Tracking Personal Change: Reflections on personal and public political orientation

by phil on Monday Dec 1, 2008 3:39 PM

Part of the allure of moving to Austin, Texas has been getting closer to a "real" America. I had been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for six years, four of which were in college. Those years transformed me into a liberal. In the first half of my freshman year, I constantly brushed up against dormmates with my cheeky, politically incorrect comments. And then I kept my mouth shut. And then I evolved.

As I was packing my bags to go to Austin, there was a worry in the back of my mind that moving here would change me ideologically. There's a quote that has always haunted me, "If you're young and conservative, then you have no heart. If you're old and liberal, then you have no brains." Unfortunately there's no shield against that quote. You can't—and shouldn't—promise to hold a political position for the rest of your life. And I can only guess at what's around the corner in my middle age. At the same time, nobody wants to believe their take on issues is borne out of some age-based phase.

After living in Austin for two and a half years, chinks have indeed broken into my liberal armor. I've encountered a lot of people here who are politically incorrect, and who casually dish racial stereotypes and gay jokes. Also, Austin is a bastion for Ron Paul; I've gotten an earful about the wonders of the gold standard and the dangers of universal healthcare.

But I'm not sure that it's the people around here that have made me drift. I think experience has had more to do with it. In particular, I've been getting more serious about relationships, and have discovered that I feel more comfortable in traditional gender roles. I also find that I'm somewhat conservative as far as what kind of behavior I'd tolerate and wouldn't. That discovery came as a shock to me, as I had always thought my political positions translated directly into personal positions. That idea was obviously naive. Political posturing is very easy. Public policy is so far removed from our day-to-day experience. I can usually find something sympathetic on both sides of political issues.

Nevertheless, being aware of the haunting quote and watching myself drift, I've been careful not to become a raving apostate. As I see it, socially liberal public policy is the more honest and moral way to go. We are all equal. Gays should have the right to marry.

But then, here's where it has gotten scary in my mind. Doubts in my thought process have crept in. Here's a typical inner monologue on gay marriage, "On the one hand, give them marriage, it treats them as equals, and harms nobody. Nobody. On the other hand, what about the institution of marriage? What institution of marriage? Nobody could ever prove that gay marriage is bad for a cultural institution, that's too abstract. Besides, is homosexuality really a choice or genetic? What if for a silent majority, it's half-choice and half-genetics, and so by making homosexuality taboo and unacceptable, it shies people away from dabbling in homosexuality? Academia could never prove that. But, it harms nobody. Who is harmed?"

What-ifs are always red flags in conversations. The universal response to a "what-if" should be, "okay, what-if, what-if. What if you're right? Or what if you're wrong? The burden of proof has to be somewhere. Where should it go?"

And that's where I think conservative and liberal ideologies come into play. In the absence of a conviction grounded in the actual details and implications of a policy, people revert to standard ideology. To a conservative, the burden of proof should be on the new way ("Prove to me that homosexuality isn't a choice.") To a liberal, the burden of proof should be on the old way ("Prove to me that gay marriage is bad for the institution of marriage.") People project their personal issues onto public policy, which is probably a mistake. And yet, it's unavoidable. We vote and posture, always with incomplete information, and we all ultimately fill in the blanks with something.

Creative Commons License