Saturday, 10 September 2011

Disallowed Opinions

In my third year of my undergraduate degree, I was asked (as a member of the Department Students Council) to attend a job talk by a prospective lecturer. During this talk, the faculty began to ask the lecturer questions, and one of the junior faculty interrupted her own question to say, "I don't mean to sound conservative--I'm not conservative--but... ." I was a bit concerned by this insertion, ticked that the lecturer would feel such distaste for the conservative position that she would need to distance herself from it. When I got home and related this to my housemates, one of them said, "You would be offended by that, wouldn't you?," as though I was somehow emblematic of conservatism. (Which is kind of weird, since I'm socialist, environmentalist, and strongly concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice.)

Now that I look back on this, I realize that that faculty member could not have done otherwise. If you want to be taken seriously in academia, if you want anyone to listen to you, then you need to remove yourself constantly from the suggestion of being conservative. Conservatism is not an allowable position in academia, or at least not humanities departments in Canada. And so even those people who are not conservative--not even remotely conservative--must always be on guard to disavow conservativism in case any particular opinion seems to appear conservative or look like a particular conservative opinion.

There are a few problems with this, and I'm not sure how they rank in terms of destructiveness. One problem is that people who have conservative opinions are effectively barred from conversation (not necessarily because they cannot speak but rather because no one will listen). And while some might not lament the loss of their conservative opinions (more on this in a moment), we should certainly lament the loss of their other opinions, those that are either not conservative or that are not trackable on a conservative-liberal-socialist continuum. These lost opinions may be very good ones, ones we are in need of, but if we are too busy distancing ourselves from conservatism, we won't be able to take them seriously.

The second problem is that a conservative idea could, of course, be correct. I'm having a difficult time imagining a conservative idea which I could support, but then again I don't think much of that left-right continuum, so ideas I might think of as non-conservative could appear conservative to others. At any rate, I am at least willing to admit that there could be opinions which appear conservative that turn out to be rather valuable without turning out to be non-conservative. In fact, that certain positions which I am very certain are correct can be closely if not perfectly formulated in conservative terms (ie. conservationism and conservative are cognate for a reason) suggests that there are conservative ideas which, if slightly reformulated, could fit admirably within a non-conservative framework. All of this indicates that barring conservative ideas from the discourse is counter-productive. And yet, by making conservatism something we must necessarily distance ourselves from if we want to be heard, we have ensured that those ideas do not get aired. And that is bad news indeed.
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