by EW Wilder
Part of what most liberals can't conceptualize about conservatives is the degree to which ideas of purity, success, goodness, “winning,” and so forth are deeply informed in the conservative mind by their opposites. For example, we can't have success for everyone because success can only exist with the presence of failure. Failure defines success. It's not just OK to have losers in society; it's necessary so that success can exist. Because conservative definitions of success often depend upon concepts of goodness, holiness, hard work, and thrift, these concepts become meaningless without failure. To take away success, to denigrate it, or “punish” it in any way is not merely to change the material status of the top 400 or 400-thousand people; it is to attack the entire moral universe itself, the great chain of who deserves what.
So when conservatives appear to have hyperbolic or delusional responses to what liberals think are modest asks—higher taxes on the rich, moderate controls on guns, less draconian approaches to immigration—they're really responding out of a sense of existential crisis, crisis that moves beyond individual concerns and into the cosmic realm of the proper order of things as conservatives have come to understand it.
Because many conservatives see the world as a set of binary opposites, any philosophy that challenges those opposites is simply inconceivable, and any worldview that appears to reverse them—such as Marxism—is seen as fundamentally immoral. We cannot know good, goes this way of thinking, without distinctly contrasting it with evil—and the more striking the contrast, the better. The latter can be seen dramatically in the different reactions to two series of action movies: the Rambo films, in which there is a very clear delineation between good and evil, were lionized by not just conservatives, but just about all Americans, during the Reagan era. The Harry Potter series, on the other hand, in which knowing good and evil is the fundamental problem, and often fraught, has been accused by conservatives of everything from promoting homosexuality to teaching witchcraft. Another series in which an occult force, in fact The Force, is central to the story has not been so accused: the Star Wars series. For as much as the “Dark Side” is appealing to central characters in the series, its delineations are clear, and one's affiliations to it are traditionally conservative: you are tempted to its corrupting power and fall to it through a weakness of will, and you draw away from it via a conversion experience, often at the end of an otherwise evil life.
It's informative that the most common form of damnation conservatives have leveled over the past 50 years about worldviews they oppose is that they espouse “moral relativism.” Relativistic worldviews are seen to collapse dualities, but the conservative mind can't see that within relativistic worldviews, the dualities still exist; they're just no longer on firm conceptual ground and may shift or change. This creates a universe in which such ideas as good and evil, success and failure, purity and impurity, cannot necessarily be immediately known; the moral axes upon which the conservative mind relies for its operation in the world thereby become uncertain, and the self in comparison to them cannot be known. Thus we can define both Christian and atheistic reactions against Islam as fundamentally conservative: unable to see that violent and tolerant formulations of the faith are relative to one's relationship to the Koran, both conservative Christians and doctrinaire atheists condemn Islam itself.
Perhaps the most damaging way of thinking, then, from a conservative point of view is one that rejects even relativism as being inordinately dualistic and that collapses the cherished dichotomies into a single continuum of understanding and experience.