The Round-Based Community

Yet there’s an even deeper point to be made here, which is that flatness may actually be closer to how we think about the people around us, or even about ourselves.

This is a useful observation from Alec Nevala-Lee (The flat earth society).

I’m willing to bet that perceiving others and oneself as round characters has to do with the ability of cognitive complexity and tolerance for cognitive dissonance. These are tendencies of the liberal-minded, although research shows that with cognitive overload, from stress to drunkenness, even the liberal-minded will become conservative-minded (e.g., liberals who watched repeated video of 9/11 terrorist attacks were more likely to support Bush’s war on terror; by the way, identifying a conflict by a single emotion is a rather flat way of looking at the world).

Bacon concludes: “Increasingly, the political party you belong to represents a big part of your identity and is not just a reflection of your political views. It may even be your most important identity.” And this strikes me as only a specific case of the way in which we flatten ourselves out to make our inner lives more manageable. We pick and choose what else we emphasize to better fit with the overall story that we’re telling. It’s just more obvious these days.

So, it’s not only about characters but entire attitudes and worldviews. The ego theory of self itself encourages flatness, as opposed to the (Humean and Buddhist) bundle theory of self. It’s interesting to note how much more complex identity has become in the modern world and how much more accepting we are of allowing people to have multiple identities than in the past. This has happened at the very same time that fluid intelligence has drastically increased, and of course fluid intelligence correlates with liberal-mindedness (correlating as well to FFM openness, MBTI perceiving, Hartmann’s thin boundary type, etc).

Cultures have a way of taking psychological cues from their heads of state. As Forster says of one critical objection to flat characters: “Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” When the president himself is flat—which is another way of saying that he can no longer surprise us on the downside—it has implications both for our literature and for our private lives.

At the moment, the entire society is under extreme duress. This at least temporarily rigidifies the ego boundaries. Complexity of identity becomes less attractive to the average person at such times. Still, the most liberal-minded (typically radical leftists in the US) will be better at maintaining their psychological openness in the face of conflict, fear, and anxiety. As Trump is the ultimate flat character, look to the far left for those who will represent the ultimate round character. Mainstream liberals, as usual, will attempt to play to the middle and shift with the winds, taking up flat and round in turn. It’s a battle of not only ideological but psychological worldviews. And which comes to define our collective identity will dominate our society for the coming generation.

The process is already happening. And it shouldn’t astonish us if we all wake up one day to discover that the world is flat.

It’s an interesting moment. Our entire society is becoming more complex — in terms of identity, demographics, technology, media, and on and on. This requires we develop the ability of roundedness or else fall back on the simplifying rhetoric and reaction of conservative-mindedness with the rigid absolutes of authoritarianism being the furthest reaches of flatness… and, yes, such flatness tends to be memorable (the reason it is so easy to make comparisons to someone like Hitler who has become an extreme caricature of flatness). This is all the more reason for the liberal-minded to gain the awareness and intellectual defenses toward the easy attraction of flat identities and worldviews, since in a battle of opposing flat characters the most conservative-minded will always win.


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.

Change and Acceptance: A Liberal-Minded View

I wish I could forget about politics and political divisions. But regularly interacting with my conservative parents constantly reminds me of how different my liberal-minded view can be. And this causes me to think about politics in very personal terms. 

I keep coming back to some basic truths about conservatives and liberals along with other related differences. I was at the moment focused on the issue of understanding that is informed by these respective ideological worldviews and how this makes communication challenging. Certainly, communication with my parents can be challenging at times.

I’d like to think that I’m slowly gaining in wisdom or something approximating wisdom. Over time, it has become clear to me how there are positives and negatives to all psychological traits, especially as they manifest in terms of ideological worldviews. This has caused me to become increasingly accepting and forgiving… or at least that is how I’d like to be. I’ve been trying to learn to just feel the frustration and let it ride.

Most importantly, I have no choice but to accept my own limitations in dealing with the limitations of others. No matter what I identify as, no matter how I may shift from time to time, I’ll most likely forever remain centered in liberal-mindedness. At this point, it just feels like who I am and I can’t easily imagine myself otherwise. It would be nearly impossible for me to shift into the full mode of the conservative mindset, although I do have enough experience with and tendencies toward conservatism to make it not an entirely alien reality.

Here  is my frustration. Even with some understanding, the bridge between the two predispositions can seem insurpassable. I sometimes think this bothers the liberal-minded more for we can tend to be over-sensitive bleeding hearts who just want everyone to get along. The conservative-minded seem more inclined to just assume that the liberal-minded are so clueless as to never understand their worldview, thus communication being impossible and cooperation undesirable. This can be hard for the liberal-minded to accept. Polarized partisanship may inspire the conservative-minded and mobilize the conservative movement, but it instead tends to depress the liberal-minded and immobilize the liberal movement.

I’ve noticed how the conservative-minded are more likely to see this difference as a moral difference, specifically those who are moral versus those who are immoral or amoral. It’s the typical dualistic thinking, this or that, right or wrong. This is not unusually portrayed as a battle with the moral imperative to fight and win. For many conservative activists, this is seen as a cosmic war of good versus evil where victory must be sought at any cost. For the fundamentalist, one’s mortal soul and all of humanity is at risk. The enemy, even if not entirely evil, isn’t seen as a worthy equal and so compromise is a moral danger not to be risked. Every step toward liberalism is one step closer to Godless Communism or some such thing.

