Conservatism, Good Order, and Protecting the Weak

In a long piece over at The American Conservative on the limits of consent as a guiding ethic for our sexual culture, Grace Olmstead has some very interesting things to say about culture, gender roles, and virtue — something a lot of conservatives have talked about in the last few decades:

The seeds of sexual assault are going to start young, Smith is right about that. But talking about consent to a kindergartener is not going to solve the problem—because a young man like Brock Turner doesn’t care whether or not a woman gives him consent. He’s already decided that his desires trump the needs or desires of anyone else around him. We need to reach beyond sexual politics, and seek to guide the hearts of our children: teaching them what is right, and stirring in them a desire to do what is good.

When I was a young girl, I remember reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Say what you will about the romantic, embellished prose or stereotypical characters—it taught me what it looks like to be a lady, and what it looks like to be a gentleman.

Take, first, the character Rebecca: noble, valiant, stubborn, virtuous. She has self-respect and nobility. When others treat her badly, it doesn’t upend her security or confidence. When she’s threatened by a man who wants to her to become his mistress, she firmly, resolutely tells him “no.” It doesn’t matter what the world thinks or what the consequences might be: she knows what is right. And she has the dignity and courage to pursue that unflinchingly.

Then there’s Ivanhoe: a valiant knight, caring son, loyal lover. He also does what is right, no matter the consequences. Near the end of the book, Ivanhoe seeks to rescue Rebecca from her tormenter and be her champion—even though he’s in love with someone else. This is what a gentleman is: someone who seeks the wellbeing and safety of vulnerable people around him, regardless of whether it’s in his own interests.

Words like “lady” and “gentleman” seem antiquated in today’s society; and it’s true, they’re derived from a time in which gender roles were less fluid and sexual mores were more strict. But I’d argue that ladylike and/or gentlemanly behavior needn’t be consigned to the history books, because these words capture what it means to have a virtuous balance of self-respect and deference, dignity and charity. Being a lady has nothing to do with acting “feminine” or wearing frilly clothing. Being a gentleman has nothing to do with lording one’s might or “manliness” over others—quite the opposite. These words describe a person who prizes their own self-worth and dignity, while also caring deeply for the wellbeing of those around them.

I’m deeply sympathetic to what Olmstead writes here. I do think virtue, especially a virtue which puts the well-being of the weak and the vulnerable above self-interest, is a noble aspiration, well worth having and cultivating. I’ve often thought some more old-fashioned notions that might govern bigotry, harassment, hate speech, and microagressions — that such expressions are simply rude and thus beyond the pale in civilized and polite company — would help considerably foster character and create spaces we can all live, work, and love in.

I want to live in this polite, respectful, and highly idealized world of gentlemen and ladies.

And I will even go so far as to note that I think a lot of conservative intellectuals believe that good social order — conservative, christian, traditional order — will do exactly that; it will foster the character of people who will put the well-being of the weak and vulnerable above their own.

As First Things editor R. R. Reno says in an interview about his most recent book, Resurrecting The Idea of a Christian Society,

Our paganism is soft and small, not hard and grandiose. We worship the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. But it’s a cruel paganism and in the book I detail the ways in which it’s especially hard on the poor and vulnerable. I want readers to see that a concern about traditional morality isn’t “moralistic.” It reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable—a crucial biblical imperative.

I believe he really believes this (because he’s right, especially the nature of American paganism), that traditional morality reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable. It is a biblical imperative.

But here’s the rub — most conservative Christians are probably less conservative than they are authoritarian. Their faith in good social order, and that order itself, isn’t a means to an end — it is an end in and of itself.

Growing up in and around the military, on army bases across the country and then in a very far flung and conservative suburb of Los Angeles, social order was imposed and enforced rather brutally. Conformity was demanded, and non-conformity was rather brutally punished. Men and women who failed to adhere to the norms were beaten, bullied, marginalized, excluded. We weren’t safe. Now, some may say that in conformity is our well-being, but this way of arranging the world — of demanding sameness, compliance, conformity before considering anyone’s well-being — doesn’t put the needs of the weak and vulnerable first. Instead, it attempts to eradicate weakness and vulnerability, and failing to do that, it attemtps to make the weak and the vulnerable “disappear” altogether.

