Saturday, September 5, 2015

“Boundaries” (Part 1): a spatial predilection that distinguishes conservative from progressive mentalities?

This post observes that sensitivities about boundaries — about identifying, respecting, and protecting them — characterizes conservative more than liberal / progressive mentalities. If valid, this point helps further develop the STA:C framework about people’s space-time-action orientations. It also provides a prelude to a series of post (three or four) about the roles that “boundaries” play in other kinds of political mindsets, as well as in some social-science theories.

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I’ve long wondered what makes conservative and liberal / progressive mentalities so different. Many others have wondered the same. Some have focused on value dispositions — notably, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) — while other studies have analyzed psychological underpinnings (I’ve misplaced my sources). Meanwhile, I have wondered whether STA:C could offer insights.

Space, time, and action orientations thread throughout both conservative and progressive mentalities, and characterizations are easy to find. For example, it is often observed that conservatives are oriented mainly to the past and it's traditions, liberals and progressives to the future and it's possibilities — a difference in time perspectives. It’s also said that liberals / progressives tend to be more action-oriented, for they’re optimistic about people’s capacities to make and accept social changes; whereas conservatives, being more pessimistic, cautious, and dubious about human nature, tend to be less change-oriented, less activist — making for differences in STA:C’s action orientation.

But contrasts between conservative and progressive space orientations are less definite. Sure, conservatives generally object to big government — but rarely to big business. In contrast, progressives tend to distrust big business — but often want a big government that serves “little people”. Thus, size matters in both mentalities, as do other spatial sensitivities. But not in ways that contrast so sharply and consistently as their time and action orientations are said to differ.

Or so it seemed to me, until I dwelled on a common conservative plaint about “government exceeding its boundaries” in all sorts of policy areas.

Boundaries! Now there’s a criterion I’d not explicitly considered (nor seen considered) in discussions about political mindsets. Indeed, it’s barely implied in an old post where I noted some preliminary criteria for analyzing people’s spatial perspectives:
“My reading of the literature indicates that the basics include, or should include, as a minimum, an identification of the following:
  • The actors, objects, and structures — their identity, distribution, scope, and strength — defining the space.
  • Connections and pathways that link them.
  • Layout in terms of centers, distances, and horizons.
  • Divisions, or partitions, into realms, domains, and layers.
  • Organization of the above into whole systems.” (source)
Boundaries are slightly implied in that bullet about “Divisions …” — but I now propose that boundaries are very significant as a mindset attribute.

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Boundaries is the key term for this post. Yet lots of terms that are conceptually related to boundaries — e.g., bounds, borders, divides, separations, walls, fences, limits, lines, frontiers, barriers, bulwarks — also figure. For conservatives keep referring to their sensitivities in terms of all these cognates, more than I see liberals and/or progressives doing.

This also means keeping an eye out for sensitivities, be they metaphorical or factual, to the likes of gateways and doorways, ceilings and floors, insides and outsides, scopes and jurisdictions, inclusions and exclusions, crossroads, horizons, even bubbles, black holes, and loopholes — whatever implies a boundary. It also means noticing references to the likes of guarding, protecting, preserving, tightening, or securing a boundary — or to loosening, blurring, fuzzy-ing up, or dissolving a “fine line between” — or to thoughts and actions that mean crossing, stepping over, reaching over, transgressing, tearing down, moving, ignoring, or operating outside a boundary line or the like.

A few additional points: Boundaries and boundary conditions look so significant that I found it helpful when a visitor (h/t Ann Pendleton-Jullian) remarked that many worldviews amount to “a distributed system of boundaries” — and if a problem arises, sometimes the way to change it is by “changing the boundary conditions”. Those are interesting notions. Furthermore, I’d add apropos STA:C, while many boundaries that people draw are spatial (my emphasis in this post), some may be temporal (e.g., between the idyllic and the recent past) and still others action-related (e.g., between legal and illegal actions). Finally, remember that my proposition is, for now, a matter of degree. It does not mean that liberals / progressives are insensitive when it comes to boundaries — just that they seem to be disposed differently toward them, and this difference seems significant.

