Toward a renewed liberalism

The word “liberal” has many meanings and even more meaningless usages. My trusty Merriam-Webster includes the definition “not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms,” and that’s what I’m focusing on here. “Liberalism” as a political camp includes many positions which aren’t at all liberal in this sense, but for a long time it included a genuinely liberal stream of thought, including support for free speech and equality under the law.

Lately, many who used to call themselves “liberal” have rebranded themselves as “progressive.” This term recalls the early 20th century movement, best known for Woodrow Wilson, which promoted such illilberal values as censorship, war, racism, and prohibition. Few if any neo-progressives have given rejection of liberal values as their reason, and the trend hasn’t followed clear ideological lines, but there’s a case for drawing a distinction between the old liberals, who were genuinely liberal in some respects, and the new progressives, who are much less often so.

The big shift has been in attitudes toward free speech. Progressives generally despise the Citizens United decision, which says that people keep their free-speech rights when they act through corporations. Some want to make First Amendment exceptions for ill-defined “hate speech.” Public colleges and universities, once centers for free-wheeling debate and disagreement, have imposed Constitutionally dubious speech codes and sometimes even restricted controversial views to tiny “free speech zones,” with permits to speek freely required in advance.

The liberal ideal goes beyond issues of law. It includes tolerance in non-governmental institutions of people expressing opposing views. It expects employers not to care about their employees’ private views as long as they keep them separate from their work. It urges communities to accept people of any religion or none and to tolerate even deservedly unpopular people.

It’s an ideal that has lost ground. Mozilla forced CEO Brendan Eich out because it didn’t like his past political contributions, and progressives cheered. I routinely see vicious denunciations on the Internet of every Republican in the country. Some science fiction conventions have adopted “harassment policies” which prohibit insulting and embarrassing speech. An often-quoted article on Vox, titled “The truth about “political correctness” is that it doesn’t actually exist” suggests that dismissing any claim of offense as silly demonstrates only insufficient sensitivity.

People who are liberal on these issues haven’t disappeared; they’re just on the defensive. Many of them don’t know how to answer the charge of “insensitivity.” They don’t like the prospect of being insulted and smeared. Many of them have juggled a mix of inconsistent views throughout their lives, which makes it harder to take a principled and consistent stand. Many people are liberal only when it’s convenient; they’ll march for free speech in Paris one day, then call for Internet censorship to “fight terrorism” the next. If they marched for a better reason than just show, they need to learn consistency.

In spite of the difficulties, there’s room for a renewal of liberalism. Many political liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and even socialists believe in this ideal; we don’t have to agree with each other on everything to make this a common cause. In fact, we have an advantage. The people who can’t stand any dissent from their line can unite only with people who agree with them on everything. When people who hold differing views stand up together against censors, it’s going to bewilder them.

Many people find it hard to separate their personal opinion of people from the way they should be treated in a public context. Tolerance is not approval. This distinction is at the heart of the liberal ideal, but it doesn’t come naturally to people. Tribalism, the division of the world into “my people” and “those ‘people,'” comes more easily. However, a society in which censure doesn’t lead to censorship offers huge rewards and is worth working for.

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Posted in General. Tags: , . 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “Toward a renewed liberalism”

  1. antongarou Says:

    1. with regards to the “Citizens United” issue – I do not live in the US, but my understanding is that most people have problems with it since it gives a huge advantage to people who have deeper pockets(i.e. Warren Buffet, The Koch Brothers) and money does make a difference – especially when the people spending it remain anonymous, so the general public doesn’t even know to whom the politician might feel indebted . In Israel there is a donation limit (both in money and in kind), exactly for these reasons.

    2. The fact I may think an opinion shouldn’t be illegal, does not mean I don’t find it obnoxious or harming, and hate speech has a history of leading to minority group harm – usually sooner rather than later. And yes, I will applaud when a company decides to get rid of someone whose opinions I find poisonous rather than different(i.e. saying you personally oppose abortions is different than supporting an organization trying to pass laws that limit and/or forbid them)

    • Gary McGath Says:

      The actual case in question in Citizens United wasn’t about any billionaire, but about a relatively small organization that wanted to run a film critical of Hillary Clinton, which the FEC deemed a “contribution in kind.” Restrictions on organized speech don’t affect just huge organizations, but everyone who formally organizes for a cause. There have been numerous attempts to put crippling restrictions on grass roots political efforts; these have been much harder to achieve since Citizens United. In fact, the biggest organizations, with the best government connections, are likely to get the best deal. I recall one bill before Congress a few years ago, which failed, that had an explicit exemption for advocacy organizations _above_ a certain level of wealth.

