According to the philosopher Roger Scruton, conservatism is the defense of that which one loves. Such things include family, beauty, moral order, individual liberty; the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious practice, the nation state. Of course, several aspects of these institutions have not been worth defending: those steeped in racism, sexism, or the subordination of any other group. But for Scruton, a true conservatism seeks to adapt in order to preserve; it addresses the flaws of the present while remaining skeptical of those who seek to tear its foundations to pieces.
This definition got me thinking: What, if anything, do I love enough to preserve at all costs? What, if anything, do I believe my society would be helpless without? It strikes me as strange that I have never attempted to answer this before. I have always been so confident in the Pinkerian view of human progress — where Enlightenment-style reason is our final triumph over tribalism — that I have not often paused to reckon with the fact that we are always at the potential endpoint of history.
A few weeks ago, Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a piece arguing that civil discourse is headed down a dangerous path; we are more polarized, less patient, and quicker to assume bad intentions. We speak in order to signal rather than speaking in order to connect. We claim to be able to see inside people’s souls and are surrounded by distractions that keep us from staring into our own.
Social media is the clearest example of this trend. It is manufactured to exploit our worst capacities, encourage outrage and misinformation over nuanced debate, and dramatically reduce face to face interaction. It is difficult to call somebody evil if they are sitting in front of you. It is far easier to do so if a set of followers is waiting to applaud you.
Why do I mention all of this in a piece about conservatism? Because the ability to disagree is exactly what I am most scared of losing.
Disagreement anchors every freedom I value today. It is the ability to think out loud; to be wrong and learn from it; to engage in a conversation and find out what I believe in the process.
Family is worth protecting because it forces us to love in spite of difference. Political parties take turns so that no government has a blank check to do what it likes. Disagreement makes us certain of what we do know and reveals to us what we don’t know. It demonstrates the radical contingency of our beliefs and encourages us to adapt when events alter their validity.
Unity of opinion is simply not an ideal worth striving for. Even the thought of a society in which everyone shared my beliefs makes me queasy. Not only would it be intensely boring, but it would make the obvious mistake of assuming that it could do no wrong. It would foster a lack of gratitude, a lack of humility, and a lack of responsibility — an obliviousness to the fact our generation is one Jenga block at the top of a mountain.
In order to change a mind, one has to reach a heart. That sounds like a cliché, but it is absolutely true. Moral psychology has made it clear that people are far more likely to question their beliefs when they are approached with compassion. It is far easier to be persuaded by someone you love than someone you hate.
To the extent that I am a conservative, I want to conserve conversation; if we lose respectful disagreement, we lose the foundation of our freedom. Relationships, not the government, are the foundation of respect. Democracy cannot function if we do not engage with the strongest versions of each other’s arguments.
Scruton’s conservatism is a warning against complacency; a reminder that if one wishes to tear apart the foundations of a society — be they moral, social, economic, or cultural — one ought to be aware of how such an attempt could go wrong and what could be lost in the process.
Without a sense of the past, it is all too easy to place false confidence in the future. Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling, and other liberal optimists all make excellent points about the underreported victories across history. But progress is not linear — the tremendous advances we have made should not fool us into thinking that the future invites a blindfold.
There is no doubt that social media companies need serious reform (I doubt that Mark Zuckerberg understood the magnitude of his creation in Kirkland House 15 years ago). But on an individual level, there is much that can be done. For my part, I will continue to do everything I can to disagree better.
I can think more carefully before I comment and question myself before I dismiss an opinion. I can better familiarize myself with the views of our professors and take courses that will offer me a variety of perspectives. I can make sure that my Twitter feed covers more of the political, geographical and identity spectra — not because I endorse everybody’s beliefs, but because I want to learn what people truly believe.
Most importantly, I can make it my duty to engage in difficult conversations — conversations that demand good faith and complete transparency. Not in order to take the moral high ground, but to treat those around me with mindfulness and humanity. To see flawed human beings as flawed human beings and conserve disagreement, the practice that I value most of all.
Sahil Handa ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies and Philosophy concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.