Friday, 2 September 2016

Why are Conservatives?

When I was growing up in south Winnipeg in the 60s and 70s, it seemed every street had an angry neighbour. It was invariably a man. In that community, at that time, he was invariably white. And he was over 35, if not much older.

His was the lawn all the neighbourhood kids feared. His lawn, that he kept looking like a green at Augusta with a ridiculous expenditure of time, effort and chemicals. He would mow in multiple directions. He would go out and execute dandelions and crabgrass with some toxic concoction. He could be seen meticulously clipping those errant blades of grass that had the audacity, the sheer impertinence, to grow a little quicker and stand up above the others. Like the tallest poppy, the tallest blades of grass must be suppressed.

If a stray ball went onto this man's precious lawn there was a stressed huddle of kids. No one wanted to go get it. But someone had to, because if you abandoned it, he would carry it door to door, accusing each child in the neighbourhood of the grievous trespass. Finally, someone would be appointed to creep anxiously into the front yard to get the ball or frisbee. He apparently sat in his front room, gazing protectively at his lawn most of the time, because he would explode out of the front door, moving with alarming speed, brandishing a belt, or stick, or flyswatter, or whatever other implement was close to hand. If the child was not quick enough, he or she would be beaten off the property.

Adults back in the day could physically assault other people's children with impunity. Miscreants could be beaten in the street, in the store, in school. Then the offended party would call the child's parents and, if they were of a similar mindset, the unfortunate kid would get another beating when they got home.

This man was also misogynistic and racist. He would scream sexist, homophobic, and racist expletives at children along with "GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN".

And every election, he had a huge Conservative sign proudly displayed on said lawn.

So, what makes some people seem so intolerant and filled with hate and anger? MP Cheryl Gallant recently suggested that multiculturalism and human rights are not Canadian values and endanger our children. The immediate response to that is "WHAAAAT???" How can anyone, especially someone allegedly representing Canadians in Parliament, be so completely out of touch with what a majority of Canadians hold to be Canadian values? But Kellie "Barbaric Cultural Practices" Leitch has also recently suggested that immigrants should have to pass a "Canadian Values Test" before being admitted to the country. But are these actually Canadian values she wants to test on, or Conservative values? Because clearly these are not the same thing. Not at all.

Most Canadians I know believe in human rights, multi-culturalism, equality before the law for all, helping those less fortunate, peacekeeping, evidence-based policy, science, protecting the environment, non-discrimination, gun-control, harm reduction, universal health care, and generally not being an asshole. All these things seem to run completely counter to what these CPC MPs seem to feel are Canadian values.

This has got me thinking about why some people think so differently than others. What are Conservative values? How do these come to take root in some people's consciousness? Looking back on a decade of CPC policy and statements, coupled with Republican acts from the US, one can form a list. It is not comprehensive, but clearly different from how many Canadians view the world.

Misogyny: Republicans seem hell-bent on controlling women, including their reproductive choices. They want to prevent women from getting birth control and they want to prevent them from getting abortions. Harper shut down most Status of Women offices, prevented birth control and abortion from being part of his "legacy" of the international child and maternal health initiative, refused to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and their followers have a rich vocabulary of misogynist abuse. Republicans in the US also came up with the whole "purity ring" concept, with ceremonies and all. This concept is hinged on little girls pledging their virginity to their fathers who then transfer it to their husbands when they marry. Essentially, they deny women ownership of their sexuality.

Homophobia: In the US the Republicans have fought same-sex marriage and equal rights for the LGBTQ community. In Canada, the CPC could not get away with as much discrimination, but at times it seemed clear they envied their American counterparts' ability to make life miserable for this segment of society. As it is, CPC supporters and MPs are notably absent from Pride parades and other manifestations of alternate gender/sexuality.

Xenophobia: Refugees on both sides of the border have had a rough ride. More so in the US where Trump wants to build a wall and send Muslims back to...somewhere. But the Harper government also stopped processing of refugee claims and appeared to pick and choose refugees based on Christian affiliation. Harper incarcerated refugees in prisons, including children. Denied health care to refugees. The only immigrants that the CPC welcomed were those eligible for the millionaire immigrant investor program. Throw in a dash of "old stock Canadians" and a "barbaric cultural practices snitch line" and you get a fairly good view of Conservatives' view of anyone that does not fit their demographic.

