"The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite." ~ Thomas Jefferson
Labels Divide and Conquer
I am often disgusted when people tell me nonchalantly that they are liberal or conservative with no further explanation, because it implies a lot more (or less, rather) than most people realize. Sometimes I will say that I am liberal or conservative on a given issue, but I'm beginning to think that I shouldn't do the liberal-conservative political spectrum the service of referring to it in writing.
Sometimes I use such language simply because it's easier than explaining what I really mean. I may not even know for certain what I'm attempting to communicate, and thoughtless catch phrases are easier. I know that a thousand different people will interpret such language in a thousand different ways, and that in a hundred years or so, no one will know what any of us meant by these terms anyway, but it's become a habit. So much as I try not to use ambiguous language, it's very difficult to do otherwise. Most of us were never taught how to use language properly, aside from spelling and grammar as is traditional. It is of great benefit to people in advertising and politics that we don't learn such things.
There are many meaningless words that serve no practical purpose other than clouding our real intent. If you consider that human language contains information that can theoretically be quantified into bits and bytes and kilobytes and megabytes, then consider how much actual information is contained in sentences like 'I am liberal' or 'FDR was a very patriotic man' or 'That is not politically correct.' These sentences contain no more actual information than the famous 'This sentence is false.' They likely contain negative information, since not only do they fail to provide real information, they actually mislead you into thinking you've learned something when in reality you haven't.
We use such language for many reasons. Sometimes we are too lazy to explain ourselves in a clear and concise manner. We don't want to take the time to think about the consistency of what we really believe and want to communicate. Sometimes we're ashamed or embarrassed to explain ourselves, so we replace our actual beliefs with supposed synonyms like 'liberal' and 'conservative.' Sometimes we intentionally want to deceive people, and if we were to explain exactly what we were thinking, we couldn't deceive anyone. In his essay 'Politics and the English Language,' George Orwell writes: 'Political language ' and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists ' is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.'
In the past I have defended conservatism from the bad reputation it has gotten in recent years, but I now wonder if it is really necessary to defend it. What about liberalism, environmentalism, or capitalism? I am tempted to say that they are not worth defending, but then I remember the argument that, if you don't defend your interpretation of a given label, other people are bound to control it, and he who controls the label has the power.
That point aside, I have a much better idea. Wouldn't it be an improvement if political movements were named after their founders or something at least somewhat objective? Instead of simply 'conservatism,' we would have Goldwater-ism, Reagan-ism, Bush-ism, Thatcher-ism, Rand-ism, and on and on. You could even be the founder of a political philosophy (and in fact, as it's safe to say that no one else has exactly the same political beliefs as you, you are probably already the founder of a political philosophy). Is this not infinitely better than believing, as many people seem to, that you only have two predefined choices: conservatism and liberalism? I wouldn't suggest that political philosophies must always or even usually be named after their founders, but at least it would force people to think about their beliefs much more carefully than they do now.
What is conservatism exactly? It might be important to know that the label 'conservative' could in theory be used to describe everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Adolph Hitler. When you call yourself a conservative, you are simply claiming to have a vague set of political beliefs and really could be following anyone from Thoreau to Hitler.
In my eyes, by far the biggest problem with following an ideology is that it divides and conquers. Suppose you generally consider yourself liberal, yet you have an abortion stance that is traditionally conservative, and furthermore you take abortion issues very seriously and want to be an activist. If you are like many people, you will probably quit before you've even started. You'll waste most of your energy trying to figure out what you have in common with a group of conservatives. You'll also second-guess yourself, and wonder if you should be so vocal on a conservative issue if you're really a bona fide liberal. You will wonder if it's alright to join a conservative organization (and probably won't bother anyway). If they know you're a liberal, you'll have a difficult time convincing many conservatives to accept you even when you're working with them on something. It really is divide and conquer.
I don't want to know whether you're liberal or conservative. I want to know what you think about this issue, and that issue, and this issue, and that issue. I don't want to know which predefined label seems closest to what you believe ' I want to know what you actually do believe, detail for detail. Only then will we be able to work together for a common goal without seeing elusive words like 'liberal' and 'conservative' as obstacles. And it's plain stupidity to give up so much just for a label.