The Correctionary: How to avoid word murder

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This week’s word: “Conservative”

The thrust of the idea of conservatism is a reluctance to change the status quo. There is always some kind of relationship between the word conservative and the adjective “old-fashioned.” But this is not necessarily a bad thing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” can be sage advice. If we were ever able to achieve a stable, just, great society, we’d all want to be conservative in keeping it the way it was.

In the United States we tend to use the word to mean a lot more than the above, and this leads to some conceptual problems. In common language when we use the term it means something more like “right-wing” combined with some ideas of being “traditional” and maybe even a little pinch of “libertarian.”

This usage is not always commensurable with the proper use of “conservative.” For instance, right-wing political views take a more bare-bones approach to government, the idea being that less is more and government often gets in the way of liberty.

What then, are we to make of properly conservative laws like restrictions on the availability of what some consider vice, like alcohol and sex? Or the regulation of marriage? These are clear invasions by the government into our personal decisions as citizens. Not so right-wing though, since these kinds of laws curtail what seem to be behaviors that any robust concept of liberty would allow. They are examples of “big government” getting in the way of our choices.

But they definitely are conservative because they beckon to more traditional, entrenched societal values.

Education is another filter through which we can see clearly the difference between conservatism and political “rightness,” as it were. The modern capital-driven education might be termed market-style education, the sole goal being to get people into the workforce as efficiently and profitably as possible; this viewpoint is held by a great many politically right-wing thinkers and educators.

But this market viewpoint is a progressive and not a conservative viewpoint – it is a profound rejection of the more traditional education focused not on getting a job, but on critical thinking and understanding the world and people around us.

The true conservatives in this instance are those who think that the older liberal education is the better one, a view often held by liberal arts educators and the left-wing intelligencia, for example.

Now you know – be careful how you use the word “conservative.” You might be conveying a lot more with its use than you think or ought to.