Last week I offered up an essay looking at some of the cultural dynamics found in the Scorcese flick, “The Age Of Innocence”. I contrasted some of the themes found in that movie with a picture or photo of a transgendered mother and son, which was making the rounds on social media. Both mother and child had decided to transition. Mother was now father, and son was now daughter. I found that intriguing. Specifically, I saw in that picture that the act of transition for a transgender person is an act of pure will. To initiate and complete that process simply requires an amazing amount of will.
This individual will, this drive, which led a mother and son to transition to father and daughter, cannot be found in “The Age of Innocence”.
The willful individual in The Age of Innocence, which takes place in 19th century New York, is controlled and dealt with through social convention. Such individuals are not welcome in this world. In this world, it is not the individual will, which drives decisions. In this world of the Age of Innocence, it is what is right, it is what is proper, that determines what one does, how one behaves. It is social norm, convention, and tradition that drives what is done.
What I drew out of these two scenes in the earlier essay were two theories of value, or meaning. In the case of the mother and son or father and daughter, meaning is determined by the individual. Both are compelled by something very much unique and inside them. It is something they must express. It is almost an artistic or creative act. In short, meaning is created through the expression of will, of self.
In the Age of Innocence and 19th century New York, that is not the case. Meaning is not created by the expression of self, nor will. In fact, the expression of self is controlled and largely negated. In this world the expression is perceived as a challenge or even a threat to that which is valuable, that which has meaning. Individual wants and needs are fitted into the social fabric or negated, or simply ignored. The expression of self is of value only if it can be applied or brought into or is applicable to the social norms of the time.
Value and meaning in 19th century New York, as per the Scorcese movie, is based on social norm, on tradition and custom. Here what is done is determined by one’s place in society, one’s family, one’s business dealings, one’s place in the church, within one’s community. It is in this dynamic that meaning and value are derived. If there is a passion, it must be controlled and directed. Passion does not control or drive one. Further value is not created here, but preserved. The intent is to preserve community, its norms, and customs.
So from the Scorcese movie and from the image of father and daughter, we arrive at two very different theories of value and or meaning. One originating from the self or will, and the other from within the community. In my earlier essay I suggested that these can be applied loosely to the liberal and conservative traditions. Specifically, the focus on self or the will is to be tied to liberalism, and community is to be associated with conservatism. No doubt some explaining is required. At first blush the liberal is often seen as socialists or communists — communal. Is it not the liberal that value community?
Likewise, is it not the conservatives who typically values liberty, which is often associated with the individual? There is some work to be done here, but it is through this ‘work’ that we arrive at the two concepts of freedom referenced in the title of this essay.
So how does one begin with acts of will and arrive at liberalism? Typically, liberalism is associated with big government, the environment, Black Lives Matter and LGTB. How are these related to the expression of self, to the will? These things are largely products of the will. They are expressions of self. To come out and say I am gay or I am transgendered again is an expression of self. The political movements and groups listed above originate out of such acts. The environment or our interest in environment is again an expression of self. In the mid to late 20th century the US became conscious of the environment. And again, through that consciousness it became a social and political movement.
Another criticism is that I am conflating the liberalism of the enlightenment with the contemporary. That said, I want to suggest the two are still connected. The technocratic state based upon reason and science, is inspired by and propelled by its citizens and ultimately their citizen’s passions and wills. Much of our “big government” in all its varieties, begins with or points back to acts of will.
A bigger issue perhaps is my suggestion that only liberals act on their will. Surely, conservatives can offer up their own social movements, driven just as much by willful individuals. This is a valid point, however, I would argue that conservative social movements are driven not by inspiration but by preservation. Again, conservatives certainly have social and political movements, but their movements are responses to the social change, often the movements originated by liberals. The conservative’s social movement is intent upon preserving the social structure, the world as they know it.
Regarding environmentalism, conservatives defend factories, plastics, and cars as our way of life. In response to feminism, they advocate the family. The NRA and those who advocate the 2nd Amendment want to protect and defend their right to bear arms. In each case they want to protect their commerce, their families, their way of life. There is a correspondence to the Age of Innocence in their focus on and a desire to preserve the existing social norms, traditions, and conventions.
This leads us to progress. Liberals are often referred to as progressives. The two terms in today’s vernacular are largely equivalent and there has been a relation between the two for roughly the last one hundred years. Conservatives, however, do not embrace progress, certainly not the progress advocated by the various social movements of liberals. Likewise, they do not embrace the progress of science. Now conservatives will certainly contest this. I would argue however, that the anti-intellectualism often associated with the conservative movement is rooted in the desire to preserve their world. They want to preserve the norms, conventions they hold dear. Their skepticism regarding science is rooted in those norms, traditions, and conventions.
In short, the liberal state, “big government”, and science both challenge the world as it is. Both were devised or inspired to some degree with that intent of progress, of overcoming what is. For conservatives however, progress offers a series of challenges. It offers things such as Roe vs Wade. With science and the state we have the EPA, which wants to dismantle our factories and markets. Transgender transitions would not be possible without advances in medicine. All are the result of liberalism and ultimately the will.
I know I paint with an extremely large brush here. Those around me have already pointed this out, but sometimes it behooves us to go to the satellite image, unless of course it is overcast. The question I am left with here, is this: Does reason come from the will or from social convention and norms? For our purposes I offer up that reason for liberals is inspired, it is transcendent. It originates from the will, but it is also universal. All have will and all have reason. Once discovered, the products of the will can be seen by and embraced by others. Will and reason cut across culture, convention, and norm.
For the conservative reason is common sense. That which is reasonable is in fact reasonable among a particular group. Reason for the conservative is not universal. What one culture believes might overlap the beliefs of another culture. There might be a great deal of overlap of belief, but no two cultures are identical. Each has their own values and practises and likewise what is reasonable. And that is why we must protect our beliefs and consider how we engage the world. Such engagements with other cultures do put at risk who we are, and what we value. By engaging others, we risk who we are, we risk losing our traditions.
Finally, we arrive at our two concepts of freedom, derived from the story I tell above. Both liberalism and conservatism value freedom, but if the stories I offer of each have any validity, they will impact upon how each defines freedom. Now the basic definition of freedom is the ability to act. Accepting this, the question then becomes how does each of them, liberalism and conservatism, view the ability to act? What is it for each of these to be able to act?
For liberalism, freedom, the ability to act, is the ability of the individual to express their will. The goal is to enable the individual to express themselves. Whether it is the pursuit of a college degree, or gender reassignment surgery, each is an act of will and an act of freedom. The state and science become prosthetic devices enabling the individual’s will to be expressed. And as was pointed out earlier, this is universal. To be human is to have a will, a voice and we must allow its expression. Not only allow it but nurture and facilitate it.
And for conservatism? Here, freedom is not the ability to express one’s self. Freedom, for the conservative, is not the ability to create or express. The ability to act here is to be free from intrusion. Both conservatives and liberals will agree that freedom is the ability to live one’s own life. The conservative, however, sees life not as will, but as communal, as social. They see life as defined by family, church, commerce, ultimately engagement with a community. In short, freedom is the ability to engage those closest to you, embracing the customs, norms and traditions that nurtured those relationships. To deny one freedom here is to deny one access to those vital relationships, and the customs, norms and traditions they are based upon.
Lastly, the state and likewise science are seen by conservatives not as prosthetic devices to facilitate the will but as intrusions into one’s life. They prevent one from properly engaging others. They take away from and disrupt one’s life as they not only prevent one from embracing custom and tradition, but destroy and uproot custom and tradition. They, like the will, destroy life.
Originally published at interestingasides.blogspot.com on August 29, 2017.