Law and Order: The CPC ran on a law and order platform. With both the CPC and the Republicans, there seems to be a strong tendency towards "hang 'em high" rhetoric. Punishment and revenge for wrongdoing is paramount. Assigning blame and extracting a pound of flesh seems to really excite their supporters. Rehabilitation and reconciliation are very low on the priorities when it comes to a correctional system. The CPC cancelled a lot of rehabilitation programs, introduced mandatory minimum sentencing, and trotted out "victims of crime" at press conferences to demonstrate that they were truly going to champion victim rights and eradicate the rights of the incarcerated. The quality and quantity of food declined in Canadian prisons. One might suspect that Harper bitterly resented not having the right to order executions. In the US, the death penalty persists in a number of states, despite the many wrongful convictions that were later overturned, sometimes posthumously. Canadian values includes an abhorrence of state-sanctioned murder. If we allow our officials to kill someone, are we not just as culpable? Are we not just as abhorrent as the executed?

In the US the judicial system under the Bush administrations got positively medieval. Mandatory minimum sentencing. Three strikes and you're out, meaning three convictions could net you a life sentence, even if some were very minor infractions. Private prisons (something Harper was moving towards) where inmates are made to be slave labour for corporate profit, and states could be sued for not convicting enough people to keep up the work-force. Elected judges who had incentive to pander to the most vengeance-driven factions in society, and whose election campaigns can be funded by the industrial prison complex.

The US penal system reduces people to the worst thing they have ever done. Convicted felons lose the right to vote. Forever. Often they cannot find a job after release because their record follows them and employers of a conservative bent will not offer a job to an ex-con. So what do you do when you have no means to support yourself? The contradiction of this is obvious to progressive minds. You condemn people to a disenfranchised life in the shadows and are surprised that they re-offend? Really?

In Scandinavian countries, a prison sentence is the punishment. Losing the liberty to come and go as you please. Period. In addition, because the goal is to reintegrate inmates successfully back into society, the incarcerated receive counselling, anger management therapy, education and skills training, so that when their sentence is served they can rejoin society better citizens than when they were convicted. Their recidivism rate is extremely low. In fact, they are closing prisons because there are so few offenders that warrant so severe a punishment.

Even as the US is gradually admitting that their draconian system is not working, is not making anything better, the CPC in Canada was hell-bent on replicating that model.

Policing and Military: In the Conservative view, police and soldiers are worshipped. They can do no wrong and must be respected and admired. They are society's wielders of the Big Stick. In the US, and increasingly in Canada, police are militarised. Police departments are acquiring anti-personnel vehicles and weaponry. But, wait... More and more we are becoming aware that, yes, police and soldiers are actually human beings with human frailties. They make mistakes. They have prejudices. They can get angry. They can be violent and irrational. They can have a culture of hatred towards the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. Progressive elements urge better screening of officers, better training in dealing with individuals in distress, and sanctions on officers who act with excess violence. Conservatives view this call as heresy. The uniform represents something sacrosanct. Furthermore, law is ultimate. There is no allowance that some laws are irrational or unnecessary. Law and those who enforce it are on a pedestal.

Likewise, the military and military involvement in situations that are far, far away and offer no credible threat is to be desired. Because, we don't want to be seen as weak, do we? Weakness is anathema. As they say, if you are only capable of seeing the world and problems as nails, your only response is going to be a hammer.

Big Business and the Cult of Corporatism: A key conservative value seems to be undermining gains made by the labour movement. Union breaking, back to work legislation, resistance to increasing minimum wages or workplace health and safety standards... They routinely paint groups of employees, like teachers and nurses, as greedy, unconcerned about the public, driving up taxes, or simply parasitic. Those "parasites" are engaged, usually above and beyond the call of duty, educating and raising the next generation, and looking after us and our loved ones when we are ill. They are doing dangerous jobs, whether it is the nurse on the Alzheimer's ward or the welder working 20 floors above street level.

In the US there are states with minimum wages laughably below what anyone could live on, and a dearth of health and safety regulations. Corporate interests would, apparently, love a world in which they could pay next to nothing and make people work until they drop dead, then just replace them. The people at the top making the decisions are so far removed from the reality of their workers' lives that they are completely incapable of empathy. They see numbers on reports. They don't see tenements with cockroaches or rats, bedbugs, broken windows and hungry children. It is not their reality. This is why unions are still important. Some say the unions have done their job and got some concessions for workers. But the forces that would wring every ounce of life out of workers are still out there and gaining ground. Unions, far from being a "tax on employment", are still desperately needed to prevent all the gains made so far from being stripped away.

