This is not an opinion piece, but as with my last post in that category, I have nowhere else to put it for now. This is merely a set of observations that I have made, and hopefully will serve as a long-overdue explanation of what I mean when I say something along the lines of “I am fiscally conservative, but I am by no means socially conservative.” Incidentally, if the title of this article sounds at all familiar, that is because there exists a book titled Defining Conservatism, which has been disavowed by its own author, and if you are familiar with it, please forget about it for a moment, because it is much narrower in scope than the article you are about to read.
Social conservatism exists at two levels: at the individual level, and at the societal level. Let us first examine what it means to be a socially conservative individual. A social conservative is one who adheres to long-standing social traditions, conforming to social norms as dictated by some authority, rather than one’s peers. It is a common practise of socially conservative parents to tell their children not to give in to peer pressure. Social conservatism at the individual level is entirely about conformity and nothing else. How social conservatism appears varies wildly according to the culture that one examines; a socially conservative Arab, for instance, looks and acts very differently from a socially conservative American.
A socially conservative society has far less innocuous ramifications, though that may not become clear until I define social liberalism for the sake of contrast. A socially conservative society is one in which traditional social norms are enforced, by legal means or otherwise, and social non-conformists are treated as pariahs. In order to maintain a reasonably comfortable existence in such a society, individuals who would not otherwise choose to be socially conservative must wear the trappings of conservatism. To reiterate, social conservatism is entirely about conformity and nothing else.
A social liberal is not the opposite of a social conservative, at least not at the individual level. A social liberal is someone who accepts non-conformists, even if that person chooses to conform to social norms themself. Paradoxically, it is therefore possible to be a social liberal and a social conservative at the same time. A socially liberal society, by extension, is one that does not enforce social norms. In such societies, non-conformists are considerably more visible, as they have most of the same opportunities open to them as conformists. In a socially liberal society, conformists and non-conformists accept each other for their personal choices. However, should new social norms, as dictated by peer pressure, cause conflict between the conformists and non-conformists, the result may be either a reactionary movement by social conservatives, a rise of social degeneracy, or both.
Social degeneracy is social conservatism flipped upside down. A socially degenerate individual is one who rejects conformity for no reason other than spite. A socially degenerate society is one in which those who conform to old social norms are the outcasts, while only non-conformists are accepted. Social degeneracy at the societal level is the first stage of a paradigm shift, as old traditions are eventually replaced with new ones, and subsequent generations end up becoming social conservatives within the context of the new social paradigm. Cultural paradigm shifts like this are not inherently good or bad, only individual behaviours can be evaluated as such. Individuals who support the cultural paradigm shift are called progressives, and it is not uncommon for them to see social conservatives as being an “obstacle to progress.” To put this into simpler terms, progressives are not liberals; social liberals accept the existence of social conservatives, whereas progressives do not.
In the context of most western nations, a social conservative, according to 20th century social norms, is a Christian, a nationalist, and a heterosexual who dresses in only in the prescribed fashion and practises traditional gender roles. For the first half of the century, western society was conservative, as both American and European countries had strong cultural pressure to conform. Beginning in the late 1950s in Europe and the late 1960s in America, society began to become much more liberal in nature. Eschewing the unofficial dress codes became much more acceptable, and society at large started to care less what people looked like. Though there were still plenty of people who adhered to old social traditions, it was entirely a matter of personal choice, rather than a societal ultimatum to conform or live as an outcast. What we are seeing now, however, is that individuals who adhere to the 20th century socially conservative ideal are being dismissed as “backward,” regardless of whether or not those individuals accept non-conformists or not. Whether or not a paradigm shift is actually occurring remains to be seen, as this divisive attitude is not universal among social non-conformists.
Most of my audience, at least on this blog, is in the United States, and is therefore probably aware that the country is not culturally monolithic. Whether the predominant culture is conservative, liberal, or degenerate depends on where you look. Some states are largely conservative, some are liberal, while social degeneracy is limited to a few major cities. To an extent, this cultural division is reflected in every western nation, though perhaps not to the same degree. Furthermore, depending on what cultural norms already exist, what appears to be “conservative,” or “degenerate” will vary, and this may result in two cultures being incompatible (e.g. fundamentalist Muslims in England and France), and I won’t go into this any further, as I’m trying to remain as neutral as possible in this particular article.
To conclude, I shall revisit the paradox of the socially conservative social liberal. Any individual who accepts non-conformity within society is a social liberal. Any individual who does not themselves deviate from social norms is a social conservative. I am the former, but I am not the latter. Anyone who has ever met me knows that, as it is rather apparent from my fashion sense alone. While I don’t choose to adhere to socially conservative norms, I have no issue with those who do, and therefore I’m no progressive. Curiously, I tend to get along much better with social conservatives, as most social non-conformists that I’ve met are progressives, rather than liberals.