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When designers, equipped with creativity and a commitment to social innovation, venture into arenas dominated by conservative power structures, they often find themselves walking a tightrope. On one side is a seemingly solid ground of traditional norms and values; on the other, a chasm of unknowns, challenges and opportunities for change.

In both our work and in our private life as designers we regularly engage with conservatives who exhibit a strong discomfort when confronted with a critical examination of their values and belief systems. The most compelling and arguably the most effective strategy to initiate this critique lies in deconstructing one of the most fundamental tenet deeply ingrained in the conservative worldview. This is the idea that certain aspects of society and of the world are universal, natural and immutable.

There has always been rich and poor. There has always been climate change. There has always been war. There has always been men and women. There has always been injustice.

This perspective, while serving as a comforting anchor, serves at preventing the recognition and acknowledgment of dynamic societal shifts and nuances. Improving the framing and understanding of this key viewpoint could be a transformative starting point for such critical discussions.

Conservative discourse

In conservative discourse, the phrase “there has always been” followed by an issue of injustice or a deep societal problem serves to normalize and to naturalize social problems. This rhetoric works by framing these issues as inherent, unchangeable aspects of human society, rather than as outcomes of particular systems or structures that can be changed.

From a psychosociological perspective, this tendency may be influenced by a range of factors, including cognitive biases, ideological beliefs and social dynamics.

  1. Status quo bias and system justification: These cognitive biases may lead individuals to prefer the current state of affairs and to justify the existing social, economic and political systems. These biases become even more powerful when individuals are part of or identify with groups that benefit from the status quo.
  2. Conservative ideology: Conservatism prioritizes tradition, social stability and gradual change. This may lead to a worldview that sees some social issues as inherent or inevitable, especially when addressing them may require significant disruption or transformation of the current system.
  3. Social identity and in-group bias: People often identify strongly with their social, political, or ideological in-groups. If acknowledging and addressing a problem is seen as aligning with an out-group (such as socialists), people may be more likely to deny or minimize that problem.
  4. Incrementalism and stability preference: Tied closely to a conservative ideology is an overarching preference for incremental change and stability over radical transformation. This generates resistance to quick or transformative system overhauls, which can inadvertently maintain the status quo or slow progress towards tackling pressing societal, economic or environmental issues.
  5. Security-liberty tradeoff bias: A common bias that often tilts in favor of perceived security and stability, sacrificing certain liberties. This mindset encourages endorsing policies that may infringe upon civil liberties and human rights while preserving societal order and safety.
  6. Out-group derogation and progress movement skepticism: This aspect is characterized by a marked scepticism or even rejection of social progress movements, including but not limited to feminism, racial equality, or LGBTQ+ rights. Strong in-group biases can often fuel this skepticism, inhibiting societal acceptance and legal protections for marginalized groups as these movements are viewed as emblematic of ideological out-groups.

Taking a critical theory perspective, the worldview shaped by statements such as “there has always been” can serve to obscure the role of specific systems and structures, such as capitalism, in creating and perpetuating social problems. By presenting issues like inequality or environmental destruction as timeless and natural, this narrative deflects attention away from the need for systemic change. This can serve the interests of those who benefit from the current system and it can inhibit the development of alternative visions of how society could be organized.

For example, if we accept that economic inequality is a natural and inevitable outcome of human societies, we may be less likely to question the significant wealth disparities that are exacerbated by capitalist economies. Similarly, if we see environmental destruction as a given, we might overlook how certain practices encouraged by capitalism, such as overproduction and the prioritization of profit over sustainability, contribute to environmental crises.

Academics, design researchers and other critical thinkers can challenge these narratives by highlighting the historical and structural factors that contribute to social problems, advocating for systemic solutions and promoting awareness of the ways in which ideology and bias can shape our understanding of these issues.

Lenses into conservative thinking

Note: Drawing upon extensive ethnographic immersions, meticulous fieldwork working for political parties and rigorous analysis of hours of meeting notes, the following lenses have been detailed as central to my research on conservative thinking.

Foundational beliefs and worldviews

Overemphasis on individualism: Stemming from historical values that championed the individual’s rights (classical antiquity, Christianity and the Enlightenment), a heightened emphasis on individual autonomy and self-reliance sidelines collective well-being and societal cohesion. In a society that supports individual achievements, the broader collective needs and shared societal goals are overshadowed, leading to fragmented communities.

