In 1790, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the Whig politician and philosopher Edmund Burke argued that political theory and abstract statements of individual rights based on reason were dangerous and misguided. He argued strongly for the preservation of long-held traditions, institutions and even prejudices on the basis that they were our inherited rights, and subverting them could only lead to instability and disorder. In doing so, he became a long-quoted intellectual inspiration for conservative thinkers, right up to the present day.
Burke’s detailed argument is interesting because it is essentially the same logic (or perhaps it defies logic completely) that we hear nearly every time some major progressive or liberal reform is under discussion in society - from the opponents to those reforms. Whether it’s same-sex marriage, reform to unelected parts of our Parliament, or to our voting system, the category of opposing arguments which cause the most bamboozlement and often simple hilarity among liberal-minded folk are the traditionalist arguments of this form. Granted, they aren’t the only arguments that are made, but when there seems like a clear case for reform they are very often the only coherent (or perhaps incoherent) argument which really underlies opposition to change. It might be tempting to conclude from this that there is something irreducibly irrational about small ‘c’ conservatism and appeals to respect tradition. Curiously, Burkeians would even have to concede this, since it is part of their argument that we shouldn’t rely on abstract reason in the first place.
It seems like there’s a lot of truth in the charge that traditionalism is irrational and incoherent, and in one sense that’s all there is to say about it. Case closed. The other long-established (and entirely rational) liberal tradition of protecting individual rights and freedoms always calls for certain reforms, and when there is such a case for reform it is absolute and undeniable. Or is it? Do we (once we’ve got over the bizarre and false assertion that we should cast reason to the wind) have to consider more closely the case for preserving traditions and/or slowing the pace of change in society? I believe we do.
The same kind of irrationality that leads to denying individual rights and abstract theorising about liberty is also at work in the formation of prejudices and biases against those who are not like us. Psychologists can tell us all about our natural disposition to favour people like us simply because they are like us; the in-group versus the out-group. It’s alarming to note just how easily human beings do this without even noticing. It was on full display during Scotland’s referendum recently and on a daily basis in party politics, and if we’re honest it’s pretty much the life-blood of Twitter debates, since it seems to be the life-blood of most debates anywhere between anyone.
Focusing specifically on the referendum for a moment, it wasn’t just the allegiance of Yes and No campaigners and voters to their respective causes that was ripe to be linked to the in-group out-group phenomenon, but also the spectre of national identities themselves. The danger was that those who identified more strongly as ‘Scottish’ or more strongly as ‘British’ might choose to other anyone who had made the opposite choice to them. Or that a stoking up of Scottish and English sentiments might provoke similar antagonisms on a wider scale. These fears were certainly not baseless (and they still aren’t). Self-attributed national identities have quite evidently led to an awful lot of in-group out-group prejudice throughout history. However, this notion of identity has to be paid close attention to, particularly to the way identities are manifested in each of us.
No man or woman is an island. Try hard, very hard, to describe yourself as an individual without referencing features you share in common with other people. That means without self-identifying as one of the people with a penis or vagina, or one of the people with a penis who likes vaginas, or penises, or with a vagina who likes penises, or vaginas, or both. Without mentioning that you have skin of a certain pigmentation, or hair naturally (or even unnaturally) of a certain colour. Without mentioning what language you speak (be careful not to give this away by actually using the language in question), without referencing any settlement or vague area of land where you live (remember, we don’t want to create divisions here), oh and you’d better not use any names you’ve been given - because that will openly acknowledge all kinds of similarities and differences that you share with a whole host of other individuals. Does that sound ok?
Yes, I’m being more than a little facetious but what I hope is demonstrated by this is that there is a very clear difference between noticing features of yourself and others (and thus nominally placing yourself in various in-groups), and actively choosing to infer moral differences and thereby prejudices on the basis of those features.
What does this have to do with tradition? Well, if we can’t even describe ourselves without informally including ourselves in various groups, then how do we respect our rights as free individuals without forming group identities? Of course we need to keep them in check, and try to prevent ourselves from forming prejudices on the basis of these identities, but we are (ironically) diminished as individuals the moment we try to exclude ourselves from all group identities. We need to feel like we belong. We are after all highly social beings. This is why it’s ok, for instance, for us to create smaller communities within the universal community of everyone that is the world (how this should affect the structure of governance and decision-making is a separate issue). And there are some group identities which cannot survive even for a short while without their traditions being preserved.
To be clear, I am not arguing that tradition should always trump liberal arguments for change and reform. Rather that, we shouldn’t simply wave away traditionalist arguments as being totally irrational and irrelevant when they are challenged by powerful cases for reform. Tradition is regularly an enemy of personal liberty, and often of equality too, but only when it is argued for its own sake. There will be times when the liberal arguments for upending a certain tradition are not equal to the force of the liberal arguments for preserving it. None of the examples I mentioned earlier were such times (at least not at the time each of them was last formally debated in our parliaments and assemblies in the UK), but such cases do exist. One of them might currently be preservation of the monarchy. Clearly there is plenty of room for disagreement about what would qualify and what wouldn’t. But I definitely believe there is such a liberal case that can be made for traditionalism. It is not the case made by Burke, and frequently not the case actually made by conservatives opposing reform, but it exists, and deserves a hearing.
By Dominic Chave-Cox