It's the Liberalism, Stupid
Monday Notes
It's the Liberalism, Stupid
Defining liberalism is a question of power.
Published on: Dec 5, 2022  |  

Like democracy, fascism, and perhaps terrorism, liberalism is one of those things that seems to be in the eye of the beholder. To speak about liberalism—in its original, small-l form—is to invite confusion over the intent and even the identity of the speaker. Here, as elsewhere, the points of contention aren’t really about facts. They aren’t about definitions. They are about narratives, and narratives are about values and first principles: what do we hold dear, and why?

The “why” part is difficult and can only really be addressed by way of the stories that we tell ourselves, but more importantly, the stories that are our own and no one else’s—the ones, in other words, that we’ve actually lived. To those who say that lived experience is a prerequisite for understanding the truth of a matter (racism in America, for example), this is just another way of saying that the truth, whatever it might be, is somehow inaccessible. And maybe it is.

The problem of definitions (and the narratives within which they are embedded) offers some insight into the overarching and all-consuming epistemological crisis that seems to define our current moment. Before we get to liberalism, though, let’s ask a (simpler?) question: What is racism?

A philosopher on Twitter offered up a non-definition of racism, which I found instructive:

[I’m] reading a paper where the author asserts that "In academic and progressive circles, 'racism' has acquired a very wide scope." Ppl (esp conservatives) say this a lot but like... I don't think it's true? Just seems like there was a lot of racism not getting called "racism" before.

The suggestion here is that racism increases not according to any kind of measurable baseline, but that there can be more racism simply through the act of calling more things racist. Similarly, there can be quite a lot of fascism if it is decided (note the passive tense) that more things that wouldn’t previously be considered fascist now are.

It seems self-evident to say that what constituted “racism” 100 years ago is not the same—and shouldn’t be the same—as what constitutes racism today. Fine. But it gets a lot more complicated when things that even progressives themselves wouldn’t have considered racism just 5 years ago are now considered as such. If definitions—and therefore our understandings of what is true or not true—can change so rapidly, then to what extent can they really be “true” in any meaningful sense of the word?

Perhaps one way of limiting the epistemological chaos is through education and access to information. But it is precisely higher levels of educational attainment that challenge and even undermine shared understandings of reality. Ideological pluralism and fragmentation have increased along with educational access. This isn’t an accident. If more people are educated (or if more people read), then more people will have opinions about things they didn’t previously have opinions about. And because they perceive themselves as being educated, they will more jealously guard their opinions, however irrational they may be. All ideological movements, particularly the radical ones, rely on ideologues, and ideologues become ideological through education and what’s sometimes called “awareness-raising.”

When we talk about liberalism, we’re talking about an ideological orientation as well as a tradition: the classical liberal tradition. Like all traditions, it has a history and a lineage. As a result, there is something approaching a consensus about its basic contours. For example, the U.S. Bill of Rights is a rather impressive encapsulation of liberal values and ideals. I’m unlikely to encounter much pushback when I say that liberalism, unlike democracy, puts its emphasis on personal autonomy, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, the primacy of reason over revelation, and the prioritization of the individual over the collective. As part of this basket, though, I often also include (to make things a bit more tangible) “gender equality” and “minority rights.” But of course, the great liberal theorists were not liberals by this standard. Locke did not believe in full equality for Catholics or atheists. Locke might have been a “feminist” by the standards of his own time, but he was not a feminist by the standards of our own. Does this mean he wasn’t a feminist?

A feminist re-reading of Locke suggests a mixed legacy:

[Locke endorses] new social processes, which actually throw women back into the home, keep them outside public life and thrust onto them a new form of dependency on their husbands—whatever his liberal rhetoric of individual freedom… Locke's theory is but a liberal accommodation to a new form of now capitalist patriarchy.

This problem of projecting contemporary morality onto the past arises whenever we speak of “universal rights.” What is it that makes a universal right universal, particularly if such a right is not universally held? Do such rights need to be universal across time or place, or both? Can something be right and moral in one time period but not in another?

In an occasionally charged back-and-forth with my friend and former podcast guest Mustafa Akyol, he repeatedly turned back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a liberal baseline. If liberalism is about choice, however, then one can presumably choose not to believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the UDHR protects precisely this choice, when it guarantees in Article 18 the right to “manifest [one’s] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Of course, that right can’t contradict other rights explicitly enumerated in the UDHR.

But there are a number of religiously illiberal practices that do not contradict athe other articles in the document. The right to drink alcohol (or the right to access to alcohol, since the 18th Amendment only prohibited the latter) is not protected under either the UDHR or the U.S. Constitution. (Another relevant consideration is whether a democratically-elected legislature would justify the prohibition of alcohol on health (read: secular) grounds or on religious grounds.)

If the UDHR—or, for that matter, the U.S. Bill of Rights—is a liberal baseline, then it still leaves open the question of what is beyond the baseline. What might further gradations of liberalism entail in practice? If this is the floor, what is the ceiling? Are liberals compelled to move toward this “ceiling,” whatever it may be? How far is far enough? Ultimately, these are political questions. They aren’t about the content of liberalism as much as they are about who decides what liberalism should be. And the question of who decides is, ultimately, a question of power.