Resistance to change: Rooted in age-old customs and traditions, a strong leaning toward the familiar results in a hesitance to embrace transformative social changes. This reverence for the past makes societies resistant to progressive adaptations, impeding societal evolution in the face of modern challenges.

Stagnant view of societal evolution: Built upon the belief that societal norms are timeless, the perception of societal structures as static prevents an acknowledgment of the dynamic nature of societies. Such a perspective restricts envisioning the possibility of societal growth or essential shifts in a rapidly changing world.

Limited view of social constructivism: Grounded in the age-old belief that societal norms are innate, viewing them as immovable hampers understanding how societies shape and redefine their standards based on evolving collective beliefs and actions.

Perceptions of society and power

Structural blindness: A byproduct of the historical neglect of underlying societal mechanisms, overlooking the role of social structures in perpetuating societal problems means that deeply embedded challenges remain unaddressed. Not recognizing these foundational issues, superficial solutions are proposed, leaving root causes untouched.

Overlooking power dynamics: A legacy of eras where power imbalances were the unchallenged norm, ignoring the role of power disparities in societal outcomes allows unchecked concentrations of power that further exacerbate inequalities.

Downplaying intersectionality: Originating from a historical tendency to categorize issues in isolation, disregarding the interconnected nature of various forms of discrimination perpetuates layers of discrimination against individuals with overlapping marginalized identities.

Glossing over privilege: Emerging from centuries of societal hierarchies, the inability to recognize the systemic advantages that certain social groups enjoy continues to perpetuate deep-rooted inequities allowing for unchecked privileges.

Ignoring ideological bias: Historically, dominant narratives have suppressed alternative perspectives. Today, by failing to recognize these deep-seated biases, we continue to sideline diverse viewpoints, reinforcing the same limited narratives.

Maintaining systemic justification: Defending the current societal structure as fundamentally fair has roots in times when the status quo was largely unchallenged. This perspective hinders efforts to address and remedy deep-seated systemic injustices.

Foundational historical misconceptions

Historical racial essentialism: Stemming from age-old beliefs that categorized races hierarchically, viewing racial differences as intrinsic and immutable perpetuates stereotypes and racial prejudices. This historical framing obstructs the path to racial equality by reinforcing misconceptions about inherent racial characteristics.

Gender binary perceptions: Rooted in historical norms that recognize only two genders, the adherence to strictly male or female identities invalidates the experiences and identities of non-binary, genderqueer and other gender-diverse individuals. This limited view of gender suppresses the full spectrum of gender identities, leading to systemic exclusions and misunderstandings.

Historical gender roles: Established through centuries of sociocultural norms, strict adherence to traditional gender roles confines individuals to predetermined societal expectations based on their gender. By upholding these historically rooted roles, society inhibits the freedom of individuals to express and define themselves beyond these restrictive boundaries.

Perception of challenges and solutions

Historical disconnect: With roots in eras where historical contexts were ignored or rewritten, overlooking the historical roots of current societal issues leads to shallow solutions that don’t tackle the foundational causes.

Contextual oversimplification: Stemming from a time when quick fixes were preferred, detaching complex issues from their societal contexts results in uninformed approaches, often exacerbating the problems they seek to solve.

Interdependence oversight: Emerging from a historically compartmentalized view of societal challenges, neglecting the interconnectedness of societal systems leads to isolated interventions that fail to consider broader systemic consequences.

Simplistic approach to complexity: Born from eras where nuances were overlooked in favor of straightforward narratives, proposing rudimentary solutions to intricate societal challenges hinders crafting all-encompassing, effective strategies.

Values and empathy

Empathy gap: A relic of times when societies were more homogeneous, a limited capacity for understanding experiences outside one’s own social circle can result in policies and attitudes that fail to cater to the diverse needs of a multifaceted society.

Discrediting vulnerable voices: Stemming from historical marginalization, diminishing the insights of vulnerable societal groups silences and oppresses crucial perspectives, heavily skewing societal discourse and decision-making.

Denying collective responsibility: Rooted in a historical emphasis on individual actions, separating personal and collective actions from broader societal ramifications weakens societal unity and confuses collective responses to global challenges.

Future planning and global perspective

Limited global perspective: A byproduct of historical insular viewpoints, prioritizing national or local issues above global concerns restricts understanding of the interconnected challenges of the modern era.

Neglecting sustainability: Originating from industrial eras prioritizing immediate growth and valuing immediate economic expansion over environmental sustainability jeopardizes the ecological equilibrium, threatening future generations.

