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.