In my previous posts on this subject (here and here), I have named the three cardinal virtues of conservatism-- or at least, my sort of conservatism-- as tradition, character and gentleness. I have given some account of the first two terms, which was not too difficult. I find myself rather more challenged by the last.
It seems as though gentleness is a virtue we don't really associate with conservatism. We think of conservatives as judgemental, pessimmistic, intolerant and harsh.
And not without reason; there are many brands of conservatism which are noticeably "nasty". There is social Darwinism, which may not have very many self-confessed adherents these days, but which is surely the tradition of those who see life as a rat-race-- the radical individualists and the readers of Ayn Rand who believe altruism is a vice. (I've never read a book by Ayn Rand and I never intend to.)
There are also-- although their numbers are greatly exaggerated-- racists and extreme nationalist who view blacks, foreigners and other groups as inherently inferior and even less than human. Are these conservatives? They are certainly not liberals or progressives.
But, aside from those exceptions, I really think it makes sense to say that conservatism-- especially traditionalist conservatism-- cherishes gentleness.
In this instalment of the post, even more than the others, I plead guilty to making sweeping generalisations that are highly simplistic and highly disputable. Nevertheless I believe they describe a rough sort of truth.
Why do I say conservatism cherishes gentleness? Because conservatives tend to believe that life is worth living, that there is a benevolent Creator behind the universe. Life is not simply a defiance of a cosmos indifferent to our existence. Even if they are not religious believers themselves, traditionalist conservatives are usually sympathetic to religion. They tend to place a very high value on childhood innocence. They tend to believe in chivalry-- chivalry between men and women, rich and poor, strong and weak. They value reverence. They enjoy art and culture that is sentimental, life-affirming and optimistic rather than bleak, cynical and fatalistic-- It's a Wonderful Life rather than La Haine.
Valuing gentleness, and desiring to protect gentleness, this sort of conservative can become highly critical and censorious of whatever threatens it. They complain about bad language, violence on TV and in movies, the flaunting of sexuality, and aggressive marketing. It seems like they are always moaning, always disapproving-- but only because they yearn for a gentle world.
This type of conservative, while being hospitable towards immigrants, will tend to be hostile towards multiculturalism and "pluralism". This doesn't seem so gentle, I suppose. But this is because they recognise that multiculturalism inevitably comes with tensions, resentments, prejudices and even racism. A society that shares a common language and history (or at least accepts the primacy of one language and history) can afford to be more at ease with itself, more relaxed in telling its own story, in celebrating its festivals-- in other words, gentler.
Conservatives have a less problematic attitude to femininity than progressives and radicals. Amongst those preoccupied with sexual politics, women must prove they can be as hard-hitting, abrasive and tough-minded as any man-- generally the most obnoxious sort of man. They must repudiate the stereotypes of nurturing mother, supportive wife and kindly household angel. The extent to which they succeed is the extent of society's loss, since it is women who play the biggest role in creating a gentle society-- both in their own personalities and in the civilizing influence they have upon men and children.
Conservatives believe in bonds-- bonds of family, community, nation and religion. When these are sundered-- usually by a liberal, individualist mindest-- people find themselves in search of an identity and a role. Teenagers and young people are especially affected by this quest for identity.
Unfortunately, when the time-honoured identities are kicked away, the replacement identities close to hand are usually those of pop culture, career, sports, consumerism and sexual adventure. Since most of these are competitive fields, the quest for identity becomes a battle for status-- the battle to be "cool", or "hot", or to own the most impressive car, or to have the most advanced aristic tastes. We become used to hearing that horrible term "loser" applied to those who are deemed to have failed in the quest.
So traditionalist conservatives-- in my view-- are those conservatives who emphasise gentleness, character and tradition, rather than freedom or authority or individualism or any other set of values.
I know that this is an ideal, and one perhaps that is nowhere instantiated in reality, least of all in my own poor self. But as ideals go, I think it's a pretty good one, and one worth aspiring to. I make no stronger claim than that.
I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read this trio of posts, which I enjoyed writing more than I've enjoyed writing anything else on this blog. Thank you.