How the ‘wool’ got into ‘woolly liberal’

One. John Stuart Mill was not right on everything, by any means, but he did have some decent notions. One idea he had which is pretty good, was to promote a liberal framework within which different ideas and opinions could be freely discussed. There is no danger in allowing discussion of ideas, he argued, because within this free discussion, and over the course of time, ideas would be tested, and the better ones would endure, whilst the bad ones would be rooted out. Likewise, it’s also healthy for us to be regularly challenged with our own ideas, even if we are right, because that helps prompt us to re-examine and be better aware of the foundations of those ideas. Such challenge keeps our good ideas alive. This general liberal framework has been pretty well accepted by a lot of people. It’s a good way of managing diversity of opinion, expression and culture. It’s a pretty good wheeze, actually.

Two. Hence, we’ve got used to the idea that there are lots of different systems of belief out there, and that therefore, we should be tolerant. Everybody has the right to express their own opinion. Note in passing, that I am being deliberately vague about what it is we have to tolerate. Are we tolerating ideas? Or are we tolerating people? And how exactly do we tolerate these?

Three. This open market place of ideas, together with greater travel and greater access to different views and peoples, has then led many people to think that therefore, there is no real truth of the matter, no way of resolving disagreements that is better than any other; in other words, to forms of relativism; at the extreme, to postmodernism. In practice, of course, most people have not totally abandoned any notion of reason and evidence, and operate a kind of hybrid between an extreme relativism, and belief in reason and evidence. This hybrid is often expressed in a patchy and inconsistent manner, (see below).

Four. This insight into the variations of different cultures and belief systems is also underlined by realisations of imperialism, and the wrongs done in the past by dominant powers to others.  It became inescapable that what others of different background know about, and have to offer, was often wrongly dismissed and overlooked.

Five. So, more strongly than toleration, which is perhaps more neutral about the ideas that others have, we ought to respect others. We were wrong to be so sure of ourselves – that is, the dominant cultures, and the dominant classes and individuals within those cultures, were wrong to be so sure of themselves. We ruled out too much, and should show more respect. But what is toleration, what is respect? Note that these terms are often very loosely defined. ‘Respect’ encapsulates perhaps a stronger notion than simple tolerance, suggesting that the ideas of others should be valued in and of themselves. We may have moved from ‘everybody has a right to express their own opinion’ to ‘everybody’s opinions are in and of themselves of value’. See below for more on this.

Six. And note something: at the start of this, the framework of free and open discussion of ideas as propounded by Mill and others presupposed that there could be debate and disagreement based upon reason. This gives a clear basis for distinguishing between being tolerant, (or respectful) of people (allowing them freedom to speak, treating them with equal rights in society, addressing them as you would anyone else, and so on); and being tolerant (or respectful) of ideas. A person’s ideas, on the assumption that these are based upon some form of reason and evidence, can be conceptualised and critiqued quite independently of criticising that person.

Seven. But note then that, meanwhile, one of the foundational premises for a liberal tolerance of ideas has been eroded – the notion that some kind of reasoned or evidential debate about these ideas is possible. On such a view, we need not even have any fully agreed notion of how to conduct such debates – indeed, philosophers have of course argued for centuries about how to do so – but nonetheless, we can propound arguments, and arguments about how to have those arguments, in an open marketplace where anyone is free to join in, and where everybody’s ideas are free to be tested and scrutinised. Within such a view, we can tolerate people by letting them join in, and by listening to them. We can tolerate ideas by letting them be expressed. And we can respect ideas by engaging in debate and discussion with them in fair and reciprocal terms. And we can easily distinguish between a person and their ideas; this indeed is underlined by freely accepting the possibility that we might even change our minds about something as a result of free and open discussion. In fact, engaging in open critique with the ideas of others is precisely a way of showing respect – you respect the person by listening to their ideas, and respect the ideas by showing you think they are worthy to be listened to and taken seriously.

Eight. But if we’ve let go of the idea that there is some common ground upon which to debate, if we’ve decided that there is no real way to judge between ideas, and that these are nothing other than personal opinions or expressions of cultures, but clung on to the idea of tolerance and respect, what happens then? Potentially, we have created a situation that is more and more confusing and that spirals down more and more to a counsel of hopelessness about the foundation of our beliefs. For in order to show tolerance and respect, we can’t just allow ideas expression and allow any resulting debate and mutual critique and discussion;  instead, we end up simply saying ‘I have good ideas, and your ideas, (even though inconsistent with mine) are very good too.’ Now, if this were a matter of how each person chose to decorate their own kitchen, that would be fine. If it were a matter of how people choose to spend their Sundays, that would be fine. Etc. But if it’s a matter where there might actually be some clash of public policy or behaviour that impinges on other people, we are painting ourselves into a very awkward corner.

