Finding My Way: Compassionate Conservatives
Language. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. People spend their lives studying it, deconstructing it, tracing its roots. We use it daily, obviously. Constantly. I’ve heard some people say they think more in images than words. Not I. I’m a very word-orientated person. To me, a word is worth a thousand pictures.
At the most basic level, words are labels and inherently meaningless. One could just as easily call a table an umbrella, and the table’s function wouldn’t change. But words also describe abstract concepts. Faith, loyalty or patriotism, for example.
It’s apparent to me that thoughts shape our language, but I’ve often wondered how much language shapes our thoughts.
I studied German in high school. While our teacher was great in explaining how one couldn’t simple translate a sentence word for word while simultaneously translating its meaning usefully, language classes serve basic functions. They teach students how to communicate with others.
It wasn’t until I lived in Germany for a year that the importance of language in the formation of thoughts really hit home. I learned words for which there aren’t direct English translations. Of course, one can explain the concepts behind them, but the idea certain words exist in one culture and not in another is insightful when trying to understand how others think.
For example, Germans have an excellent word: schubladendenken. A schublade is a drawer. Denken is thought. Put together, and you have a word that basically means “compartmentalized thinking.” Gleichmacherei is another great one. Gleich means “the same,” and macherei is a form of machen, to make or do. A good English translation is “egalitarianism,” but that doesn’t really convey the concept in whole.
Of course, we all use etymology when learning new words, but native speakers of a language often take word roots for granted. In high school, I was driving home a foreign exchange student from Switzerland. I was busy looking for her street: Viewcrest. She wondered aloud why I was slowing down and reading the signs when it was obvious Viewcrest would be at the top of the hill, which is precisely where it was.
The word “egalitarianism” means nothing to me, etymologically speaking. I don’t know a lick of French. But the gleichmacherei is clear: making things the same. To this day, words like gleichmacherei and schubladendenken inhabit my thoughts and give shape to concepts I hadn’t previously considered in quite the same way.
When one studies language, another concept quickly encountered is that of the false cognate. For example, proctor and proctologist mean drastically different things. They actually come from different root words, though they sound as if they shared the same one.
When going from one language to another where the languages share the same mother tongue, or where languages have borrowed lots of words from another, similar language, false cognates can be extremely tricky.
Anyone who has tried to learn Spanish knows that so many words are similar to their English counterparts. Then one runs across a word like embarazada, which sounds like it should mean “embarrassed,” but really means “pregnant.”
There are also logical false cognates. I’m sure there’s a word for that, but unfortunately, to use a dictionary one has to already know the word one is looking for, and I don’t know a one-word synonym.
As a recently new conservative, I’m running across specialized language all the time I don’t – or didn’t – understand. Neocon, paleocon, socon, RINO, elitist: there are a whole host of words where meanings can be sussed out etymologically, and leave one with still suitably uninformed.
This all leads me to my point: the logical false cognate inherent in the term “compassionate conservative.”
When I first ran across its use, I was definitely perplexed. Mostly because I was seeing the term used by people who professed faith in Christ, who was definitely a person infused with compassion.
Then I began to dig deeper.
I began to be convinced the term actually meant the opposite of what it suggested logically: a person with conservative values who lacks in concern for the well being of others. In fact, it became clear to me “compassionate conservative” was most commonly used to define someone who espouses conservative values (like small government and personal responsibility over a nanny or welfare state), yet seeks government remedies to social issues such as poverty or joblessness.
Today, before starting this post, I did a very unscientific poll by asking people on Twitter what the term “compassionate conservative” meant to them. Being the day after a Holiday, and the biggest shopping day of the year, I received only a handful of answers. But, as I thought, the majority of them seemed to indicate a link between “compassion” and government intervention.
Either people thought compassion, in this sense, was a direct link to big government and big spending (perhaps through social programs like welfare), or they thought it was an attempt by some conservative politicians to gain affinity with liberals by pandering to those big government concepts.
In truth, most of the self-professed Christians I’ve seen opposing “compassionate conservatism” are among the most compassionate human beings I’ve ever met. The difference is: they don’t feel the government has the right to coerce or force them into compassionate acts as that coercion interferes with their free will to do so according to their own conscience: a free will from which all our rights descend and which they believe to be directly granted by God.
It’s the reason we refer to our constitutional rights as “inalienable.” Not just because that’s a fancy word used by our forefathers; it is the core of American political and philosophical thought.
Of course, the right to be compassionate indicates a right to be selfish as well. Many people shriek and wail to the stereotype of the rich Republican who won’t give his life savings to the poor starving children in Africa. You know what? That’s none of your, or my, business.
In truth, I could just as easily point to fat cat Democrats who live well above average lifestyles, then refuse to give a dollar to a homeless person, but somehow think others should be forced to do so.
If you’ve followed my blog, or know me personally, you know this past year has been one of change. Not only have I struggled (and am continuing to struggle) to bring my political ideology more inline with my core set of moral and ethical philosophies, but I’m also potentially on a journey of reawakening faith.
I don’t know if I will find my way back to traditional Christianity. Maybe I’ll wake up one day and decide I really can’t consider a God at all. Though, in truth, I no longer consider myself an atheist. I like to tell people I’m “listening.”
I do know I was raised Christian. Our pastor preached the compassion inherent in the message of Jesus Christ. As a congregation, we tithed to support our church and its members. We chose to provide for our elderly. Our Sunday School classes regularly visited nursing homes, especially at Christmas, where we sang carols for those without families.
Politics was rarely, if ever, discussed in my church. I don’t know our pastor’s political affiliations, if indeed he had any. I do know one of his sons is now a politician, and a Republican one at that.
The conservatives I’ve met online who speak out against “compassionate conservatism” are the very same people who have shared my griefs, my hopes, my tears, my laughter and my life. They welcomed me, they have educated me and they continue to enhance my life on a daily basis.
I have not made one cent from my blog or my Twitter account. Instead, I’ve gained something far more valuable than any amount of food stamps or government assistance could ever provide: knowledge, friendship and an improved sense of self.
The next time you see someone decry “compassionate conservatism,” think twice before pointing the finger and shouting, “Aha!” You maybe laboring under a false assumption.