If you’ve ever watched a political debate between a Liberal and a Conservative, you’ll know there isn’t much love lost between them.
You can see this in the US where the Democrats and Republicans tear chunks out of one another.
It is also evident here in the UK, between the Conservative and Labour parties.
The conflict rages between politicians on political stages and programmes, as well as between supporters on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
These interactions are littered with point scoring and one-upmanship; the highlighting of examples of the other side’s failings, taken from a very narrow, self-serving perspective, designed to prove their point of view and enhance their own argument.
Here’s an example to illustrate the point…
Just a quick reference to the backstory for this example.
Leigh is an old mining town, which is located between Manchester and Liverpool
Leigh has always had a Labour MP, it was considered a Labour safe seat due to its historical mining and working class roots.
Recently a Conservative won the seat for the very first time, to the dismay of many of the labour supporting locals.
The local Tory MP voted to end school meal subsidies during the lastest half term holiday, something that went against footballer Marcus Rashford’s public campaign to make funds available for the most needy.
Many of the local people, particularly labour voters were in uproar on social media about The Tory MP’s vote.
Many of the posts on local Facebook groups raged about the nasty Tory, who was typically displaying a lack of empathy for children in need.
This directly plays into the long standing narrative that Conservatives don’t care for working class people, only for their posh, rich buddies who run businesses, and hold wealth and power.
A critical thinker would probably ask why a Conservative MP would take such a stand, knowing that many of his constituents would be up in arms about it.
Subsequently the MP’s decision for voting as he did was found to be because of funding constraints and the fact that other more targeted provisions had been made through local authorities and welfare payments to look after children and families in hardship. The Tory government had extended free school meals during the Easter holidays and again for the Summer holidays after pressure from Rachford’s campaign, but decided to draw the line for half-term holidays. This is against a background of needing to borrow £372bn to cover spending, in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, to date, according to the Office of Budget Responsibility.
The arguments on social media seemed to play out like this;
- Labour- Tory’s being cruel to kids
- Conservatives – not bottomless money pit, parents shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford to pay for them
- Labour- loss of jobs caused by covid19 and government handling of it to blame, not those parents who are struggling
- Conservative – government have done the best they can in such brutal unforeseen circumstances. They have given massive support to people during the pandemic.
- Labour- point out all the failings and wasted spending on track and trace etc, and point out the government could have done even more. Many stating Labour would have done better (no way of knowing this)
- Conservatives – don’t think Labour would have done any better and may have done much worse under a Jeremy Corbyn led government (no way of knowing this)
- Descends into insults and slanging matches
I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of this argument, I just want to use it to illustrate how the opposing views can play out.
The two sides are often talking past one another, with no point of connection.
I’ve tried to play devil’s advocate with both sides and a reasoned debate is just not possible most of the time. Exchanges nearly always descend into argument and name calling. This is also evident whenever you see politicians and/or supporters come together.
This isn’t anything new either, back in a 1968 debate between conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr and liberal writer Gore Vidal, members of opposing intellectual elites, who had hoped to have a civilised political discussion, soon descended into name-calling and resulted in them suing each other for defamation.
The reason for such differences in opinion is because of the underlying belief systems each of the sides holds.
Conservatives and Liberals think completely differently. They perceive differently and interpret information and news differently.
When you consider that such differences have, throughout history, resulted in many thousands, even millions of deaths, you may and indeed should have cause for concern. If you think such comments are overblown, read a few political history books and see for yourself.
Liberals to the Left
Liberals lean towards the socialist side of the political spectrum. Both the Labour party, here in UK, and the Democrats in the US are positioned on the left. The further left a person is, the more they value big government running key services like education, health (NHS in UK), water, energy, transport, infrastructure building etc.
The government is the expected to redistribute wealth through taxes, taking from the more well-off members of society and giving to the disadvantaged and vulnerable in an attempt to even things up.
The narrative that plays out on the left revolves around preventing the oppressing capitalists exploiting workers. Workers being the ones who create the value within industry, but who often don’t share in the financial rewards as the capitalists do, because they don’t own the means of production.
Liberals also feel passionate about reducing inequality and creating a fairer society for all.
Far left political movements such as communism have proven to be very problematic in the past becoming politically corrupt and leading to most failing spectacularly.
Let me be clear, the majority of liberals are not on the far left of the political spectrum.
Conservatives to the right
The Conservatives types tend to value personal responsibility over socialist ideas. They have a “get what you work for” attitude.
Conservatives believe that if everyone is incentivised to work harder, then everyone benefits. They want to support those who have fallen on hard times for no fault of their own, but don’t like lazy people taking a free ride.