Nine. This is all made worse by the rise of a certain sort of individualism: by the idea that an individual’s ‘identity’ is an essential part of who they are; this includes of course their beliefs about key things such as cultural practices, religion, politics, gender relations, and other ideologies. It’s thus much harder to distinguish a person from their beliefs; it’s thus much harder to distinguish respecting and tolerating a person from respecting and tolerating their beliefs. Now, put this together with the effects of the rise in relativism and postmodernist views, and the tendency is amplified:

Ten. The belief that there is, at least potentially and in theory, some standard of reason and evidence by which beliefs and ideologies can at least to some degree be tested, means that it’s easy to make a clear distinction between a person and their beliefs. People are people; we respect them and tolerate them because we value people qua people. The respect and tolerance due to people is worked out with reference to the nature of what it is to be a person – for example, based on ideas that people are social creatures for whom community with others is vital, and ideas that people are all fundamentally of equal value, etc. A person’s beliefs are respected and tolerated by reference to what is proper to beliefs – and this includes, on the original view outlined in point one, the notion that to tolerate a belief is to allow it expression, and to respect a belief is to think it worthy of consideration, assessment, debate and critique. Not, per se, to think that the belief itself is good or true.

Eleven. But what if we have collapsed the distinction between a person and their beliefs through modern notions of identity? What if we have eroded the idea that what is proper to beliefs is to be founded on evidence and reason? How then do we understand the ideas of tolerance and respect (for of course we don’t want to jettison those)?

Well, we keep them, but we understand them wrongly. What we end up with can easily look like exactly what is happening in many modern debates. When a person’s, or group’s beliefs are challenged, many people react as if that person or that group is being challenged. Very likely, the beliefs will never be challenged in the first place. A reaction to pointing out flaws in beliefs and positions is very likely to be not, ‘Your arguments are mistaken’ or ‘You seem to have a point, I’ll think about that’ but ‘You hurt my feelings’, ‘You racist’, ‘You something-ophobe’, ‘Are you going to apologise for insulting group X’.

Twelve. A further reaction from some people is also often to think that respecting the beliefs of others actually involves having to claim that these beliefs are really cool (because, lacking the idea that you respect beliefs by engaging with them, it’s hard to see how else you might ‘respect’ beliefs); this, together with an abandonment of the whole idea that one’s own beliefs can really be justified with reference to reason and evidence, can end up in a ludicrous position where the beliefs and practices of others are valorised, and one’s own culture’s beliefs and practices are vilified – because one is allowed to attack the beliefs of one’s own culture, being part of it, (especially if one is part of a Western culture which includes still in some corner the idea of free, open, and reasoned debate); but to attack those of others is disrespectful.

And the more that happens, the less we can have open debate and discussion. Of course, if the extreme relativists and the post modernists are right, and there really is no basis whatsoever to any of our views, then that would not really matter, because to think that there might be better ways of thinking, and better beliefs than others, will be an illusion. It just will all come down to a power struggle.

Thirteen. What is happening in practice is a mosaic; most people have not abandoned evidence and reason entirely, but in certain areas, there is an almost inevitable slide into a relativist, postmodernist, ‘you hurt my feelings’, playground-style bun fight. Far from opening up debate, people who want to engage in it are often shut down. Note that this is the very reverse of the original ideal. Not everybody can in fact freely express their views, if somebody else considers that those views constitute a critique of their ideas. And far from the free testing of ideas, where over time the bad ones will be found out and the good ones will prevail, there’s no way that this will occur.

Fourteen. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the bad ideas will prevail. Because good ideas involve critique and the attempt to reason impartially and to base things upon evidence, so, these will automatically pose challenges to other ideas which don’t match up. But then, that will look as if those who hold such ideas, (if they express them robustly and especially if they explain their basis and their justifying grounds) are ipso facto attacking other ideas, i.e., in this warped way of seeing things, attacking other people. And that’s not respectful, is it. So shut up, you ‘Ophobe’. You ‘Ist’.

Fifteen. And in addition, what often happens is a version of this mosaic of ideas whereby we hold ourselves to a standard of reason and evidence giving, but think that it’s imperialist to hold others to this standard. One way of putting this awkward melange is to say that this expresses tolerance and respect for other cultures. Another way of putting this is that this shows we hold others to lower standards than we hold ourselves. All in the name of tolerance and respect. This looks rather intolerant and rather disrespectful. That corner we painted ourselves into seems very small indeed, and the paint doesn’t seem to be drying.

Conclusion. However, had we worked out a way of separating a person from their beliefs, had we clung on to the idea that we can respect people by treating them equally and well, and to the idea that we can tolerate ideas by allowing them to be expressed, and to the idea that we can respect ideas by debate and challenge, we would not be in this idiotic mess. It’s really not that hard.

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