The liberal-minded, on the other hand, tend to take a more emotionally detached approach, whether psychological or philosophical (more detached, anyway, from such emotions as fear and hatred). This emphasizes differences without judging them in as absolute of terms, seeing both sides as potentially having something positive to contribute. If there is a moral danger to be feared, it is the divisiveness that makes cooperation toward a shared vision beyond all hope.

One side is fighting a battle or else guarding their territory in preparation for war while the other side is simply confused about how to respond. The former mentality, specifically when in this reactionary stance, isn’t very open to sitting down and talking. It is only when the fear response is dampened that liberal-minded can satisfy their own approach because only then are the conservative-minded willing to accept terms of truce.

Fear is the determining factor, for both sides. When the social atmosphere is fear-ridden, two things happen. First, the conservative-minded can become even more conservative-minded which means not just resistant to change but reactionary. And, second, the liberal-minded can become more conservative-minded as well which means leftism as a movement falters and splinters while leftists either become radicalized to the point of being excluded from respectable company and/or become defensive  of that which the conservative-minded are reacting against.

Fear is only good for dealing with narrowly-defined threats such as immediate attacks by known enemies, problems that are short-term situations that require quick response, or situations that are localized so as to allow them to be easily defined and isolated. Fear is the most reactionary of emotions. It focuses the mind and prepares the body for action.

This is what conservative-mindedness is all about. Conservative-mindedness is defined by being low on the trait ‘openness’ and high on the trait ‘conscientiousness’. This adds up to a sense of focus and control. Research shows that conservative-minded traits are useful for clearly defined tasks and situations. The conservative-minded make good surgeons for they can focus intently while ignoring all distractions. They make good lawyers for they find it easy to deal with clearly worded laws and tangible precedents. They make good businessmen because success is so much more straightforward with either one making a profit or not, all other external factors being insignificant if they don’t add to or subtract from the bottom line. And they make good soldiers and generals in their ability to act quickly and decisively.

All of this relates to fear, whether fear of death or loss or failure or whatever. Problems arise for the conservative-minded when the situation is vague or complex, hence when fear and hyper-focus is an inadequate or unhelpful response.

Because of this, the conservative-minded will only feel comfortable and confident in certain situations and so they will constantly seek to create a society that conforms to their predispositions. This is why conservatives would love to create a society that is built around capitalism, the military, and/or fundamentalism. Capitalism is particularly clear in our society for conservatives perceive it in Social Darwinian terms where they seek to eliminate or weaken nearly all safety nets and so where one is driven to succeed out of fear of what would happen otherwise. Loss of status can be worse than death for the conservative-minded (and it is a good way to enforce social order in general). And so it is the fear of loss of status that makes life meaningful to them for that is their measure of morality and self-worth. Confrontation with fear strengthens the conservative mind or else just exaggerates it.

The strengths of the conservative-minded are clear. In those situations where they excel, they can utterly defeat the less aggressive and focused liberal-minded. And the conservative-minded are talented at creating the conditions for their success (also the conditions for the failure of their opponents). But their success doesn’t always translate into the success for the society they come to dominate (for this larger democratic society includes many potential ‘opponents’, including competion amongst the conservative-minded in their attempts to enforce their various and even contradictory preferred social orders).

The conservative-minded, however, don’t see it this way for their focused mindset only allows them to see what they choose to focus upon, all else being unnecessary or unworthy. The complex and diverse world of the liberal-minded simply doesn’t exist for them (heck, even the diversity among the conservative-minded isn’t ever fully acknowledged). They only see an issue or problem when it comes into their focus which means when it is no longer possible to ignore. Issues like global warming and economic inequality are vastly complex and so they seem unreal to them, mere abstract fantasies of the liberal elite.

This is a conundrum for the liberal-minded. Whether or not the conservative-minded see it, the problems of global warming and economic inequality remain as the reality we all face. Not even the most conservative-minded can ignore these problems forever. However, decades or even generations can go by before the point comes when the conservative-minded can no longer ignore them.

Here is the wisdom I’ve come to. All that the liberal-minded can do is repeat the truth and restate the obvious, over and over again, continuously and patiently. There is nothing else to be done. The liberal-minded has to accept that the conservative-minded will eventually come around, hopefully before it is too late. Either they come around or they don’t, but only reality itself can eventually force anyone to shift their focus. This is the Taoist approach to politics. Swimming against the tide is pointless and tiring. It is wiser to save one’s strength in order to use it when it can make the most difference. Timing is everything. If the conditions are not right, no amount of effort can make a difference.

This conflict of predispositions and worldviews isn’t essentially a moral issue, as the conservative-minded tend to think. Nor is it necessarily an issue of educating the public or reframing public debates, as the liberal-minded tend to think. It might involve all of those factors, but social change happens for reasons we don’t always understand.

This is where the understanding of a trait spectrum is helpful. It is best to remember that no one is entirely conservative-minded or entirely liberal-minded. The present responses we see from either end of the spectrum are situation-dependent. As the world changes, people shift, predispositions shift, ideologies shift, whole paradigms shift, etc. It doesn’t matter if the conservative-minded react against it or the liberal-minded try to force the issue. Reality always wins out in the end and one can only hope that one is on the side of reality.