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The return and redistribution of political anxiety
Though conservatism is traditionally associated with fear, social justice ideology also embodies anxieties. Open and ambiguous accounts of the world, such as liberalism, may be being squeezed.
On standard political spectrums, conservatism and social justice ideology could not be further apart. Conservatism aims to preserve institutions; social justice ideology emphasizes the oppressiveness of established institutions, doubting whether the state can be neutral. Notwithstanding these differences, adherents of both ideologies seem prone to fear. Resultingly, conservatism and social justice ideology advocate measures which promote safety and psychological closure, addressing these fears. Though values which embody fear are typical in traditional societies, reflecting material insecurity, this is contrary to recent trends in the West; as societies have become richer, a liberalism based on openness and ambiguity has diffused. Such developments raise questions about political values, suggesting that values associated with liberalism, such as openness and ambiguity, are receding. Moreover, people with liberal values may be less attracted to the left, adopting positions across the spectrum.
Scholars have long associated conservatism with anxiety. On one level, conservatives seem to be more fearful; most studies find an association between conservatism and anxieties such as the fear of death. Ideologically, conservatism reflects such concerns. Values such as patriotism, religiosity and strong law and order minimize uncertainty, facilitating psychological closure. There are important caveats. Not all conservatives have this profile; as with all such analyses, researchers identify tendencies. Moreover, not all conservative values are consistent with this. For example, free market economics involves social disruption, researchers finding that economic conservatism tends to be unrelated to typical conservative motivations. Yet the rise of right populism is consistent with this, this ideology advocating authoritarian positions which embody fear.
Though the left is traditionally associated with openness, liberals being more tolerant of ambiguity, this may be changing. Specifically, social justice ideology seems to be associated with psychological closure. This ideology advocates ‘safetyist’ practices such as trigger warnings (notes which advise readers/viewers of trauma triggers) and no-platforming (a policy of non-engagement with ‘hateful’ views). Such trends started on university campuses, but increasingly permeate the left. In the Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that such practices reflect societal concerns about safety. In recent decades, societies have become obsessed with risks to wellbeing. Parenting styles have become more paranoid and people have discovered new concerns, ranging from cholesterol levels to nut allergies.
Though there is literature on the psychological effects of safetyism, I am unaware of work on the profile of adherents of social justice ideology (please enlighten me if you know of any!). This reflects the recent emergence of the ideology and represents a gap in literature. But given the concerns and rhetoric of social justice ideology (‘I don’t feel safe!’), researchers would probably find that adherents are anxious; ideologies tend to reflect the values of adherents. Admittedly, ideologies are more complex than this, reflecting historical development and the salience of distinct groups. For example, social justice ideology also emphasizes the need for ruptures with established institutions, reflecting Marxist influences; this lies in tension with safetyism.
In the case of social justice ideology, the influence of the young may be relevant. Recently, the mental health of young people has deteriorated. This is associated with several variables, the slowing economy being relevant, but Haidt links this with social media use; sites such as Facebook and Instagram heighten the self-consciousness of young people, particularly adolescent girls. In these circumstances, positions which minimize ambiguity might be more attractive. The influence of women may also be relevant. As scholars note, women tend to favour safety over conflict, reflecting the need to protect offspring. Women tend to be more risk-averse and religious, religion being a traditional reaction to insecurity. Social justice ideology potentially reflects these instincts. Aside from higher rates of female support for the ideology, women have leadership roles within the movement, reflecting the growing influence of women in wider society.
There are key implications for political values and space. The equilibrium of recent decades, in which fear tended to be concentrated among conservatives, appears to be over. Following the rise of social justice ideology, fear increasingly characterizes the left. Though values such as openness and ambiguity remain politically important, they appear to have been squeezed. We must remember that there is no fixed stock of liberal values, the traditional dominance of fear-based conservatism demonstrating this. Resultingly, liberal values such as openness and ambiguity might become permanently marginalized, as in most societies.
At the same time, those who value openness and ambiguity may occupy new spaces on the political spectrum. Following the rise of social justice ideology, conservatives increasingly emphasize freedom of speech. Some of these conservatives are culture warriors and authoritarians, yet others genuinely believe in an open society. And increasingly, those who are committed to openness and ambiguity identify as politically unaligned. The internet has facilitated the growth of a non-aligned community, making it easier for such people to find each other; many gather on Substack.
We may also consider implications for societal development. For years, certain scholars have emphasized tendencies for affluence to promote openness, this argument being associated with Inglehart’s postmaterialism hypothesis. But recent developments show that this is not inevitable. Notwithstanding continued affluence, panics appear to have gripped Western societies, increasing insecurity. Resultingly, ideologies which promote closure have thrived. Perhaps we should appreciate that societies in which majorities hold liberal values are exceptional. Historically, fear has enslaved humanity. Despite material security, fear may continue to dominate developed societies. More research is necessary. As I note above, there are few data on the profile of adherents of social justice ideology. Though scholars will continue to debate causal relationships, better data would enable fine-grained hypotheses, such propositions long characterizing debate about conservatives and liberals.
Finally, these developments raise questions about the future of academic inquiry. As we have seen, recent developments threaten values such as doubt and ambiguity. These have important roles across society, but are crucial to scientific inquiry, advances being predicated upon scepticism with orthodoxies. Resultingly, doubt and ambiguity have been central to universities. Such values have always been contested, conservatives regularly attacking them, but assaults have tended to come from external sources. This has been the case in modern times, opponents of these values, such as the religious right, organizing outside academia. But new threats to these values have come from internal sources, safetyism developing in arts faculties. Admittedly, threats can be overstated, commitment to open inquiry being part of the path dependency of universities. But the climate is getting colder; this should worry those who cherish free inquiry.
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