Liberals vs. Conservatives: A War of Extremes

One of today’s main trends and sources of conflict in the (so-called) more developed parts of the world is the confrontation and constant struggle between liberal and conservative forces. Depending on one’s place of birth and residence, family and upbringing, social environment, life experiences and identity (which is largely derived from them), you may yourself be a member of one camp or the other, or a sympathizer of one or the other, and therefore the discussion of this topic is likely to provoke no small emotional response. Yet I do think it is extremely important that we try to be as rational and objective as possible in our analysis and, more generally, in our view of the ever sharpening war between the liberal and conservative sides.

It is advisable to do so, if only because such antagonisms tend to erode the relationships of even the best of friends, acquaintances, relatives and others – not to mention the different countries and their alliances – as they slowly but surely turn them against each other. But is this seemingly irreconcilable conflict between two schools and ways of thinking that are almost always at odds with each other really irreconcilable? And, perhaps even more importantly, are they really worth killing each other over, or turning against each other forever?

Which of the two camps is right is practically undecidable, since both are partly right, while and in some respects neither are. Liberal principles are important because they guarantee the fundamental human freedoms that are indispensable to any civilized society. At the same time, it is also true that we cannot be too permissive towards individuals, because this can have serious consequences for society as a whole. For the other side, it is particularly important that we have strong principles and a common culture, and that we do not forget where we come from. Nevertheless, it is also unfortunate here to be too rigid and to live in the past, without taking into account the constant changes in the world and in people.

The two sides probably could not even really exist without each other, as one is the antithesis of the other: one is fundamentally focused on personal freedom, while the other focuses on community and the transmission of a common culture. Whether we agree with them is generally a matter of subjective judgment: what we think is not necessarily based on rationality or even on scientific(cally proven) facts, but on impressions, prejudices and beliefs – heavily influenced by our past experiences and the emotions associated with them -, which fundamentally determine the orientation of our thinking.

Nevertheless, we must see that both sides are prone to exaggerations and extremes: while conservatives tend to forget personal freedom from time to time, liberals have a tendency to ignore the longer-term interests of the wider community. Conservatives tend to cling to the past and basically imagine the future in terms of the past, while forgetting that change is an integral and inevitable part of our existence. However, people with a liberal outlook tend to be mostly concerned only with the present, while often having no concrete vision of the future, reflecting a ‘let the chips fall where they may’ kind of thinking. All in all, the more extreme a person is liberal, the more it can be said that they have no past and no future, only the present, while for extreme conservatives it seems that for them, the past is all they care about in the present and the future.

Yet the point would be exactly to avoid extremes as much as possible, as they can be harmful and dangerous on both sides. Thus, we must be aware that if we live too much in the present and do not have sufficient attention and awareness of the future – especially in an age with serious environmental, economic, political, cultural, health and other threats – such uncontrolled contingency can lead to the destruction of entire civilizations. On the other hand, if we cling stubbornly to old attitudes, social relations and hierarchies that become obsolete over time, ignoring the need for change and adaptation, and the individual’s rights to equality and self-fulfillment, this can lead to social tensions that may become unsustainable over time.

One of the most striking and frightening examples of the latter was the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party for short) in 1933, when conservative forces in Germany were so afraid of the threat of reform from the Social Democrats that they preferred to hand power to Hitler and his associates – whom, contrary to their hopes, they were then unable to control at all. The French Revolution of 1789, for example, also began with great liberal thinkers and the Enlightenment, but after moderate leaders like Lafayette were branded as royalist puppets by the radical left and as rebel traitors by the far right, the revolution eventually ended in terror and bloody civil war led by the Jacobins.

The American War of Independence (1775-1783) was no different in that the United States, which became independent of the British Crown, achieved political reform, but failed to go ahead with the social transformation necessary for the creation of a modern state. While the elite continued to rule over the majority, and some leaders believed that slavery would eventually disappear, this shameful institution continued to flourish in the southern states of the federation. Even though it was officially abolished by President Lincoln in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the entrenched extremism and racism that resulted from it continues to plague the country to this day.

We must accept, therefore, that we cannot cling at all costs to views that are rooted in the past but have become obsolete over time – even if they can provide a significant cultural community and cohesive force in our societies. This is essentially as true for the labeling and pigeonholing of people and for identity politics as it is for the institutionalization of one religion or another. As there are ways to pass fundamental human values on to future generations other than on religious grounds, linked to one belief system or another, and thus spreading and making them the building blocks of our communities in a society, it cannot be a pretext for such policies.

In a truly civilized and democratic society, freedom of religion must be respected in the same way as freedom of the press and freedom of speech. That is why there is no such thing as ‘Christian democracy’ or ‘Islamic democracy’, either, since the privileged role of certain religions is already a clear indication of the presence of a kind of supreme dictate, which does not fit in with the concept of true democracy and a modern, sustainably progressive society. (If only because institutionalized churches can serve as instruments of control and oppression as much as they can as building blocks of communities of solidarity.)

