Sympathy and the Devil: the emotional hypocrisy of conservatism

David Cameron “feels sick” when he thinks of prisoners voting. He backs the First Past the Post system because he “just knows AV is wrong in his gut”. Meanwhile Nick Clegg is blubbing away to a string quartet and pointing out that he is a “human being with feelings.” So why are the politically conservative so quick to tell everyone else they need to toughen up?

It’s a well-known joke that if you’re not a progressive when you’re young, you have no heart, and if you’re still a progressive when you get older you have no head. In other words, leftist politics are sentimental, emotional, perfectly nice in theory but unworkable in the ‘real world’, whilst conservative politics are mature, evidence-based, logical and workable. Well, I was a conservative when I was seventeen, but the more I see of the ‘real world,’ the more I seem to become what is called (by everyone except the actual left, who ironically seem to think I’m rather Blue) ‘left-wing.’

As politicians from all the centrist and right of centre parties demonstrate brilliantly, conservatism can be based on a purely emotional response to the world just like anything else. In fact, it’s difficult to find much support for most right-wing policies without emotions like fear, pride, patriotism, and greed – none of which have a particularly logical basis.

For example, David Cameron admitted this week – in fact, declared with some pride – that he doesn’t want discussions about the Alternative Vote (AV) to be based on “scientific argument.”

“For me,” he says, “politics is about what you feel in your gut.” He goes on to say: “I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong.” John Reid, meanwhile, defends First Past the Post on grounds of ‘British’ and ‘traditional.’

It’s a very funny argument: we can’t change things because then things would change. But despite it’s circular vacuity, this argument has been used to great effect by social and political conservatives for just about as long as we have historical records to show it.

What makes the appeal to ‘tradition’ even funnier is that David Cameron’s government is pretending to care about British tradition while dramatically overhauling the political geography of our constituencies (to the overwhelming advantage of his own party) and – worse – dismantling the traditions the British people really do care actually about, like local libraries, and the NHS.

But David Cameron shouldn’t be singled out: it’s not that he, or even the Conservative party, are the only ones to do this kind of thing. The reason he gets special mention is that he’s extraordinarily bad at it. Most people weren’t fooled by Tony Blair’s constant emotional points about how bad Saddam Hussein was when explaining the specifics why he lied (or ‘was mistaken’ if we want to be kind) about WMD, or whether the war was legal or not, but at least he knew how to make his arguments sound like they had some vague logical basis. Cameron’s patronising arguments like his certainty that, for example, his immigration policy is right for the country because a black man in Plymouth happened to agree with it, are just painful. And worrying – because while Blair must know he’s being manipulative, there is a chance Cameron actually believes that “just knowing” something is grounds for making it law.

But it’s not just the political right who play the emotional card: I’d be crazy to argue that. So why single out the right as hypocrites? The big, glaring difference between an emotional conservative and an emotional progressive is that progressives tend to get emotional about other people’s suffering.

Emotional conservatives, on the other hand, somehow manage to get extremely offended, upset, and angry, whilst telling everyone else to toughen up and stop whining. Every day the papers, radio phone-ins, and often general conversations are chock full of stories about homophobes who don’t like to see gay couples kissing, racists who don’t like seeing Mosques or people in burqas nearby, Christians who don’t like seeing Richard Dawkins’ book in the window and don’t want their children taught not to pick on gay kids in classroom, all complaining that they are being expected to tiptoe around other people’s sensitivities – whilst ironically expecting everyone else to tiptoe around their sensitivities.

So why do we have this idea that being progressive makes you emotional and immature, while being a conservative makes you a rational grown-up?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t distinguish enough between emotion, and compassion. We don’t always realise that an emotional response to the world founded on a lack of empathy (“Why should I pay taxes for someone else to just sit at home claiming benefits?” or “I get depressed sometimes but I just get on with it, so I don’t reckon depression is a real illness,” for example) is an irrational, emotional response, because it’s so cold and dispassionate, whilst empathy, on the other hand, can actually facilitate logic. (“I work hard but I know people who are just as human as I am who don’t, so it isn’t a logical conclusion that I automatically deserve more than people who aren’t working,” or “I want there to be a safety net in place in case I or someone I love needs it because I can imagine how it must feel to lose your home or not be able to afford healthcare for your child,” for example is an extremely rational response.) Sometimes it seems we are all so frightened of the vulnerability and humility that empathy brings that we actually don’t care about how emotional an argument is: just as long as the argument isn’t founded in compassion.

Somehow, we have allowed society to equate intelligence with selfishness; empathy with weakness; intolerance with moral values. Greed becomes proud achievement; vulnerability becomes grounds for dehumanisation.

No matter how much conservatives want us to believe in that old joke, the battle between conservatives and progressives isn’t between the emotional progressive and the rational conservative at all. It is between the emotional conservative and the compassionate progressive. And surely while basing an entire world view on emotion alone is a sign of immaturity, basing your world view on compassion is a sign of maturity and experience.

So perhaps that quote should be: “If you’re not a conservative when you’re young, you probably haven’t lived. And if you’re not a progressive when you get older, you probably haven’t lived either.”


4 thoughts on “Sympathy and the Devil: the emotional hypocrisy of conservatism

Add yours

  1. Blair was a lawyer; Cameron a PR man. One made arguments he believed in; the other makes arguments that others believe in.

    I know plenty of conservatives who are compassionate – they believe that wealth creation lifts everyone – and plenty of progressives who are not so compassionate – motivated by jealousy or hate for example. They’ll be a few of both types on show come the Royal wedding.

    Where does Bill Gates fit in?

  2. Good point about emotional irrational lefties and compassionate Tories though. I suppose I should add a disclaimer that I don’t mean everyone on the political right (I often fall into that group myself on some issues! Or so I’m told by the political compass…). I’m talking only about those conservatives who do get emotional. I think someone getting emotional because they’re jealous of someone else’s wealth might be irrational and purely emotional, but it’s not hypocritical in the way that someone getting emotional about how everyone else should just ‘suck it up’ is.

  3. Yes – progressive is not left wing, though it has leftish instincts not rightish instincts. Gates seems progressive in his charitable works and anti-progressive in his business works.

    There’s probably all kinds with all kinds of political views!

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