Conservatism as Trauma Response


comic by Reza Farazmand

“It’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.”      — Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress

I’ve spent a fair amount of time of late with conservatives. This is a rather rare occurrence for me, since the circles I am part of are almost all far-left of centre, progressive groups.

I’ve never been conservative, so it’s always been hard for me to figure out what makes conservatives tick. There are of course many different flavours of conservative, but at this juncture, since they are a minority numbers-wise in most of the world’s anglophone countries, yet firmly in control of political power throughout the anglophone world, it’s the commonalities of anglophone political conservatives I’m most interested in.

What has emerged from hours of conversations is a portrait of a hard-edged (at once sensitive and desensitized) group of people from diverse economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds that seem to have two things in common — they are overwhelmingly older males, and they all seem to be struggling with severe trauma (with a wide variety of origins) that they are emotionally unable to cope with (perhaps because they seem emotionally un-self-aware).

That’s not to say a lot of my fellow lefties aren’t traumatized too. It’s just that they (we) seem a little better at figuring out how to recognize, self-manage and cope with our trauma, and hence tend to be somewhat less reactive to stressful news and situations, and less prone to be triggered by opportunists who exploit reactivity. So, where liberals tend to just not want to hear about 45’s latest inarticulate nonsense, conservatives seem powerfully (and angrily) energized by the mere mention of words like Hillary, Ocasio, Pelosi, immigrants or socialism.

Racism and sexism seem to underlie this almost autonomic, unthinking reactivity (often accompanied by the rote reciting of cliché right-wing “talking points”), but, as I’ve mentioned before in these pages, the real root of it is, I’m coming to realize, anger and fear, underneath which, in most cases, seems to lie unmanageable, often-unconscious trauma. These people are seriously hurting, angry and terrified, and in denial of it (or, worse, quietly ashamed or completely oblivious to it).

Perhaps because I am a reactive, older male who spent most of my life in an un-self-conscious reactive state, I can kind of relate to this. Although I am becoming more equanimous with age and practice and wise counsel from sensitive, intelligent friends, when I was at my most reactive my rage was directed at what I saw as dangerous right-wingers — Reagan, Cheney, Thatcher, Mulroney, environmentally ruinous billionaire corporatists and inflammatory, fear-mongering mass media.

Some of my conservative acquaintances are very intelligent, and to me their support for people and ideas that are clearly destructive, divisive, dangerous and deluded makes no sense. This is of course what George Lakoff has been writing about for years.

What the hate- and fear-mongering politicians, media pundits and business mouthpieces are saying (to themselves and their audiences) is: You’re right to be afraid, lost, and angry. Conservatives react to the above trigger-words (Hillary, immigrants etc) in a very similar, conditioned way to the way the victims of abuse react to descriptions and depictions of the kind of violence they have suffered from.

The people who have done the conditioning have almost certainly been traumatized themselves by what is, to them, a frightening, bewildering, dangerous, out-of-control and infuriating world. In such a traumatized world, fear is infectious, especially so thanks to mass media and social media outlets that present an oversimplified, focused, blame-y, twisted perspective of reality that amplifies, supports and sustains such fear.

The conservative echo chamber of fear reinforces conservatives’ innate fear that the safe, unchanging, god-fearing, hierarchical, everyone-knows-their-place world they thought they were growing up in, and want to live in and leave for their children, is constantly under threat from forces they don’t trust or understand, forces that make them feel intimidated, undermined, blind-sided, ill-equipped and even helpless to deal with. All it takes is one of those trigger-words to set them off.

This of course is precisely what happened in countries demoralized by brutal poverty, economic collapse, military disgrace, social disintegration and hopelessness in the last century in Germany, Russia, China, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and a host of other places, leading to wars, genocides, and racial, economic and political atrocities that resulted in the murder of nearly a quarter of a billion people.

So what are we to do now to prevent yet another slide into the kind of massive reactionary hysteria that made the last century our civilization’s bloodiest?

My regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t think there is anything we can do. Although it is our nature to try to reason out our emotional reactions, this has nothing to do with reason, and reasoning with conservatives (as Lakoff has said) won’t solve anything. Progressives are mistaken to think that this is just a blip before we resume the inevitable humanist trajectory towards endless betterment. Conservatives are right to see progress as a myth, and the current system that hold us in thrall as hopelessly broken. They are wrong in thinking that their religions and their patriarchal, fear-based moral values offer anything better.