They like the idea of functioning free markets, with less government intervention and regulation, where value drives supply and demand. This is why Conservatives prefer the privatisation of the provision of energy supply, water, transport, postal services, and infrastructure, rather than the government providing them.
Far right people profess to be more patriotic, and believe in the government prioritising its own citizens, before helping other countries. The majority of conservatives are not on the far right of the political spectrum.
You may be asking yourself at this point, where conservative and liberal values and beliefs come from. Why do some people lean towards one end of the spectrum rather than the other?
The big 5 personality test is considered the most accurate way of identifying personality and is used widely in psychology fields. It’s made up of 5 parameters, which lie on a continuum, with one extreme trait at one end, and the opposite trait at the other end. For instance, extraversion and introversion. Individuals will have traits that appear somewhere along each continuum.
The big 5 personality traits
- Extraversion > introversion
- Neuroticism > emotionally stable
- Agreeableness > disagreeableness
- Conscientiousness > disorganised
- Openness to experience > closed mindedness
Research indicates that traits are 50% biologically determined, and 50% influenced by social conditioning and upbringing.
It has been well documented in political psychology that conservative types tend to be high in conscientiousness and low in openness and liberals tend to be high in openness and low in conscientiousness.
Those high in conscientiousness
- Value order over disorder, so tend to be well organised
- Value getting on in the world, so are productive and organised towards a goal
- Safety and predictability is important – don’t welcome surprises
- Opposite if low in conscientiousness
Those high in openness to experience
- Value novelty, so like new things, and are innovative
- Value beauty and art, so are creative and artistic
- Value new and engaging experiences
- Like to travel and sample new places
- Opposite if low in openness
- Prefer bounded spaces, so like borders and walls, so they can feel safe in their safe space
- Prefer order over chaos
- Prefer to make and follow procedures and processes, so they know what needs doing and can be consistent in action and outcomes
- Prefer to do the things the way they have always done them
- Don’t want to be constrained by borders and walls, they want to be free and unrestricted
- Prefer chaos over boring and predictable order. Routine is not their thing.
- Prefer to wing it, and make things up on the fly over sitting down and making a plan
- Prefer open borders, safety is paranoid
- Prefer to try new things, change things up
It is easy to see how these personality traits can influence political inclinations. It also highlights the difficulty of bringing the two opposing viewpoints together.
Our tendencies are largely built into our genes. It’s not easy to change who we are and what we believe.
Social conditioning is also hugely influential in what we believe and value. Social conditioning is made up of what our family and those we grow up with teach us and the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences.
Although education can improve knowledge around a particular subject or topic, it’s the core beliefs that influence the stories and narratives we emotionally invest in.
Very educated people can have completely opposing viewpoints. They know the issues in play, but choose to interpret them completely differently.
You may well ask yourself why this is?
People invest themselves, emotionally, into their core beliefs and values and often refuse to compromise on them. If you believe you’re right about something, why would you entertain changing that belief? You’re right and the other side is wrong. It’s easy to think the other side is foolish or ignorant and this comes more easily than questioning our own beliefs, but probability would suggest “they” can’t all be idiots.
The big danger in employing this approach is the risk of falling into the confirmation trap, where we look for evidence to support our beliefs and values and dismiss or ignore conflicting evidence. This is often referred to as “confirmation bias”.
Learn to apply critical thinking in such situations. Question why so many intelligent opponents think the way they do. Be curious. Listen without judgement and try to figure what is going on.
You have to be willing to let go of old beliefs in order to make room for new ones. You have to be willing to admit you were wrong so you can start being right.
Most people fall in between the polarised political positions we have discussed here. They want a fair society that works for all, that catches those who are vulnerable and in genuine need of help. People differ in how they feel this is best achieved. Make no mistake, there are also some people who are pathological; they are more concerned with making society worse rather than better.
There are two sides to human nature.
Because we are social animals who live in a social environment, our best chance to survive or even better flourish, depends on us getting on with other people.
We play the roles we’re expected to play in different social situations; a mother, a daughter, a friend, a neighbour, a work colleague, a boss, a supplier, etc.
Each role requires us to be a different version of ourselves. If we play them well, others are comfortable around us because we are predictable.
If we do random things at random times, other people will undoubtedly feel anxious around us and are less likely to interact with us.
Imagine being in a restaurant with your spouse and halfway through your meal, you jump on the table and start to make a big commotion, kicking cutlery around the room. What kind of reaction do you think you’d get from your spouse, the other diners, and the restaurant management? Better still, imagine your spouse doing it to you. It would probably freak you out. Other diners would probably back off and be very negative in how they look at what you are doing. The police might be called, and you would certainly be thrown out by the owners of the restaurant.
