It’s the nature of language to evolve, but I sometimes mourn the transformation of good words that have wandered—even in my lifetime—far from the meanings they once had. Take the word “gay,” for example: once it meant “happy,” but now it can’t be used in that context without causing either consternation or confusion.
Another such word is “conservative.” When did it stop meaning either 1) “cautious” or 2) “inclined to preserve or conserve” something? This good word has been appropriated by some of the most radical, extremist elements in our society to describe attitudes and actions that are anything but “conservative” in the original sense of the word—groups from the KKK to the NRA to the “religious right.”
Somehow, instead of “conservative” Republicans and “conservative” Democrats—as well as moderate and liberal versions of both—we now seem to have only “conservative” Republicans and “liberal” Democrats. All these words—“conservative,” “liberal,” “Republican,” and “Democrat"—have become so laden with unwonted meanings and assumptions that I can no longer use any of them to describe myself. I now call myself “Independent”—which for many people seems to mean “uncommitted,” “wishy-washy,” or even “sneaky” and unwilling to disclose one’s true feelings. In today’s political climate—which has become so polarized and adversarial—you just can’t win.
Sometimes I’d like to call myself “conservative.” I believe in being cautious and try to think before I act. I recycle trash and believe in conserving resources. I try to conserve energy for dealing with the things that really matter. But I certainly wouldn’t want to be mistaken for anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, or fundamentalist in my beliefs. I can’t call myself “conservative” without being misunderstood, any more than—cheerful soul that I am—I can call myself “gay.”
In the aftermath of a rather contentious election cycle, I’d like to propose that those of us who like to discuss these things quit calling ourselves—or each other—anything at all. When it comes to complex matters such as politics and economics, labels tend only to oversimplify and obscure meaning. My hunch is that the solutions to our collective problems—nationally and internationally—will not be found among the most cherished beliefs of the so-called “conservatives,” the so-called “liberals,” or even the so-called “independents.” They will be found by those willing to listen to others, compromise when necessary, and practice what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”