What we are seeing in the shift of racism, sexism, self-deluded lying, and scapegoating (of immigrants, liberals, modern urban life and “others’ of all stripes) from the whispered margins to the political mainstream, is a mass collective expression of endless, hopeless, unbearable trauma. It is the self-loathing death throes of our failed industrial civilization.

Our reaction to constant stresses with no end, no solution in sight, is, as it has always been, an unmanaged and uncontrollable outpouring of feelings of anger, hatred, shame, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness and grief, that finds an outlet in blaming others (racism, sexism, anti-immigrant hysteria), in war and other acts of violence, in denial and lies, and in self-justification for the monstrous emotional derangement that consumes us and makes us crazy enough to commit abuses and atrocities (to others, and to ourselves) in unbearable situations and times.

This is who we are under chronic stress.

But we are also, when not overwhelmed by stress, a generous, loving, altruistic, peaceful species instilled with biophilia, creativity, curiosity, and a love of beauty. When our self-domesticated, imprisoning, desolating global industrial culture collapses (and that collapse is already in full swing) the remnants of our species will, instinctively and naturally, exhibit these positive, evolutionarily-healthy qualities. Evolution’s response to extreme stress is radical change — collapse and then rest and heal; its response to ecosystems in joyful balance is to let everything be as it is. There is nothing moral in this.

We are by nature neither conservative nor progressive. The conservative is an emotionally wracked, traumatized human unable to cope with a seemingly hopeless reality, longing for a (usually imagined or invented) better time. The progressive is a lost, bewildered idealist driven by a constantly-disappointing faith in the inevitability of humanity’s collective advancement through collaborative effort. Both worldviews are deluded.

The fact that extreme conservatives have ascended to power and are consolidating it further should neither dismay or surprise us. Their ascendancy will make collapse more difficult, but their failure to create anything enduring is as inevitable as ours. We will make the best of it, and in so doing conservatives and progressives alike will show much of our better stuff as collapse intensifies — as we see living and working together as best we can through the dark times ahead as, ultimately, the only way forward. We will rediscover our humanity just as we seemingly are losing it.

And millennia from now, as our planet once again flourishes, civilization-free, the foolish experiment with apes running the laboratory will be long forgotten.

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5 Responses to Conservatism as Trauma Response

  1. philip says:

    To see is the best we can do. Thanks again for another perspective on the chaos. Much acceptance will be required in the years ahead.

  2. I know this isn’t about nonduality but I find this easier to make sense of when I see everything as a story – conservatives about the time that didn’t exist when the world was predictable and everyone virtuous and productive, and the progressive future where humanity transcends its ape heritage.

    Your idea about a smaller human population living in a more natural and intentional condition in the future is a story too, even if it’s one I find appealing.

    Everything starts looking like what you’d expect to happen given humans being what they are.

  3. realist says:

    “When our self-domesticated, imprisoning, desolating global industrial culture collapses (and that collapse is already in full swing) the remnants of our species will, instinctively and naturally, exhibit these positive, evolutionarily-healthy qualities. “

    Absolutely not, just the very opposite, hell on earth.
    Wanna bet?

  4. Paul Heft says:

    Interesting responses. The third, from realist, offers an interesting wager, considering that both of you will die before the judgment can be made and one of you will have to pay up. Maybe all can agree that life is too short to argue!

  5. Brutus says:

    No doubt your explanation is accurate for some conservatives, but there are other valid explanations as well. In The Righteous Mind (which I haven’t yet read), Jonathan Haidt argues that many conservative tropes spring from a sense of revulsion at obvious impurities found in some social ideal. Infection and/or decay is the metaphor applied to political and social bodies. The demographic (e.g., birth rate divergence) and immigrant waves already upon us thus look like pestilences to be dealt with using antibiotics (another metaphor, or if you prefer, euphemism). It’s all very early 20th century, borne out of germ theory (then relatively new) and piggybacks on a much older xenophobia feeding on snap judgment of surface features to establish basic categories of, among others, safe/unsafe and friend/foe. My own partial explanation is a mounting sense of looming scarcity following our relatively brief age of abundance (corresponding to the industrial age) that threatens (or promises) to cut us all down. Maybe that’s merely another way of saying we anticipate new trauma and are responding fearfully, protectively, and irrationally. As emotional responses, they’re fundamentally resistant to explanation and reasoning.

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