Fear, the DA youth, and the moral difference between liberal and conservative

I was at Silvermine this weekend, and a nearby group of people caught our attention.

They were young (as in perhaps first year university), all white, and were singing songs. There were a few guesses as to who they were. A religious group (one of the songs was Kumbaya)? But they also song the national anthem, and various other odd songs that weren’t particularly religious. My personal guess was the DA Youth, and this led to a discussion on voting for the DA.

One of the people in our group said that she thought Helen Zille was doing a good job, but that she could never vote for the DA. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think of anyone else she wanted to vote for either right now. I understand this sentiment completely, but it also got me questioning how rigid we all really are in our thinking.

In the USA, Obama is ahead in the polls in Florida, and one of the reasons given is that young Floridans of Cuban descent, the second and third generations, are considering voting for him, while the older, first, generation, who fled Cuba, cannot bring themselves to vote for anyone but a rabid anti-Castro Republican.

Many commentators in South Africa have pointed out the same phenomenon, with the ANC (before it’s looming split at least) seen as invincible until a younger generation, who don’t have memories of apartheid, and don’t have strong emotional ties to the ANC as liberators, start to become more dominant. Many ANC supporters, as disillusionment has set in, have said they’ll simply stop voting.

The friend who made the comment, a lecturer, said that she’d discussed the point with her students. She’d said that she couldn’t vote for the DA, and many of her students expressed surprise. She probably wouldn’t appreciate the comparison to a white youngster during apartheid questioning their elders blind acceptance of apartheid, or a Democratic youngster in the deep South of the USA questioning why their elders cannot support Obama, and getting an answer as unsatisfactory as “I just couldn’t vote for a black man”.

The key point here is the power of emotions to affect us over a long period of time. The Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution developed an intense hatred of him. To them, he took their livelihoods, chased them from their homes, and uprooted everything they had and believed in, and these feelings continue today.

In South Africa, the ANC for most people represented freedom from oppression, reconciliation, the end of the horrors of apartheid. Many families can reflect on generations of a struggle seen as intensely moral, and the ANC’s ultimate triumph as victory of good over evil. It is extremely difficult to discard these feelings, while breaking so far as to support the old oppressors is just not possible. Even though the NP no longer exists, the DA, which took much of the NP’s support, and many of their members, continues to trigger these emotional associations.

The ANC, in its attempt to smear the breakaway party, calls it the black DA, as if that’s the vilest of insults.

Younger people don’t have these associations. The ANC now triggers negative associations, such as crime, cronyism and incompetence, among more than just a tiny minority, and similarly, the DA effectiveness and efficiency. Younger people have a minimal emotional association with apartheid, and can’t remember the DA’s shameful days of Peter Marais and Gerarld Morkel.

Jonathan Haidt, in his recent TED presentation, argued that liberals (and for now I won’t question this US-centric liberal/conservative distinction he uses) value prevention of harm and fairness as the two primary moral values, while conservatives value authority, ingroup harmony and purity equally if not more so. Haidt’s point is that there are psychological reasons for these moral differences (primarily in openness to new experience), but also that there needs to be a balance between a liberal desire for change and openness to new experiences, and a conservative valuation of order, structure and authority, in order to build a flourishing society.

Haidt doesn’t discuss why these different levels of openness to new experience, but it’s commonly attributed to fear. Liberals have less fear. That can be helpful when risking to take a new opportunity, or it can be a hindrance if it causes you to naively disregard the risk.

Fear is of course largely based on past experience. The old saying. If a young man is not a liberal, he has no heart. If an old man is not a conservative, he has no head. gets it wrong, as both young and old vote emotionally. It’s just that the emotional experiences that were instrumental in shaping young and old occurred at different times. Fear of apartheid was a highly rational response until the early 90’s. Now it’s less so, and will continue to face out as an influence, just as it should, until it’s as relevant as the Spanish Inquisition to our political thought. A conservative (in openness to experience) young person may be more liberal (in daily choices position) than a liberal old person, simply because of the relevance of the emotional experiences.

It’s said that Galileo, heretically claiming that the sun was the centre of our system, didn’t manage to change too many people’s minds. Those who believed the earth was the centre of the universe just died out.

It’s this interplay between young and old, birth and death, change and stagnation, disorder and stability, that makes life so dynamic.

After all that it was a bit of an anticlimax to find out that the group were simply students of Fish Hoek high school!

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1 comment

  1. I was listening to the manifestos over the weekend, Cope, UDM and IFP.

    Even though all of them touch similar areas such as education, rural farming, fighting crime etc.

    I was touch by Mr Bantu Holomisa-UDM, the simplicity of their manifesto of education iron out thee need for our education system to be consistant. For the teacher must teacher, the student must learn, and inspectors must be reintroduced.

    In this manisfesto you don’t see a party compaigning or trying to gain some votes,rather a leader who’s on a mission for service delivery. It think UDM is underated or misunderstand.

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