But just as religion can be abused, so too can the freedom of sexuality – at most in the case of the latter, this is usually not done by a central government, but by individuals. For in the name of personal freedom, many allow themselves to do things that, according to cultural norms (or even common sense), go beyond the boundaries of good taste or being civilized. Moreover, many people, especially the young, can see this as a model to follow, which slowly but surely leads to the degradation of intimacy, which in turn is closely linked to the degeneration of sexuality.

Don’t get me wrong: in a democratic and civilized society, everyone should be granted the basic human right to be with whomever they want, regardless of gender or sexual identity, as long as it is not under coercion, or at the expense of a minor or a person who is unable to defend themselves. But how we practice our sexuality in front of others is not the same thing at all – in other words, liberals should also understand that the uncontrolled growth of sexual libertinage does not lead to the strengthening of civilized conditions, and that debauchery and anarchy does not at all equal liberalism.

At the same time, conservatives should recognize that since faith is as much a personal matter as sexuality, various religious and faith-related views should be considered one’s private sphere and should not be disseminated by forceful or manipulative means, especially in case of minors. So basically, neither sexuality nor religion should be introduced to our children too early, until they are mature enough. Of course, all this can be dismissed by saying that it is unrealistic due to the way people are, as well as the fact that we are now exposed to all kinds of content via the internet at an early age anyway. Nevertheless, responsible parents still try to protect their children from such harmful influences, and we should not ignore the fact that this essentially depends on nothing but the prevailing culture in society.

As far as culture is concerned, in a healthy society, we need to attach as much importance to mutual accommodation and common interests as to personal freedom and self-fulfillment. This is obviously fundamentally complicated by the tendency of both sides to exaggerate. In today’s liberal narrative, this is manifested, among other things, in the fact that representation, which is voiced in the name of equality, is more important than storytelling itself, which in turn is often put forward right at the expense of storytelling. While the enforcement of human rights is certainly extremely important, it can make a world of difference how we try to achieve it. As vital as fundamental human rights are, if we consider, for example, the LGBTQ+ movement, which adds a new letter to its name almost every other month, is also something that the majority of people worldwide cannot really take seriously, for pretty obvious reasons.

However, the increasingly radical reactions on the conservative side are also often highly exaggerated, and do nothing to increase acceptance or promote peaceful coexistence in our societies. This applies not only to the treatment of sexuality, but also to migration, among other issues, where there is mostly a consistent rejection. But even if one can understand to some extent why conservatives in general do not support large-scale migration with virtually no limits, it is a huge overreach when right-wing politics overstate the propaganda against immigrants to the point where the fear and rejection on a significant part of society becomes unrealistic. In addition, conservative forces tend to deliberately exploit various threats to create enemy images, usually with the promise that the politicians of their party will protect us.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the problem between the two sides is to ask ourselves: which of today’s liberal and conservative media is better? On the one hand, there is the content that flows in the name of individual and cultural freedom, driven by viewership, readership and click-through rates, limited at most by a kind of political correctness that does not at all always mean correctness towards all groups or all of society. And, on the other, we may see a greater ambition to build community, to transmit culture and to create value in vain, if it is combined with purposeful propaganda and a narrative that basically does not promote the broad awareness of the people, but rather their ignorance and radicalization.

Comparing the two, to me the answer is quite clear: because they both represent a kind of extreme, neither is really good for society. “Well, then, what else is there to choose from?” asks the vast majority who, in general and in this case too, are unable to abstract from the circumstances they live in. However, in my opinion, there is in fact an alternative, but it requires a conscious civil society, with civilian control and organizations that consistently monitor and stand up against extremism and undesirable content. And naturally, it would also be beneficial to have an education system that not only imparts knowledge and values, but also teaches rational and critical thinking from an early age.

In the absence of these, however, there is essentially nothing to prevent us from being constantly manipulated and, in many cases, from politics itself fuelling extremism and tension in society. In addition, the more forcefully each side spreads its ideology, the more resistance they face from the other camp, which further increases divisions. (Once more demonstrating that extremes usually breed more extremes.) The whole warfare is primarily fought on an emotional basis, and although by its very nature liberal forces tries to appeal less to our primitive human instincts than to our rationality, the adherents of both sides are basically driven by their overwrought emotions, urging them to use every means at their disposal to obstruct and berate each other wherever and whenever they can.

The trouble is that the constant nagging keeps us from cooperating and focusing on what really matters. And we must see that, in essence, both sides are so far failing to solve the world’s problems, and neither is really moving our societies forward in a direction that points towards environmental and social sustainability, avoiding an increasingly looming civilizational crisis and potential catastrophe. While the neoliberal economic and political establishment continues to dominate the world, regardless of which side is in power, social inequalities and corruption, racial, religious and national rivalries continue to rage, as well as the intense environmental destruction – perfectly showing that existential opportunism still rules in our societies.

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