      If you distrust large companies’ support of political speech, why would you trust them when it comes to deciding which employee opinions are “poisonous”? It’s inevitable that the degree of toxicity they ascribe to an employee’s views will correlate with the inconvenience they cause the company.

      • antongarou Says:

        As to billionaires – that is as it may be, but that’s the reasoning I hear for resisting it. As I said, I’m not well versed in that issue

        Please reread re: poisonous. I may have not been entirely clear(ESL) butwhat I was trying to say was that I would cheer for the dismissal of a person whose opinions *I* considered poisonous, and I think my example outlines my general criteria for poisonous vs. different pretty well. I would cheer exactly because it means public opinion has shifted enough that these poisonous views are cause unacceptable loss to companies who employ people espousing them

        • Gary McGath Says:

          I understand that; but the decision would be the company’s, not yours, and you might not be so pleased with its standards of toxicity. It’s better when businesses don’t try to make such decisions. If I worked for an employer who scrutinized my political activity and based continued employment on it, I’d feel threatened regarding everything I might say in public.

          • antongarou Says:

            So I applause the decisions I approve of and boo the decisions I don’t. That’s the nature of public debate, with all its plusses and minuses. I find it hard to understand how you champion freedom of expression on the one hand and than claim that using my freedom to voice my (dis)approval of a company’s actions is a problem.

            PS. after some digging: the man was not fired– he was forced to resign because Mozilla is more a community than a corporation, and a majority of the community won’t follow him.

          • Gary McGath Says:

            (Replying to antongarou’s third comment since the nesting limit has been hit)

            I did not claim that using your freedom is a problem; I claim that achieving the things you champion is a problem. Championing freedom of expression does not mean agreement.

            I’m well aware that Brendan Eich wasn’t fired, and I never said he was. I said he was “forced out”; there are many ways to do this without firing; in this case, publicly expressed disapproval from the directors, making it impossible for him to function effectively.

            Mozilla Foundation is a California non-profit corporation, recognized as such by the Internal Revenue Service. It holds Mozilla Corporation as a taxable subsidiary.

    • Eyal Mozes Says:

      And yes, I will applaud when a company decides to get rid of someone whose opinions I find poisonous rather than different

      I would be curious, then, what your opinion is of the 1940s-1950s Hollywood blacklist of directors/writers with past Communist connections.

      The Hollywood blacklist is universally – and I’d say, by most people, hypocritically – regarded today as a very black mark on Hollywood history; and yet I can’t see any possible way that it can reasonably be regarded as worse than the treatment of Brendan Eich. There’s no way that opposition to registering same-sex couples by the state as married can reasonably be regarded as more “poisonous” than Communism. And unlike Eich – whose opinions about gay marriage had no possible connection to his work – these writers/directors were in a position to subtly insert Communist ideas into the movies they were writing and directing, and there was strong evidence that they in fact did so. I’d say anyone who continues to talk about Hollywood blacklist as some horrible event, without acknowledging that the treatment of Eich was at least as bad, is clearly a hypocrite.

      I would cheer exactly because it means public opinion has shifted enough that these poisonous views are cause unacceptable loss to companies who employ people espousing them

      If employing people who, outside of and with no connection to their work, stand up for what they believe in, causes unacceptable loss to the employer, then yes, it means public opinion has shifted; it has shifted away from the sort of liberalism that Gary is talking about, away from the idea that people with different ideas should approach each other with tolerance and discuss their differences rationally, towards bigotry and intolerance towards anyone who’s different. No matter my view of the specific ideas the person is persecuted for, I see nothing to cheer about that.

      • Gary McGath Says:

        Many people objected to the Hollywood blacklist because it supposedly had poor verification standards and people could find themselves on it just because someone disliked them. I don’t know if that’s true, but that view has been a major reason for much of the opposition to it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true. As far as I’m aware, people had no way to challenge their blacklist status.

        • Eyal Mozes Says:

          Many people objected to the Hollywood blacklist because it supposedly had poor verification standards and people could find themselves on it just because someone disliked them.

          That, frankly, is news to me. I’ve heard claims about how it was easy to get on the blacklist wrongly, and the impossibility of challenging one’s blacklist status; but I’ve never heard anyone saying that that was the central thing wrong with the blacklist. All discussions I’ve seen about how terrible the blacklist was, say they are outraged about it because people with Communist sympathies should have had their freedom of thought respected and not lose their jobs because of their views. And it’s certainly hypocritical to say that, and then not be equally outraged by the ouster of Brendan Eich.

          As for whether it really was possible to be blacklisted just because someone disliked you, the first step in supporting such a claim would be to document some cases of Hollywood people who got blacklisted without ever having had Communist sympathies or connections of any kind. I haven’t studied this subject thoroughly, so I can’t say with certainty whether anyone’s ever documented such cases; but I’ve never seen any such documentation.


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