Tradition or Progress?

“Conservatives tend to be very skeptical of change. And when something could be improved, they will often get in the way of those improvements because they fear the unintended consequence ……

This quote, from the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, expresses a common definition of the political right: conservatives love tradition.

Weinstein also summarizes the left: “The core of liberalism is a desire for change.” Movement is implied in his statement. It explains why liberal values are called “progressive.”

The difference between the two sides, in this worldview, can be distilled to a single word: change. Liberals embrace it. Conservatives resist.

Weinstein’s widely accepted logic follows a process of induction, where many observations point toward one conclusion. We notice that conservatives revere entrenched religious traditions, and they look back to 240-year-old political documents with approval: an attachment to tradition is discerned.

In contrast, progressives seek what is new in areas as diverse as social justice and immigration policy. They break boundaries; they question borders: these tendencies associate liberals with change, or progress.

Unfortunately, the change mantra fails to draw sharp distinctions when observations are taken to their furthest limits. For example, “conservatives” don’t take the lead on “conservation”; it’s a liberal pursuit instead. In fact, progressives support legislation intended to prevent further change from occurring in the earth’s climate. Similarly, since 2016 “the resistance” to a particular political change has been the Democratic Party’s animating policy.

This blurring of lines is apparent on the conservative side as well. They’ve started unprecedented wars, like George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, which can only be described as a radical change in international relations. This conflicts with Weinstein’s assertion that change applies specifically to liberalism.

Americans must ask better questions about the concept of change. What are we moving from? What are we progressing toward? Within the current political paradigm, change is understood as a movement away from an older system of beliefs toward some new set. But we’ve failed to explore what lies beneath those older and newer convictions.

When induction is applied over a span of millennia, and not just decades, a deeper pattern emerges. Our societies’ most basic components come to the fore: male and female. They represent the foundation of two competing values systems. And they provide a firmer footing for the interpretation of today’s conflicts.

For example, conservatives gravitate toward paternal qualities, like the worship of male deities and an engagement in warrior culture. Liberals, in contrast, favor the maternal, like feminist issues, LGBTQ rights, and protections for Mother Earth. These divisions often feel like they reflect recent trends, but their tension has likely been with us since the earliest human groups.

Many indigenous cultures seem to strike a balance between the paternal and the maternal. If anything, they lean more toward the maternal. In his landmark 2011 book American Nations, Colin Woodard quotes an Inuit woman: “There’s never been a fight for gender equality in Greenland. Women have always been powerful in our society. Our God was female, and when the Christians came to Greenland and said ‘our God is mighty and great and he looks like us,’ our first reaction was: a He? Because not only are our women smarter and more pretty than men, they also give birth, they give life, and when there are problems in society, the women are the ones who are fighting to be sure the society survives.”

The tension between these male and female meta-forces is always more complex than the proponents of either side are willing to proclaim. So, while Greenland is nominally independent, it’s also heavily subsidized by Denmark, a part of the Scandinavian society that attempted to impose those paternal values. The complexity doesn’t stop there, though …… female-oriented values are far more prevalent today in Europe than during Scandinavia’s colonizing period. And, as in every society, the ultimate outcome of this conflict remains unresolved.

Popular concepts like progress or tradition fail to function as explanatory markers when a wider net is cast. Change can only be defined relative to a society’s recent historical orientation. Has it trended more maternal in the past? Or was it more paternal?

The taoist duality between male and female always features an unpredictable mix of conflict and cooperation. And it lies beneath the ongoing left-right conflict in our own culture. For example, the paternal values of seventeenth century Europeans became entrenched in America’s earliest political institutions from the outset of our continent’s colonization. This ceded the conservatives steep structural leverage for many generations to come. Over time, though, maternal values have carved deep inroads into those institutions.

Today, each side has strong roots in American culture, but neither holds a clear advantage. This creates a complex interplay within the concept of “change”. Thus, in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in cases where conservatives embrace change in markets, battlefields, and even social policy. The reverse has occurred on the left: rather than advocate constantly for change, liberals sometimes resist it. From pipelines across sacred territories, to Obamacare, to New Deal institutions, they seek to leave many “traditions” in place.

Conservatives have never held to tradition for its own sake. Their traditions were established within a formerly dominant paternalism. Likewise, liberals don’t seek change for its own sake. Instead, throughout America’s history, they’ve sought to undermine paternal structures in an effort to establish maternal balance – or perhaps primacy – in our society.

In recent generations, maternalism has been ascendant. Liberals have been on the offense; paternal values have played defense. But these forces ebb and flow within human societies throughout the eons. In some future American conflict, Father God might again be on the march for “change.” And Mother Earth might be fighting a defensive battle on behalf of long held traditions.

Such a shift would explain the emergence of Donald Trump on the national political stage.

(Note: only the terms maternal and paternal are used above. The words matriarchy and patriarchy are avoided. For a better understanding of this vocabulary, please see a previous post on the subject.)

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