Why don’t liberals stay in their place?

Kelly Kinkade answers the question:

Why don’t liberals stay in their place?

This question reveals much more about its asker than its asker probably realizes.

Over about the past two decades, there has been extensive research into what is commonly known as the “psychology of political identification”. This has largely consisted of extensive empirical studies to identify correlations between political self-identification as “conservative” or “liberal” and characteristics which can be objectively measured: personality batteries, physical characteristics, purchasing behavior, physiological responses. The social scientists doing research in this area have been trying out all sorts of things, looking for patterns.

And they’ve found quite a lot of them. One of the ones I found amusing in my recent “catching up” on this topic was the study that found that liberals buy more travel magazines, while conservatives buy more calendars. But the ones I want to focus on for this answer are those that deal with the more fundamental psychological traits that have been correlated with liberals and with conservatives.

Specifically, many many studies have found a strong correlation between conservative self-identification and the desire for a well-defined social hierarchy, and a desire for clear, simple rules by which people can be placed into that social hierarchy. Conservatives prefer simple, direct, easy-to-apply rules that can be applied categorically, rather than individually, and a well-defined social hierarchy serves that interest. It is permissible, indeed expected, that there will be different rules for people in different categories. Since it is important that everyone follow the rules that apply to them, it is necessary that everyone learn their proper place, and stick to that proper place. Conservatives are further willing to sacrifice individual injustice in the interest of the collective benefit: thus, if someone’s individual situation doesn’t fit well into one of the established boxes, they just have to accept being forced into one of the established boxes and cope with whatever problems this creates for them.

For conservatives, maintaining the social order is more important than that any particular individual receive whatever treatment or consideration that would be optimal for his or her situation. Simplicity and finality are preferable to complexity. If the rules yield a result that is unfortunate, sorry, that’s just how it goes. If you had stayed within your proper place, that (probably) wouldn’t have happened.

Liberals, however, very much do not prefer this state of affairs. Liberals prefer that there be a single, likely extremely complicated, set of rules that apply to everyone, without exceptions, but also insist that these rules be applied with situational flexibility and with a goal not of providing clear, final, straightforward mandates for everyone involved to obey, but instead with a goal of maximizing justice and fairness for everyone involved in any particular situation. Liberals embrace, even relish in, complexity and ambiguity, often believing that such individual distinctiveness richens society and should be respected, even cherished and protected. Liberals, obviously, do not generally accept that maintaining the social order is more important than maximizing individual outcomes, and will generally accept disruptions to the social order if such disruptions advance what they see as an individual’s best interests.

It is pithy, but largely true, that conservatives fear the unknown, while liberals are drawn to it. That simple statement captures a huge part of the psychological difference between conservatives and liberals.

Note that I’m not saying that it’s “wrong” to be conservative, or to be liberal for that matter; these are just polar extremes of a spectrum on which people vary, just as they vary in many other characteristics. I do not believe that either conservatism or liberalism is a “mental illness”. (One study found, in fact, that liberals are more likely to be neurotic; while conservatives are widely recognized to be significantly motivated by fear, conservatives seem to be generally better at “fear management” than liberals, and thus seem to generally handle stress better than liberals do.)

What I can conclude from all this is that the person asking this question is a psychological conservative, and furthermore is one who lacks sufficient introspection (which is itself a recognized trend: conservatives tend to be less introspective than liberals) to recognize that liberals do not, in general, share the asker’s likely unquestioned belief that everyone has a proper place, the rules of which they ought to learn.

In short, the person asking this question is a conservative who has not learned that liberals and conservatives have markedly different worldviews, thought processes, and motivations, and lacks the foresight required to answer this question himself or herself with the obvious answer: liberals do not “learn their place” because liberals do not believe that people have “places” that they must, or should, learn.

Kelly Kinkade

IT geek, former law student, many other things