Today, conservatism finds itself in danger of losing its way. In an attempt to win what feels like an all-out war, young conservatives take on the common tactics of the day. When conservatives surrender their civility to the abrasiveness, they sacrifice a part of the tradition that makes them conservative.
Young conservatives are faced with difficult times. The cancel culture comes for all, and it comes in a vicious way to any who speak out against the orthodoxy of our time. Defenders of the American founding, free market capitalism, traditional family values, a traditional moral order, and other conventionally conservative ideas are seen as offenders by the wider culture.
What, then, are young conservatives to do? Potential employment opportunities, friendships, and reputations are on the line. And silence, even that of prudence, has been deemed as violence and an assent to the social sin of that day. Careful and decisive action is necessary—conservatives must speak.
Some conservatives have chosen to take the low road, assuming a recalcitrant and abrasive mentality. This mentality seemingly says, “if a war is what you want, then a war you shall have!” This is recognizable in many young conservatives. “Own the Libs” was the rallying cry of far too many young conservatives already, and current circumstances have only made it worse. One can understand the tendency to move in that direction, when the opposition to conservatism and its ideas often fights dirty. If a person has been attacked or has seen his friends or family hurt by the words and actions of those with opposing views, he might feel called to retaliate and seek vengeance. Nonetheless, this does not require the abandonment of conservative principles.
The loud and unlistening bulwark mentality is flawed, and ultimately not conservative. The conservative intellectual tradition teaches that this is precisely the wrong attitude for conservatives to have and the wrong way for conservatives to act. Inherent to this tradition is a certain civility. What conservatives need now is a principled conservatism that seeks prudent and just action. In order to foster that principled conservatism, conservatives need to refer back to a cloud of witnesses, a wealth of wisdom and prudence from past thinkers.
The Antithesis to Ideology
One witness that young conservatives can look to is Russell Kirk. In his essay Ten Conservative Principles, Kirk wrote, “Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word ‘conservative’ as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” Conservatism is fundamentally against ideology. It refuses to be brought to a dogmatic level and, when viewed in this light, is understood as a call to prudence.
Most Americans use the word ‘ideology’ in a neutral manner. One might say, “I am ideologically aligned with [fill-in-the-blank] candidate.” People use the word to mean a set of beliefs that govern their thinking. This seems harmless but in reality, ideology of any kind is rigidly dogmatic. Kirk’s use of the word implies the true danger of ideologies. Ideology keeps people from being able to see when they are wrong. It is dogmatic in the sense that it binds one to a system of belief that has no alternative. Importantly, ideology destroys the ability to be prudent, warping a person’s moral vision and precluding his ability to see the world as it actually is. Kirk understood this and in The Conservative Mind wrote, “Conservatism never is more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation.” Conservatives, according to Kirk, are not so dogmatic that they cannot work with those with whom they disagree.
It is ideology that drives both rioters to tear down statues of abolitionists and an unlistening attitude which chooses to wage war in response. Prudence, however, allows one to remain free from the control of any single prevailing or reactionary ideology and instead, think deeply and act rightly.
In order to understand the importance of prudence and why it sets one against ideology, it is worth hearing a brief word from the German philosopher Josef Pieper. In his book An Anthology, he writes,
Prudence, strictly speaking, does not stand on the same level as justice, courage, and temperance; she is not, as it were, the eldest or the most beautiful of the four sisters. Prudence… is rather the mother of the other virtues… this means… that justice, courage and temperance exist only because of prudence! Prudence is the precondition for all that is ethically good.
Pieper gives prudence high praise setting it atop the other classical virtues as their “mother.” It is the virtue that gives life to the others—the sine qua non (the necessary condition). But why prudence? It is because prudence allows one to see the world as it really is.
Prudence, according to Pieper, is made of two parts. Prudence has to do with (1) being able to see things as they really are; and (2) acting on this correct vision: that is, perception and translation. He says, “prudence is the art of making the right decision based on the corresponding reality—no matter whether justice, courage or temperance is at stake.” This proper reception of reality is fundamental to one’s moral vision. One cannot see what is good if one cannot truly see. Prudence is having a well-ordered vision and seeing the world as it actually exists. It is not seeing the world as one wants to see it, or with a vision that is closed and blind to reality.