There is no such thing as trickle down. When corporate leaders get rich, they save their money in off-shore low-tax jurisdictions. They are not spending it in the community. That's what those who are regular folks who make a living wage do.

Science, Environment, and Evidence-Based Policy-Making: The Conservative mind seems to blindly accept statements from leaders. There is a popular trend towards disdain for scientists and experts. The "my ignorant opinion is worth as much as your elite education" trend is in steamroller mode. Under Harper we saw libraries, important science libraries, destroyed. Years of research in dumpsters. Essential programs like the Experimental Lakes Program defunded. You know who else destroyed libraries? Attila the Hun. The Visigoths. Hitler and the Nazis. The K'mer Rouge. Great company. This shunning of science and knowledge seems related to the disconnect between actual evidence and what the conservative mindset would like the truth to be. Things like climate change and best practices in policing and justice are irritating to the conservative mind. Why shouldn't we just be able to harvest all this lucrative fossil fuel and ship it out? Why shouldn't we stomp wrong-doers into oblivion? It grates on them when anything pops up that questions essential gut feeling beliefs.

Root Causes, Sociology, Prevention, Harm-Reduction and Compassion: These are all very uncomfortable and inconvenient things. The majority of those incarcerated in Canada and the US have mental health and/or addiction issues. But, man, dealing with all that is expensive. And it takes time. And besides that, who cares? If you do something wrong, we hold you responsible. Only those bleeding heart liberals care if you were beaten and sexually abused as a child and thrown out into the street and developed a drug habit. Tough luck, kid. We're not interested. You were caught smoking a joint and now your ass is ours. Now you're going to spend some time in a federal penitentiary with murderers and rapists and we actually hope they beat you up and assault you and make your life hell because you broke the rules and that makes you a threat to the good decent people in society. And we want scum like you to suffer. A lot. Because it makes us feel good.

And so, what makes people think like this?

While Conservatives profess to be all about "individual responsibility", they have a strong tendency to express an extreme external locus of control in their actions and attitudes. In other words, they like to find someone to blame for everything. It keeps their world neatly ordered. And a throng of faceless, nameless refugees is the perfect scapegoat. Or drug addicts. Or the homeless. 

I am more and more convinced that being Conservative, in the sense that the Trump and CPC followers are "conservative", is a particular psychological state. One that encompasses an extremely rigid world view, authoritarian outlook, a feeling of lack of control which drives them to try to control everything and also to fear the unknown or unfamiliar... This deep insecurity probably also contributes to the manifestation of greed in their outlook. Lack of empathy, callousness, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, misogynism, disdain for the less fortunate, condemnation of addicts and those with mental illness or features which make conservatives uncomfortable, all seem to be tied into this fear and the desperate need to feel better, more important, more deserving than those who are not like them. That's my theory, anyway.

Locus of control (whether you feel your behaviours impact your outcome, or whether you feel powerless and all events are the result of external forces) is almost certainly a product of nurture. A religious upbringing further reinforces an external locus of control. Angry, unpredictable parents reinforce an external locus of control. Life events over which one has no control, such as a drop in the price of oil, or a natural disaster that destroys homes and livelihoods also enhance this external locus if one is predisposed to viewing the world that way. Finding someone to blame is critical to maintaining psychological equilibrium. Premier Notley, immigrants, First Nations, those who commit crimes, etc become a focus of the anger and frustration and hatred. Someone else has done whatever it is to them. And those deemed responsible must be punished to balance the scales. Hence the enthusiasm for mandatory minimum sentences, removing programs that reduce harm, incarceration of refugees, etc.

But, if Conservatism is really a personality trait, how do we cope with what, to many progressive thinkers, appears a throw-back to brutality and unthinking violence? Something dark ages, not 2016?

I do not have a lot of answers. But it seems conservatives are usually spoiling for a fight. After all, might is everything and opponents must be beaten down. So, I suggest not rising to the bait, or descending to their level. Progressive do the cause more harm by resorting to angry responses and engaging in heated argument. Be armed with evidence. Irrefutable evidence. Do not allow them to make you angry. Discuss, but do not allow yourself to be provoked. 

It's really hard. They can be infuriating. But name-calling and vicious attack will only make them dig in to their position and reaffirm their belief that liberals/progressives are the devil's spawn.