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What observations lead to postulating that conservatives are more sensitive about boundaries than are liberals or progressives?

To begin with, historically, it is far more likely a sign of conservatism to tell someone they should not marry (nor even make friends) outside their clan, tribe, race, nationality, religion, or culture, not to mention gender. Indeed, conservatives often seem more intent on marking differences between sexes, races, religions, and nations, etc. And these sensitivities extend to sectorial differences as well: e.g., boundaries between church and state, government and market, public and private, foreign and domestic, legal and illegal, right and wrong — and even between life and death (not to mention between liberal and conservative).

It’s easy to find instances in recent news: Conservative Republicans criticizing President Obama for drawing a “red line” regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons, then not enforcing it. Social conservatives upset about same-sex marriage. Conservative politicians advocating a wall to halt immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Exclusionary conservatives who want to limit who can vote (not to mention a classic stereotype: who can join a country club). Self-styled conservative “warriors” who claim that conservatives are for individualism, progressives for collectivism — as though a sharp dichotomous separation exists (it doesn’t). Plus, as I noted up front, conservatives who constantly carp about government exceeding its boundaries. And I’m sure there’s much more, as I hope to show in a Part-2 post.

More to the point, this cogni-cultural sensitivity to boundaries appears to reinforce (or at least be associated with) some key conservative philosophical values and political strategies. It may help explain why conservatives value order and tradition so highly, compared to liberals who value progress and innovation more highly (particularly when it’s a disruptive innovation that crosses and redefines prior boundaries). A predilection for boundaries also seems to undergird the high value that conservatives place on individualism, and perhaps related to that, their tendencies to be exclusive rather than inclusive, and to be less in favor of social diversity and multiculturalism — again, compared to the predilections of liberals / progressives (though I can think of important exceptions, especially among libertarians).

And here are some other implications I wonder about: Over the past year or two, I’ve seen conservatives question the worthiness of altruism, doubt that “we are all connected”, oppose engaging in middle-of-the-road compromises, and trust living in a media bubble (Fox News?). Could it be that today’s sharp sensitivities about boundaries help incline conservatives in these philosophical and tactical directions? I now think that’s a pertinent question for STA:C.

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Confirming my observation — that conservatives are more sensitive about boundaries than are liberals / progressives — would require more research than I can undertake. But I am going to proceed as though it is valid in a few follow-up posts. They will offer anecdotal evidence and illustrations. The purpose of today’s preliminary post is just to field the basic observation.

I will also try to clarify a few issue areas — e.g., gun ownership, free trade, campaign financing — where my observation may seem at odds with the fact that, in those areas, conservatives today pursue more unbounded policies than do liberals. These may look like exceptions or contradictions that weaken my observation. But there is another possibility: that Republican policies in those area are not truly conservative — they’re liberal, even libertine.

Caveats: I’m trying to field an analytical observation for STA:C’s sake. I’m not opposed to the idea of boundaries per se. And I’m not trying to pick on conservatism (though maybe some of its tribalized practitioners). In general, people of all kinds need and benefit from having some sense of boundaries. It’s an essential spatial cognition. I doubt there is an ideal sense; but the sense people display looks like a revealing criterion.

Also, my interest in boundaries derives from the fact that TIMN — my other concern besides STA:C — requires recognizing that boundaries and limits are involved in each TIMN form. To my knowledge, TIMN is not inherently a Right- or Left-leaning framework. It is adaptable to both conservative and progressive interpretations. How that is accomplished may depend on the kinds of boundary conditions that are applied. Hence my interest not only in illuminating the importance of boundary conditions, but also in assuring that they are left open to a range of possibilities, not just a supposedly-optimal single point.