All things have a balance point. The usual trick, if the object is small enough to hold, is to place a finger or hand under each end, and slowly draw them together. Assuming no sticky-out bits on the item that’ll block the movement, when your fingers or hands meet, they’ll be under the balance point of the object.
Obviously there are things you can’t practically do that with, like buildings and spacecraft and mountains — but every material thing has a balance point.
You could say the same for a society, too. If we consider the two great social drives that seem to be at loggerheads particularly fiercely just now: on the one hand, conservatism, the desire to hold onto what’s tried and tested because it works; and on the other, what I’ll call progressivism: the desire to advance, move on, change things up, try new things and (hopefully) improve on the current state.
(Declaration for transparency: I would generally consider myself around 80% progressive, and about 20% conservative. I haven’t taken any tests, or anything — that’s just my feeling.)
As of the time of writing — 2770 AUC, or Anno Gregorii 2017 — both UK and US societies are mid-spat over whether conservatism or progressivism will ‘win’. Self-styled ‘conservatives’ are lining up to bash the hated “liberals”, while progressives lash out against “fascist” conservatives. But what’s rarely being said while all this is going on is that, quite self-evidently, a society needs both conservatism and progressivism to be healthy.
There needs to be balance. A society given over entirely to progressivism will tear itself apart under the pressure of its own unchecked forward speed. It’ll change things for the sake of changing them, without due regard to negative consequences. It’ll adopt methods and models that last a week before they’re being replaced. Perhaps most importantly, it’ll subject its population to such rapidity of change as to induce massive future shock and eventually the society will shatter itself under the strain.
On the other hand, a society given over entirely to conservatism will stagnate. It’ll stop addressing problems, it’ll cease innovating, it’ll become increasingly intolerant of diversity, and make itself vulnerable to that third social pressure, the one that few people want, and no-one who’s thought it through at all: regressivism.
So it’s simple, right? In order to create the perfect society, we just have equal parts conservatism and progressivism, and then we have balance.
Whoa there, Yoda. It’s not that simple. The prophecy mis-read may have been. You might well be trying to bring balance to the Force, and that’s all nice and admirable. But take that straightforward “equal parts” viewpoint and you’ll just end up killing everyone until there’s only two Jedi and two Sith left. And that’s only equal numbers. It’s not necessarily balance.
See, if we’re balancing a 30-centimetre ruler, we can be pretty sure that the balance point is around about 15 centimetres. Fair enough. But not everything works that way. You want to balance a sword, for example, if you put your hands halfway along its length it’ll tip over towards the hilt. The sword’s centre of mass is closer to the hilt to make the weapon easier to manoeuvre in a fight – so to balance the sword your hands will need to be further that way.
Now try this lightsaber. Switch it on. Gods, you got to love that noise, eh? First, then, if you put your hands under its centre point you’ll lose your arms. Note that because the blade has no weight, the actual balance point is around halfway along the length of the hilt.
It’s similar with a society. The point of maximum stability, on a line from conservatism to progressivism, isn’t necessarily bang in the middle. And some friction between the two forces is necessary as part of the process of finding that point. And it’s not always going to be constant. It might be that at a given time a society will be more stable leaning towards conservatism; whereas in other conditions a greater forward momentum might be required.
So there clearly are extremes of both viewpoint that are very unlikely to be the balance point a society needs at any given time. Extreme conservatism and an absolutist rejection of any and all progressive elements is a sure path to the destruction of your society. As is extreme progressivism and the rejection of any form of conservatism. Neither ‘side’ can, or should, ‘win’. Instead, each of these elements need to recognise the necessity of the other and its function in tempering and shaping the society into its ideal form.
This is probably all pretty obvious to any who sits and thinks about it sincerely. The trouble is that a lot of people don’t seem willing to do that just now. And it can be challenging to keep the necessary measured outlook. As a progressive in this time of social conflict I certainly find it easy to view conservative opinions as being more extreme than they actually are – because I feel that my progressive views are being attacked and my natural response is to want to defend them. I imagine many conservatives have the same experience, seeing relatively incremental social changes as dangerous leaps into a chaos of unrestrained liberalism.
Basically what I think I’m saying is that we all, myself included, need to calm the fuck down. Conservatism is not in itself an evil*: it’s necessary. Progressivism is not in itself an evil: it’s necessary. ‘Liberalism’ — another common pride tag/snarl word, isn’t exclusive to either viewpoint: both conservative and progressives can be liberal or illiberal. Again, I personally favour liberalism, but I would argue that that’s not contingent on my being a progressive. The two aren’t mutually dependent.
But both conservatism and progressivism can be turned to evil — or, rather, let’s say they can both be directed to work against the good of the society as a whole. And the danger of that — as is so often the case — lies in taking an extreme position at one end and in rejecting the validity of positions towards the other.
One of the most extreme of extreme positions is, of course, that of the Nazis, who are sadly enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment. None of the above, I would hope it goes without saying, should be taken as suggesting for one moment that Nazis are a necessary element in society. They aren’t. Nazis, and those who hold similar views and attitudes — the fearful, malicious and vindictive lashing-out against people of different ethnicities, of different orientations or any other identity either self-declared or imposed on them by the Nazis themselves — are ever and always the enemies of society and of humanity as a whole. They are not merely ‘conservatives’, much as many of them might seek to adopt the label to make themselves seem even superficially reasonable. Conservatives and progressives need to find a way to increase communication, trust and respect for each other’s viewpoint. Nazis must be shown no respect and given no quarter in our societies.
And lest anyone come back with, “We can’t silence anyone in this debate not even Nazis”, no: you’re wrong. We gave the Nazis their free speech once, and millions of people died for it. We’ve had that debate. We’ve already expended enough ammunition and lives to pay for the silence of Nazis ten times over, Voltaire be damned.
[* Obviously, this refers to ‘conservatism’. Don’t confuse with the UK’s Conservative Party, which is pretty damn close.]