In a world where it feels like change is coming at light speed, the Caitlyn Jenner story poses yet another conundrum for conservatives: Whether to embrace this high-profile Republican, or to take, as the Washington Post describes, an apocalyptic view of this development. (A third option is to just shut up and mind our own business.)
At the micro level, the conservative instinct is to live and let live. But this issue is a macro issue — it’s a national cultural issue — and conservatives have an obligation to weigh in on what appears to be the next front in the culture wars.
People who subscribe to a “slippery slope” theory of politics cannot help but suspect that, with gay marriage now having won acceptance (that fight seems so quaint in comparison!), transgenderism is the next great civil rights struggle we’re expected to embrace.
This, of course, raises the inevitable question: What’s the next next great cause gonna be?
Agitation for social change doesn’t stop; activists who want to change America are not sated, but rather, emboldened, by past victories. The conservative wants to declare a truce and return to normalcy; the progressive knows that life is a battle and you never stop marching.
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Conservatives are not paranoid. I’ve written multiple times about how the culture war is lost, but I don’t know that I’ve ever fully explained why conservatives seem almost destined to lose — or where this “apocalyptic view” comes from.
Depending on your background, what is to follow might sound either obvious, or profound, but stick with me. From Aristotle to Edmund Burke, a fundamental tenet of conservatism is the notion that family and society didn’t just randomly happen, but that they evolved because a). they were based on a priori truths about human nature, and b). they worked.
Western civilization, and the freedoms we enjoy, were, as such, not the product of luck, but rather, the result of preserving time-tested institutions.
If you’re having a hard time following this — or if it simply sounds like bullshit — then that speaks to a fundamental problem that that conservatives have in communicating their philosophy in a 21st century world where individual liberty trumps old fashioned values like virtue, community, tradition, etc.
Much of conservatism is based on the notion that society is fragile. And if we start tinkering with some fundamental pillars — redefining marriage, here, redefining gender, there — it could have dire, if long-term, unintended consequences.
Again, though, the cultural conservative has a real problem here. First, short-term problems always feel more real than long-term ones; the urgent almost always overcomes the important. Second, what if you simply don’t believe these rather esoteric long-term “doomsday” warnings will ever manifest? What if you believe that freedom and prosperity are a given, and that the notion that allowing two people who love each other to marry could somehow bring about the second coming of the fall of the Roman Empire is absurd?
Well, then you’d be like the vast majority of Americans living in the 21st century.
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But there is yet another problem. Just as fiscal conservatives who worry about the long-term devastating effects of deficit spending and the welfare state must confront the problem of concentrated benefits versus disperse costs (the people being taxed don’t care that much since they’re only chipping in a few cents each; the people getting the benefits care deeply), culture warriors face a similar problem.
Caitlyn Jenner’s benefit is concentrated — personalized (to Jenner). But the potential damage (maybe to our grand children’s generation?) is disperse and (in the minds of many) hypothetical. There’s also the problem of what’s called hyperbolic discounting — which means that consequences that won’t occur until a later time are granted less weight than immediate ones. (Note to social conservatives: Nobody really believes that two gay people getting married will in any way harm your marriage.)
An irony here is that the Jenner phenomenon also suggests inherent contradictions of cultural conservatism and capitalism. Jenner is a Republican. And Caitlyn Jenner wouldn’t be such a huge news story were it not for a consummate capitalist named Kris Jenner, who found a way to monetize exploiting her family. Cultural conservatives might lament the rise of “reality” TV shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but only in a rich, capitalistic country could such a show originate.
This speaks to the fact that we are wealthy and have a lot of time on our hands. A culture that is struggling tends to be more devout, strict, and spartan. These values lead to hard work, cultural conservatism, and — eventually prosperity. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that we don’t get around to self-actualization until after our basic needs are met; A society that can’t feed itself might not worry about being tolerant of men who want to become women. But a culture that has become affluent has the luxury of being a more tolerant one. Thus, a society that is growing richer will inexorably become more permissive. Until, conservatives would argue, this tolerance leads to something catastrophic, which creates a backlash, and presumably, begins the cycle all over again.
If cultural decadence leads to the collapse of your nation (as some conservatives contend), and you end up being ruled by ISIS or China (again, this is “apocalyptic”) then good luck trying to express yourself. In this regard, conservatives can argue it is they who are defending liberal values.
Granted, to anyone not steeped in a Burkean conservative worldview, this sounds absurd. Therein lies the problem.