Moreover, prudence requires us to lay aside our biases: “What is asked of us, then, [in order to be prudent] is no less than this: to reduce our own interest to that silence which is an absolute precondition if we want to hear or perceive anything,” Pieper writes. Our own interest often obstructs our vision and obscures reality. This is part of the problem with the reactionary ideology that so many young conservatives have run to. These camps allow the interest of their ideology to obscure their moral vision and inhibit prudent action.
Prudence ought to have a defining place for the conservative. Kirk wrote the following when commenting on the role of prudence in conservatism:
[C]onservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity… As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences.
The conservative is one marked by movement that, while not necessarily slow, is necessarily thoughtful. The conservative changes when change is necessary and stands firm when a firm standing is called for. The conservative seeks to move rightly. Imagine someone standing in a room in front of three doors with her luggage. She opens each door and examines each room but leaves her things in the room where she entered. Upon examining the rooms, she may be entirely content to return to her things and make her home there for a while. Such is the conservative manner: inquisitive, patient, and prudent. The conservative would rather act rightly than hastily.
The Conservative Civility
How then should young conservatives respond to the cancel culture? For this one can turn to another witness who has identified the very crux of what it means to have genuine civil dialogue: Theodore Zeldin. In his little book Conversation, Dr. Zeldin writes,
The kind of conversation I’m interested in is one which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. It is always an experiment, whose results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It’s an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and make it taste less bitter.
Some interpret Dr. Zeldin to require a sacrifice of their intellectual foundations. For example, a conversation where a Catholic might have to give up his belief in the sanctity of life. This interpretation of Dr. Zeldin usually arises from one of two things: (1) a fear that one is incapable of defending themselves or (2) a failure to see opponents as valuable members of society. To enter a conversation with the “willingness to emerge a slightly different person” is a vision of prudence. Dr. Zeldin is asking people to lay aside self-interest in order that they might see things as they actually are. Thus, civility flows from prudence. Civility does not require one to sacrifice his convictions or morals—unless they are wrong. If one is not proven wrong in the course of a conversation, one is still able to emerge in some way changed through an understanding of what the other believes. This type of conversation requests that you understand those subtleties of human thought, be prudent, and listen to your interlocutor.
One common retort to this is, “others do not do this, so why should I?” This is unfortunately true; nonetheless, this type of conversation not only requires civility from prudence, but it also has the ability to civilize and cultivate prudence. When people approach other human beings with clear moral vision and recognition of their personhood, they appeal to the humanity of the other—the act of civility. Being treated in this loving and prudent way acknowledges the other’s humanity and creates space for civility. Civility rings the bell of humanity within the other’s soul. Now, it might not work. That other person may not be willing to hold this type of conversation or, unfortunately, we may be bad practitioners. This is no excuse to give in to ideology. Rather, let one seek to raise both himself and others to civility and prudence.
Some people will read this essay to have simply said, “be nice to one another.” Though kindness and charity certainly play a main role in cultivating this attitude of civility, it is not inimical to serious disagreement or even just reproach. What this essay emphasizes is the need to be civil. Civility is the act of recognizing the personhood of one’s interlocutor and appealing to his humanity. This does not mean one cannot implore the other to see truth or find his logic inconsistent and wrong—it simply means one ought not assault the other person verbally or physically. The prudent thing to do in moments of disagreement is to listen and attempt to persuade one’s interlocutor. This is a far more powerful tool than attacking him.
Today, conservatism finds itself in danger of losing its way. In an attempt to win what feels like an all-out war, young conservatives take on the common tactics of the day—and too many surrender to ideology. Civility is the conservatives’ key to rise above the fray. When conservatives surrender their civility to the abrasiveness that boosts ratings and receives retweets, they sacrifice a part of the tradition that makes them conservative. Conservatives ought not sacrifice that tradition, for without it they have no ground upon which to stand.
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The featured image is The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia (c. 1800) by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754–1837) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened slightly for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.