I would also extend it to the internet. I was reading today of a professor who dared voice her opinion of our new President Elect and it was recorded and broadcast onto the web. The results are typically what you would expect. To the conservative, a professor giving their opinion, is not teaching. Not teaching is against their sense of what is normal and what is not.

    I never thought about it until you brought it up. As for animals, we used to raise Siberian Huskies long before they became popular. We had one rule, if the animal was in pain, we would put it down. We did not want them suffering one moment more than they needed to be.

    • A part of conservative-minded orderliness is the desire to maintain social order by maintaining social roles. In this thick boundary mindset and worldview, social roles are specifically defined and constrained. Someone who is in a role is not supposed to act or speak in a way that is contrary to that role.

      From that perspective, a professor is an authority figure and his role is to defend authority, although that only applies to defending conservative-approved authority. An authority figure, accordingly, should defend the conservative social order and moral order. And of course it is assumed that all order is conservative order. That is the only purpose an authority figure has to the most conservative-minded.

      That professor has no right to speak his own opinion, to the conservative-minded. I should add that I’m speaking of conservative-mindedness in the broadest sense. Many people can be prone to conservative-mindedness, under various conditions. Even self-identified liberals, in defending political liberalism, can sometimes act conservative-minded (e.g., political correctness).

      It’s interesting, though, that conservatives will often defend the liberal value of free speech. But they tend to only do this when it is the free speech of conservatives. If that professor had been a conservative voicing his opinion, conservatives would more likely have interpreted it as an action taken in defense of the conservative order.

      This gets at my point that order isn’t an objective reality. Order is a social construct, a way of looking at the world.

      A liberal would see that professor acting within the liberal order of a liberal democracy in a liberal free society. To the strongly liberal-minded, the conformity of the individual to an order is less important than the larger sense of order that goes far beyond individuals. This is why liberals focus on not only big government but also tend to see problems in systemic and environmental terms (such as climate change and externalized costs). The emphasis of the liberal-minded is how an order influences, shapes, and impacts individuals.

      The difference isn’t a concern about order versus a lack of concern. Rather, it’s about the individual’s relationship to the order versus the order’s relationship to the individual, individuals conforming to the order versus the order conforming to individuals. To explain it according to this post, does one have pets that will fit one’s household order or does one shape one’s household order around having pets.

      That is how I see it, at the moment. But my thoughts here are tentative. Just speculating.

  4. The abortion issue is quite useful in understanding this. For conservatives, it’s about enforcing a moral order onto the social order. For liberals, it’s about creating the conditions in the social order that will lead to moral results.

    This is why liberal policies decrease the abortion rate while conservative policies don’t. Conservatives aren’t primarily concerned about fetuses, about the moral results but about the moral order. Liberals are instead more concerned about the larger social order. Both are focused on order, although entirely different kinds of orders with different purposes.

    I rarely see this discussed. This is what doesn’t come up in social science research, as far as I can tell. And of course it never gets discussed in mainstream politics and mainstream media, at least not in how I’m framing it here. The most useful discussion never happens and so a better understanding never develops.

  5. I was interacting with some standard mainstream liberals. Not the liberal elite but probably above average in wealth and education.

    It occurred to me again how liberals often are in the middle of scales. In the US, at least, liberalism often designates a moderate and centrist position. This is even true for liberal-mindedness, as many within the broad liberal demographic are more or less average in their liberal-mindedness, which might be unsurprising considering the average American is fairly liberal on many political and social issues.

    I was reminded of how liberals can have the habit of narrowly focusing. They aren’t as bad about this as conservatives, but they are much worse than most leftists. I was talking to several liberals who seemed unable or unwilling to think about foreign aid to Israel in a larger political context. This is probably because it would require asking tough questions about what kind of country the US is and what kind of global order we are part of.

    The same thing goes for the difficulty so many liberals have in connecting issues like race and class. It’s as if they think that one must be sacrificed in order to emphasize the other. This either/or thinking is rather conservative-minded. It takes a more liberal-minded leftist to really grasp the complex connections and the larger context.

    This fits in with the issue of orderliness. I pointed out that liberals are focused on larger orders. Well, liberal-minded leftists focus larger still. They are all concerned about orderliness, but they have different assumptions about and visions of order, different priorities and purposes. Modern liberal societies are built on higher levels of liberal-mindedness than has ever before been seen in human populations and at the same time these are in many ways the most orderly societies the world has ever seen. Democratic process is all about ensuring order but at a larger level.

    Part of the reason conservatives don’t like big government in the US is simply because big government in the US is relatively liberal compared to big governments elsewhere and at other times. Another reason is that conservatives realize their ideal order is best enforced by local power. They would rather gain control of big government by controlling local governments. This is because top-down control by conservatives in a liberal society is easier to accomplish at the local level in order to support a national conservative order.

    This isn’t because conservatives have a good sense of systemic problems that need to be dealt with. Even with problems that concern conservatives, the most complex their thinking tends to get is to focus on culture which is primarily experienced within local communities. Conservative-mindedness by itself doesn’t work well for complex modern societies. This is why conservatives are forced to co-opt so much from liberalism and leftism, to build on what they can’t build for themselves.

    Liberals only seem like they are less interested in order because liberal-minded order tends to be larger, more complex, and more nuanced. To the degree a social order is liberal is to the degree that it isn’t overt and obvious, isn’t based on blunt force and manipulation. The most liberal-minded would rather create the conditions that lead to better behavior than to try to do as the conservative-minded are prone to do in forcing people to behave (by way of military, police, and prisons or else more social punishments such public shaming and ostracism, not to mention propaganda and indoctrination to ensure people think right in order that they’ll act right).

    This is why big government taken in the conservative sense is not the first option the most liberal-minded would turn to. The most liberal-minded would rather not use government at all to force people to do anything, but the problem is if people are being harmed by those who refuse to act otherwise what other choice is there but to have laws and regulations that can be enforced by the rule of law. The liberal-minded in its greater perception of complexity sees the harms being done and yet unless everyone else has an equal level of liberal-mindedness to act accordingly there are few other options in dealing with the problems. The liberal-minded see that order already exists in the world (ecosystems, biosphere, etc) and so the hope is, by acknowledging and understanding this prior order, that we can align human order with the natural order, not to enforce order onto chaos.

    That is speaking in more general terms, not that most people are at either extreme end. It’s the broad pattern of differences that intrigues me. The ‘liberal-minded’ view I’m giving voice to is more common among leftists than liberals, although relatively speaking it is more common among liberals than conservatives. It’s a spectrum from simple order to complex order, different tendencies in how humanity and reality is perceived. Obviously, I’m biased in my assessment, but even so I think the point I’m getting at remains basically true or at least potentially helpful.

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