The Meaning of Words: Liberal and Conservative

We hear the words conservative and liberal, but what do these words mean? They do not seem to be words with universal meaning and what issues or positions have fallen under the terms have changed over time and do change from place to place. These words do not have the same necessary, specific meaning in all modern political societies. What is conservative to one society may seem liberal to another relative to the general political atmosphere in a given state. But at its core, regardless of what issues are taken up at a particular time in history by those who are, at that given time, defined as politically liberal or conservative, there are definitions for these words that allow us to look at the them and the world at large in terms of a definite directional trend. This trend is toward change and progress, which we shall see, are synonymous with the term liberal.

We can look at a number of different definitions for the word liberal. Webster’s online dictionary says that the word liberal comes from the Latin liberalis meaning :suitable for a freeman, generous,” and from the term liber meaning “free.” This in and of itself is interesting. If liberal means toward freedom and the term conservative is the functional opposite of the term liberal, then what does the term conservative mean…? The entry then goes on to list a number of definitions for the word liberal including “marked by generosity,” “lacking moral restraint,” “not literal or strict,” and “broad minded, not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” This dictionary also defines the term liberalism as “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties” (source). Again, this begs the question that if the word conservatism is the opposite of liberalism, and liberalism means “belief in …the essential goodness of the human race…for the protection of political and civil liberties,” then what does conservatism mean? Does it mean the belief in essential evil of the human race, for the suppression of political and civil rights? I think I could easily make the argument that this is the case. Look at the modern American conservative movement to suppress a woman’s right to choose, a gay person’s right to marry, the historical and continued suppression by conservative America of various minority groups from African to Asian to Latin American, even various European immigrant communities have a history of being oppressed by WASP American mainstream culture.

Most of the above definitions do not directly refer to the purpose of this discussion, though I would certainly argue that “marked by generosity” is a definition very fitting of the term liberal in modern American politics, most conservatives would argue that “lacking moral restraint” is certainly a correct definition of the modern American liberal, and the definition “not literal or strict” refers to the way in which documents such as The Constitution or The Bible or any other piece of literature or art can and may be interpreted. The definition of liberal I am most concerned with is the one that says a liberal is someone who is “broad minded, not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” The term liberal means untraditional, willing to experiment with new ideas and new ways of doing things. It is through experimentation, invention, and innovation that our societies progress and indeed, liberalism is defined as belief in progress. We can not be moving forward if we are looking to the past, we can not progress if we continue to cling to outdated modes of thinking and behaving. Philosophies, religions, beliefs must shift and evolve if they wish to remain alive, vital, and relevant. When we see that our old views no longer work, no longer serve the common good or when our old views are exposed as prejudiced and discriminatory, when the old way of doing things no longer serves to benefit the societies we live in, it is time to try something new. This is liberalism and this is the history of this country. It is a history of innovation and change, of progress in the areas of production, politics, and civil rights, in the direction of increased socio-political freedom and equality.

With this frame of reference, it always strikes me as a bit ironic when people say that America is a conservative nation, or a center-right nation. This may be true at any particular time given the naturally swinging pendulum of American political sentiment. That pendulum constantly swings back and forth between the right and the left from antislavery to segregation to the progressive era, from the liberalism of the New Deal, JFK, and the ’60s movements to the conservatism of the McCarthy era and the era of the Regan Republican. However, when one looks at the general trend in America it is toward innovation and growth economically (never forgetting that this has been coupled with waste, pollution, disparity and income inequality as well) and toward increased equality and civil rights socio-politically.

The term conservative, on the other hand, is defined by Webster’s online dictionary as “a: tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional b: marked by moderation or caution c: marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners” (source). When we look at this definition of conservative it becomes clear why political and social conservatives have, throughout time it seems, tried to vilify and demonize the liberal. It is the age old battle of tradition vs. change and progress. Whether it is royalists fighting to save their King or Christians fighting to end abortion and save what they see as the “traditional” definition of a word that has a long history of being changed, marriage. Conservatives are the Paul Bunyans of American folklore, racing to defend their ways of life against the tidal wave of modernization and change. This is not to imply that traditional cultures around the world are not worth saving, not to imply that they should be swallowed up by the current wave of modernization in the form of economic globalization. On the contrary, these societies are worth saving from these external pressures. However, at the same time we must recognize that everything does change, no matter how slowly and that change from within can not be suppressed without causing irreparable harm to the state of a nation of people. Whatever does not change and evolve is doomed to stagnation, decay, and extinction. From ancient Rome to modern America empires grow and fall. If we fail to retain our position on the cutting edge of innovation and change in the midst of world in massive flux, we will surely fall like those before us.

What would the world be like if we did, in fact, continually cling to tradition and refuse to change and evolve as a society, as a nation, as a world? What is now the U.S. may still be ruled by Britain, the nations of the world may still be ruled by Kings. Europe may be still be in effect ruled by the Catholic Church. Perhaps Africans and African-Americans would still be living within the bonds of slavery or with the humiliation, cruelty, and innate inequality of segregation and apartheid. A woman’s place would still be in the home and she would not be allowed to vote. Maybe we would all still be poor small tenant farmers living on feudal lands owned by the local Lord of the Manner. Perhaps we never would have moved beyond small bands of tribal hunter/gatherers. Maybe that would be a good thing. I’ll be the chief. Regardless, all of the changes that have brought us to our present day society have been the result of innovators, experimenters, free thinkers, people who dared to do things in a different way, people who insisted on fighting for equality, freedom, independence. It is progress, it is liberalism, it is the history of this nation, it is the history of the world (though perhaps, unfortunately, more so in some parts of the world than others).

The meanings of the words liberal and conservative go way beyond a particular person’s stance on the death penalty or abortion, the right to bear arms or the right to marry. It is about the fundamental direction of our society. Is that direction one of progress and growth, of evolution toward equity and equality, or are we stagnating, becoming complacent, clinging to the traditions of the past and even to the worst parts of our past simply for the sake of tradition? Are we holding our society back or helping it move forward? This is the question begged by a closer examination of these words that we see so often, and which are so often sadly overlooked or weighted down by the meaning of popular politics.


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