[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in early June, 2023]
I have real respect for the conservative viewpoint. But there’s a reason I generally lean toward the liberal side. That reason is my passion for justice.
“Justice” should be understood as the opposite of the frightening reality the Athenians described to the Melians, 2400 years ago, about how the world works. Just before they exterminated the Melians and seized their island, the Athenians declared that “The strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.”
Making a just world, in other words, generally requires supporting the weak in relation to the strong.
Although even some mugger with a gun can be “the strong” at the moment of confrontation, the overwhelming problem of injustice in the world involves much larger-scale earthly powers: the conqueror over the vanquished, the tyrant over the masses, the rich over the poor, the majority over the minority.
Throughout history, we see whole groups of people unjustly injured, when the strong take more than their fair share at the expense of people weaker than themselves. My passion for justice makes me yearn to have the burden of oppression lifted from such groups:
- White people have always had the upper hand over blacks in America, and have used their strength to make “the weak suffer what they must.” All my life, I’ve wanted America to treat blacks with the equality to which the Declaration of Independence says that all are entitled.
- When it comes to labor relations, workers have historically been weaker than their corporate employers. More often than not, a love of justice calls for one to side with the workers.
- In most societies through history – including ours — men have kept women in a subordinate position. I did not recognize that oppression when I was growing up. But, having learned more since, I’ve celebrated the freeing of women from the limitations that men have long imposed on them.
Regarding all such power-relations in America, the liberal side has been fighting for the side that has been enduring injustice. The conservative side has tended to defend white power, erode the rights of workers, and defend the dominant status of men.
That pattern is inherent to the essence of conservatism, which is about preserving the status quo. Because, in every social system, the status quo includes inequalities of power, and because the stronger almost always take advantage of their power to compel the weaker to suffer what they must, the defense of the status quo supports some injustice.
So in every democracy, it is the conservative side that tends to side with the mighty against the weak.
So I, truly believing in “Justice for all,” generally lean toward the liberal side.
But sometimes, I’m with the conservatives—because, as history shows, a group’s having been oppressed is no guarantee that they’ll always be in the right. Why would it?
- The experience of oppression is wounding, and the wounded do not automatically become whole when the burdens of injustice are lifted.
- In human affairs, change is often like the swinging of a pendulum. So the ideologies that bolstered the old unjust status quo can be challenged by new ideas unbalanced in the opposite direction.
So when the liberation of the oppressed produces such excesses, although I still feel for the woundedness, I don’t support the liberated going overboard.
That issue is well-illustrated in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
At the beginning, we see a speeding carriage of an aristocrat run over the little child from a poor family. And we see that the aristocrat doesn’t consider his carriage’s crushing of that child important enough even to stop.
The reader with a passion for justice will surely taste the need for the French Revolution that is soon to come.
But when the Revolution deteriorates into the excesses of the Reign of Terror – where innocents are sent to the guillotine — Dickens has us sympathizing with a virtuous aristocrat who must be saved.
That’s a common pattern.
Over the years, I’ve celebrated the liberation of African-Americans, women, and sexual minorities. But I’ve also witnessed, in each of those cases, ways the newly liberated push the pendulum past justice into excess:
- I thought of pendula swinging recently while watching the 1971 movie Shaft. The opening of the film reminded me of the excesses that followed the 60s’ (partial) liberation of black Americans, as it showed a black man swaggering with the very opposite of the servile shuffling required of generations of black men to signal their submission to white dominance. Shaft’s swaggering represented an exaggeration of a Man, repudiating the role of “Boy” white men long enforced on their black counterparts.
- On some liberal websites, one can hardly discuss male-female issues without eliciting attack from some women apparently triggered into seeing misogyny everywhere.
- And with respect to gender identity, I’ll just say that I’m not about to change how I use pronouns.
But still, the wounds of the world derive far less from the excessive demands of the newly-liberated, than from the long-established inequalities of power. I.e. from those power relationships that, as the Athenians said, have so often enabled the strong to do what they can, compelling the weak to suffer injustice.
So I always side with the oppressed. (Even if not with what appear to be the fruits of the brokenness that oppression generates.)