Social and cultural conservatives have only themselves to blame for the collapse of their ideals. Never in the 1980s and 1990s did I hear any social or cultural conservatives even hint they cared about the well-being of the weak and vulnerable beyond their shrill exhortations on behalf of the unborn — exhortations that always struck me as deeply hypocritical since most social and cultural conservatives didn’t much care about the predations of the market, accepted bullying in school, were always quick to support war, and seemed to believe in a harsh social darwinism when it came to the poor, people of color, or people who are queer.

Or simply people who could not or would not conform.

The weak and the vulnerable in America’s conservative authoritarian communities were at the mercy of society’s good order. An order built on bullying, violence, exclusion, and death. The experience of being on the receiving end of that order is, I think, something that holds a lot of the Democratic coalition together — we (because I am a blue state person culturally if not politically) have been the weak and the vulnerable and have found no protection. Indeed, that good order has brutalized, exploited, and marginalized us, and then it has demanded we accept our reduced and excluded status and the violence done to us as social goods and morally right.

As the way things should be.

The social order emerging from the left will, sadly, become just as brutal and authoritarian as the order it is replacing, especially when it comes to the sexual revolution and matters of imposing and enforcing ideas of gender and racial identity. That order will find its own to brutalize and marginalize. Because that’s what social order does.

But conservatives — especially conservative Christians — hold no moral high ground here. Reno is a day late and a fistful of dollars short. Because many of us experienced a conservative order that pretty well brutalized us. Conservatives wouldn’t be in this position if they hadn’t held so tight to a social order built on racism and segregation, absolute conformity to a certain kind of white, bourgeois ideal, formal and informal violence meted out harshly, and held love of neighbor to be some kind of secondary or even tertiary command from God — a nice idea to be thought of every now and again, but something that ignored the harsh reality of a world in which some people just needed a beating (or two, or three) in order to straighten up and fly right (or held down, or pushed out of the way).

In this, the Trump campaign is probably a far clearer and much more coherent expression of American “conservatism,” the kind of social order conservative Americans believe in and the way conservatives have envisioned and enforced order, than anything said or written by an editor at First Things.

One thought on “Conservatism, Good Order, and Protecting the Weak

  1. I’ve been meaning to comment on this. A week ago or so, I was recommending online a book by Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word. Then, reflecting that I hadn’t read it for 20 years, maybe even 30, I got it out again. Being more fascinated than ever, I have jumped into some of Ellul’s other books. So my mind is pretty occupied.

    It meshes pretty well with much of what you have written here, except for the radical ecclesiology and the idiosyncratic theology. For the first time, the phrase ‘Christian anarchy’ makes some sense to me, though he doesn’t mean by it what many people would.

    The photo from the 1952 Ivanhoe brings back memories. It was one of my faves as a kid. I loved all sorts of period adventure films, even the hokey ones (which was most of them). Ivanhoe’s dutiful risking of his life for a woman from an alien and reviled people (who were expelled from England entirely about a century later) was made much more psychologically complex by casting 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, and Joan Fontaine (who was 15 years older) as Rowena. Fontaine was famous for playing pallid and neurotic young women, including in the film ‘Rebecca’ in her early 20’s. She was at the time a far more famous actress and a far better one. But in the 1950’s, Ivanhoe’s great and dutiful sacrifice seemed to be his giving up Rebecca and marrying Rowena. The audience might not even have been aware just how impossible the former relationship would have been.

    Some Burkeans might have said that a truly Conservative culture has always been impossible in California, at least since it became a state, except among the old Mexican families who managed to hold onto their land. But Southern California represents everything the Republican party became after 1964. By then, it was a state largely populated by migrants, from the East even more than from the South.

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