POV: How a Liberal Learned to Like Conservatives
Traditional cultures educate a devoted liberal
Should a twentysomething information technology specialist, a competent employee, be able to dye her hair purple without getting grief from management? That question was at the heart of the conversation recently for a group of intelligent and age-diverse women.
“Management went apoplectic,” the woman recalled. “Sure, they said my hair wasn’t relevant to my job performance; they agreed I did my job well. But I had to dye it back.” The group rolled their eyes in sympathetic outrage. The owner of the hair didn’t even interact with the public! The business didn’t have a published dress code! To redye hair, it has to be bleached, and that’s a health risk!
I kept quiet. Inside, however, I was coming down on the side of management, and here’s why: dyeing your hair purple shows a lack of respect to your managers and fellow employees. It makes you stand out. You are defiantly not fitting in with the group. My thoughts, very different from what they would have been a few years ago, were changed largely by my readings in social and cross-cultural psychology and my experiences in other cultures.
In 2008, I returned from a semester-long sabbatical in China, which sensitized me to the virtue of minimizing individualist displays and respecting the desires of those above one in the social hierarchy. In the collectivist cultures of East Asia, people have been less concerned with expressing their individuality and more concerned about harmonious relations with others, including being sensitive to negative appraisal by others. One result is a well-behaved classroom of 30 preschoolers led by one teacher and an assistant.
I’d also learned from the writing of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who says liberals focus on justice, fairness, and compassion for others. Conservatives have these values too, he says, but they are influenced by three other moral systems: respect for hierarchy, favoring one’s in-group over the out-group, and valuing purity (sexual propriety, nobility, and avoiding disgusting objects).
I had previously considered respect for authority, in-group favoritism, and purity as parts of collectivist cultural groups, which are usually associated with developing nations and often described in opposition to the individualist values that are hallmarks of modern, developed regions.
Cross-cultural psychologists do not view either individualism or collectivism as inherently superior or inferior, understanding that each system has evolved to solve the problem of how individuals can benefit from living in groups and seeing both as having pros and cons. Individualist societies like ours allow people to pursue their dreams (pro), but when big aspirations crumble because of bad luck or intense competition, they may lack a safety net, either in terms of government services or family support (con). In individualistic societies, transactions are abstract and conveniently monetized (pro). But when we don’t trade our labor and time with our neighbors for mutual benefit, we miss an opportunity for friendships to be built around helping each other (con).
In collectivist societies, the familial ties and deep friendships that arise from never leaving your hometown and investing daily in relationship management provide a buffer against loneliness and depression. The downside is that these cultures can have an oppressive small-town mentality that punishes nonconformists who challenge religious, gender, or sex role norms.
As a liberal, my current, more sympathetic understanding is that the central goal of collectivist societies and social conservatism—reserving resources for the in-group—was necessary in earlier eras when the neighboring tribe encroached on your territory and daily survival was uncertain. Purity rules and obedience to authority help small-scale societies increase group cohesion and survival. For the majority of cultures that have thrived on our planet, socially conservative political views made a lot of sense.
But what really made me more tolerant was rubbing shoulders with scholars self-identified as centrist, middle-of-the-road, politically moderate, religious, and even conservative when Wesley Wildman, a School of Theology professor, asked me to become a research associate at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion. At meetings with fellow members of the institute’s Spectrums Project, whose goal is to find strategies for mitigating religious extremism and polarized religious discourse, I was able to ask hard questions of people I respected. For example, why are ideological conservatives pro–big business, slashing food stamps in order to “shrink government” while subsidizing agribusiness?
One could even say that conservatives in Congress prioritize supporting their in-group, and their in-group is pro-business. Free-market capitalism does seem to be a different beast from social conservatism. A conservative colleague pointed me to enlightening essays about this in the American Conservative, a magazine I found to be far more reasonable than expected. Now, instead of inching away when I meet someone who expresses conservative political values, I take the opportunity to learn. And not just because some conservatives join forces with liberals by being against patriarchy, racism, and my-country-first patriotism. There’s something else about conservatives that is interesting: they’re happier than liberals.
Circle the answers you think best complete this sentence: If you are the houseguest of a friend-of-a-friend, your stay might be physically and socially more comfortable if your hosts are a) liberal b) conservative, but the conversation will be more intellectually stimulating if your hosts are a) liberal b) conservative.
If you answered b and a, then your intuitions are consistent with a growing literature on how personality and cognitive function match up with ideological beliefs. Conservatives are (on average) sociable, agreeable, and conscientious, as well as concerned about pleasing and fitting in with others of their group. When compared to conservatives, liberals are (on average), less socially astute and less attuned to the needs of others, less agreeable, and overall, less happy. On the intellectual side, liberals, compared to conservatives, prefer abstract, intellectual topics, as is consistent with their broader moral scope. Liberals are concerned with starvation in Africa, climate change, the threatened biosphere, factory farming, and issues that, important as they are, are far removed from the ordinary American’s day-to-day existence.
Does big-picture, abstract thinking cause liberals to be less happy, limiting the ability to appreciate our lives in the here and now? Or is it conservatives’ concern with lasting marriage, strong family cohesiveness, and day-to-day sociality that tips the scales toward greater daily contentment?
These ideas have been at the heart of my personal and intellectual journey in the last decade, during which I got married and gave birth to twin boys. It makes more sense to me now to incorporate into one’s tool kit all the strategies for a fulfilling life. When we understand more of the full set of ways to be human, we can be more human.
Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of psychology, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2013 Bostonia.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at email@example.com Comments