You might not consciously realise you’re playing roles and behaving in a way that others in society find preferable and acceptable, but you are. If you do things you shouldn’t, you’re certain to get reactions from others around you, ranging from disapproving looks to arrest by the police, depending on the degree of your misconduct. As we grow up, we repeat things we are rewarded for, and stop doing thing we are punished for. This is how social conditioning works.
The other side of human nature is the dark side. This is the shadow side we avoid at all costs. It’s the side of each of us that, given the right circumstances, can make us into monsters, particularly when possessed by high levels of negative emotions such as hatred and vengefulness.
We look back in horror at things like the Nazi party’s genocide of millions of Jewish people and think this would never happen again. This occurred not because one man, Adolf Hitler was evil, but because many others played along with his mad plan, having dehumanised the Jews to such a degree they thought they deserved what they got. Germans blamed Jews for their own suffering and were sold on the story that the world would be better once the Jews had been removed. Hatred took over and resulted in men, women and children being brutally murdered.
We might prefer to think those who perpetrated such crimes were evil by nature, but many were not. They had become so consumed with hatred for an enemy they believed was bringing suffering to their own lives and those of their families and friends. Hitler played to the crowd but also fed off the crowd. It was a mutually supportive escalation of emotions that led up to the horrors that resulted in the second world war.
Having a dark side means we have to be able to control it. Virtue comes from controlling our darker impulses, not from not having them. If I am capable of being cruel or even killing another person and choose not to, then that is something of a virtue. We need to have aggression to be able to be assertive, to be competitive, otherwise others will walk all over us, but it has to be controlled aggression.
If we become tyrannical and bully others into doing what we want them to do, against their will, we will be unpopular and eventually someone will have enough of the tyranny and take us out, maybe it will take two of them to do it or three or four but eventually they will do it.
So cohesion is not a long-term solution for anyone who wants to get on in life, and have healthy relationships. Cooperation and competition is required if people are going to keep wanting to interact with you in a mutually beneficial way.
How society works
Society works by encouraging the people who live in that society to work together for the greater good of all.
Each person brings something of value to the table that others want and are willing to pay for, and an exchange of value is carried out, usually in the form of money for a service or product.
Some are better at producing this value than others. Meritocracy results in those who are better at producing value, rising to the top of a hierarchical structure (triangle shaped structure).
Those at the top earn the most money in our current system. They are incentivised to provide more value in order to get more monetary reward.
Some on the left of politics would say they exploit employees by making more money from the value they generate then they have to pay out to those employees who actually create that value. Some on the right of politics would counter that everyone, given the right skillset, can do the same, so if you don’t want to be exploited, don’t be an employee, instead be a business owner/entrepreneur.
Anyway, those that are particularly good at managing this value exchange earn more money, and rise up to the top of the value hierarchy. If they are fair, not too greedy and look after their employees (those employees get paid more), everyone is better off from the arrangement.
If equality of opportunities is fair, then everyone has a chance of joining in and the value hierarchy is effective at allowing society to function reasonably well. What happens over time is those at the top of the value hierarchy defend their dominant position by stifling competition and use their power and wealth to game the system to their advantage. The hierarchy then becomes more of a dominance hierarchy rather than a value hierarchy and eventually turns tyrannical. All value hierarchies’ become tyrannical if left unchecked.
Both liberals and conservatives have functions to perform in keeping value hierarchies honest and preventing them from turning tyrannical. Liberals are good at coming up with ideas for solutions that bring value and solve problems. Conservatives are good at following through on these ideas, building and maintaining hierarchies around these solutions. Liberals are good at calling out hierarchies that are becoming tyrannical, holding them to account and protecting those disaffected at the bottom of them.
We need conservatives to …
- To make ideas reality
- Build hierarchies
- To organise and grow businesses – the structures, processes and procedures that make up efficient systems
But we equally need liberals to…
- Come up with innovative solutions to problems
- To be creative and help make and sell products/services – the creative of marketing
- To hold value hierarchies to account – stop them becoming tyrannical
You can see that we need both liberal and conservative types to keep society functioning effectively. We should value both sides of the argument as crucially necessary. We should guard against any one side gaining the upper hand, because society will not function nearly as well, and the consequences could literally be nightmarish.
So next time you feel frustrated at the other side’s lack of cooperation or understanding, realise society works because each side is pushing from opposite points of view and within that tension society is kept in balance.