Short-term focus: With roots in eras that emphasized immediate gains, concentrating on short-term outcomes without considering long-term ramifications leaves societies ill-equipped to anticipate and adapt to future shifts.

Evidence and scientific consensus

Disregarding scientific consensus: Emerging from historical skepticism and resistance to changing paradigms, questioning the consensus among scientific experts impedes the adoption of evidence-driven strategies and policies.

Underplaying agency: Born from eras that felt the inevitability of societal trajectories, underestimating the potential of both individuals and institutions to instigate significant societal change leads to a passive society, feeling detached from its own transformative power.

Misinterpreting social mobility: Stemming from age-old beliefs in pure meritocracy, an overemphasis on merit while sidelining barriers faced by marginalized groups perpetuates existing societal barriers, obstructing equal opportunities.

Underestimating inequity: A legacy of times when systemic disparities were normalized, failing to fully recognize these disparities results in policies that inadvertently reinforce these inequalities, deepening societal divides.

Clinging to the status quo: Rooted in historical resistance to change, an overwhelming preference for existing social norms over innovative alternatives reduces society’s resilience and adaptability in the face of new challenges

These elements highlight the common misunderstandings that often permeate conservative thought processes and, at the same time, point out the key areas that need to be revisited and reassessed for a more comprehensive, accurate and inclusive understanding of society. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it does provide a starting point for challenging established assumptions and fostering more critical thinking.

The ontological and epistemic pillars of conservative thinking

These elements highlight two main areas of ontological and epistemic problems: understanding of the nature of reality (ontology) and of knowledge and belief (epistemology).

Ontological problems

  1. Reality as static and unchangeable: Many of these issues are rooted in a view of reality as fixed, with societal structures, power dynamics and inequalities seen as natural or inevitable. This leads to a dismissal of the potential for systemic change and an underestimation of the role of human agency in shaping the world.
  2. Individualism versus systemic understanding: There’s a tendency to focus on individual behaviors or characteristics, without acknowledging the broader systems and structures that shape these individual realities. This includes a misunderstanding of social construction and the role of power dynamics in society.
  3. Simplistic understanding of causality: Many problems arise from a failure to appreciate the complexity of causality in social issues, with systemic issues often attributed to simple or single causes. This simplification ignores the interconnectedness of issues and the interplay of multiple contributing factors.

Epistemic problems

  1. Bias and objectivity: A failure to recognize how personal biases and ideologies can shape understanding and belief, often coupled with an overconfidence in one’s own objectivity. This includes an underappreciation of the role of ideology and bias in shaping perceptions and beliefs.
  2. Disregard for expert consensus and scientific knowledge: A disregard for expert consensus, scientific evidence and the value of specialized knowledge in understanding complex issues.
  3. Limited empathy and perspective-taking: There’s a lack of empathy or understanding for experiences and perspectives different from one’s own, which limits the ability to fully understand social issues.

These ontological and epistemic problems can inhibit productive dialogue and problem-solving. They can be addressed through education and awareness-raising, emphasizing the complexity and mutability of social issues, the importance of systemic thinking, the role of bias and ideology, the value of expert and scientific knowledge and the necessity of empathy and perspective-taking.

The intersection of conservatism and right wing ideology

Conservatism and right-wing ideology often intersect and overlap, though they are not identical. Both typically place a strong emphasis on tradition, order and stability and they tend to value individual responsibility and free market capitalism. However, the specifics of conservative and right-wing beliefs can vary greatly, depending on cultural, historical and individual contexts.

In many cases, the rise of right-wing ideology can be linked to conservative responses to rapid social, cultural, or economic changes. Conservatism, with its emphasis on preserving tradition and order, often finds resonance in times of uncertainty or perceived threat to the status quo. This can lead to a heightened appeal of right-wing ideology, which often promises a return to a perceived ideal past or a preservation of traditional societal structures.

Right-wing ideologies often employ a rhetoric of in-group/out-group dynamics, which can exacerbate existing social divisions and heighten feelings of cultural or national identity. This is sometimes seen in conservative ideologies as well, particularly in discussions around immigration, nationalism, or cultural homogeneity.

Also, both conservative and right-wing ideologies often share a skepticism of rapid societal change, particularly when it comes to social norms and structures. This can manifest in opposition to social movements advocating for change, such as those related to LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, or gender equality.