Everyone to one degree or another is a liberal. Even for us on the Left we acknowledge that certain fundamental principles have their roots in liberal philosophy, and therefore our support of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom from state oppression etc. is a nod to those radical liberals who pioneered these principles. Indeed conservatives that use the term ‘liberal’ pejoratively actual support many liberal ideas. Although I am not a liberal, because I believe capitalism to be an economic system that encourages and rewards the worst parts of human nature, I am aware of what constitutes liberal philosophy.
What has recently started to frustrate me is that people who claim to be liberals have distorted or ignored liberal philosophy in order to justify their illiberal positions. This is not a defence of liberalism, because I don’t agree with this ideology, but it will be a social criticism of those people that cloak themselves in this ideology despite being ignorant of what liberalism entails.
One of the premises of this new strand of ‘liberal’ thought arises as a consequence of misunderstanding two areas of liberal thought: cosmopolitanism and the rights of the individual in relation to the state. The example that is often brought up is the debate around Muslims in the West. This is painfully frustrating as I cannot fathom who claim to be liberals find this area particularly controversial when Muslims themselves can reason relatively easily what is permitted in Western societies.
One example pertaining to Muslims in Western societies is whether or not the burqa or niqab should be allowed to be worn. Irrespective of your personal view on the religion of Islam and/or its doctrinal teachings, if you a logically consistent liberal you shouldn’t be calling for a ban of burqas because this violates the right of the individual to wear whatever they want. Obviously there are issues surrounding those women in particularly patriarchal societies that are being forced to wear it, but the fundamental principle should be that that woman can wear what she wants. Fortunately this is an example is which most liberals are on the correct side of this issue, and it is often only people on the Right moaning about the importance of Britain’s Christian heritage that support such bans.
However an example of something that make many uneducated liberals frustrated is thee issue of religious schools. For example, when I say that I do not support the establishment of Islamic schools uneducated liberals castigate this view of an atheist being bigoted against the Muslim minority. Indeed those who have misunderstood what cosmopolitanism is, by arguing that intolerance is the same as the same as criticism, will often cite this liberal principle as a foundation for their claims of my ‘bigotry’. Sorry to disappoint but this is untrue.
My opposition to Islamic schools is rooted in the following liberal ideas: the rights of individual children not to have the religious views of their parents imposed upon them; the separation of church (or in this case mosque) and state; my opposition to gender segregation; and my support of the correct definition of cosmopolitanism, specifically that schools that take their curriculum from the Quran does not offer an appreciation or respect for other cultural practices. Indeed this is a universal argument against faith schools in general as shown by the substitution of the Quran with the Torah, the Bible etc.
I’ve written a previous article on why ‘Islamophobia’ is a misused term because of its etymological root and why anti-Muslim bigotry is distinct from being critical of Islamic doctrine, but what is particularly frustrating is the discourse that has emerged. People of any religious or cultural minority that hold illiberal views can be argued with relatively easily because the discussion is between whether liberal ideas are superior or not.
However when people spout illiberal views whilst claiming to be the virtuous and tolerant liberals, the discourse is not about whether their views should be supported or not, but about what liberalism actually means. For example, ‘liberal’ supporters of faith schools on the grounds of religious freedom are ignoring other philosophical principles most notably secularism.
As well as these emerging ideological battlefields, there are existing parts of Western culture that liberals should be repulsed by, yet are silent. In the Western world Jewish communities have been relatively common for a number of centuries, and although there is a long history of anti-Semitism borne out of ignorance in Europe, most people in the West are familiar with Jewish cultural practices such as not eating pork and celebrating Yom Kippur. However, the practice of circumcision, removing the foreskin of a baby boy’s penis, is treated as if it is perfectly rational. The argument in favour of circumcision is that the foreskin is ‘unclean’ and must be removed. Not only is there no concrete medical evidence that circumcision makes babies healthier, but it remains unchallenged as it is a cultural practice that should be respected.
Jewish cultural practices that should be respected are not eating pork and lighting a menorah on Hanukkah; mutilating a child in early infancy not only shouldn’t be respected, it should be outlawed. This isn’t even a discussion about imposing an ideological viewpoint on a child like in a faith school, it’s literally physically violating the recipient’s person. This is isn’t about my personal hostility to circumcision, all I’m saying is that how can you call yourself a liberal if, in the name of one ideological principle, you are willing to defend cultural practices that violates two or three other ideological principles.
Sticking with religion as an example, although this is by no means the only golden calf topic, the issue of free speech is also a prime example of where uneducated liberals act sanctimoniously even though their views are incompatible with liberal philosophy. Again let me reiterate that I am not a liberal, my critique is based in ideological inconsistencies.
According to John Stuart Mill’s definition of freedom of speech it is that all speech is permitted provided that it does not incite violence against a certain person or group of people. For example if I stand up and spout intolerant views against black people, this is legally acceptable; if I stood up and began saying things like “this specific black person needs to be exterminated”, then we have a problem. In the same way, if I were anti-Semitic and I looked at a Jewish man with disdain, this is not grounds for arrest; if I were to follow a Jewish man around whilst yelling abuse at him, I would rightly be arrested for harassment.
It is important to make this distinction because people who claim to liberals have begun lump unpopular or offensive views in with prejudicial or intolerant actions. I am a communist and to many this view is unpopular and/or offensive. It would be ridiculous if someone like me was to be on a train and then I was hauled off it by the police because of my political views. The word ‘Orwellian’ is often overused but this would be an example of a thoughtcrime, which is a thoroughly Orwellian concept.
Why do I bring this up seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of a discussion about religious sensitivities? In early 2015 terrorists attacked the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo because they had committed the cardinal sin of drawing a derogatory cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad.
After the attack world leaders flocked to Paris to stand in solidarity with the French people, and the overarching theme was that the presence of these leaders illustrated the represented countries’ commitment to free speech. Although it is disputed as to whether all the leaders who attended all support free speech, one more morbid aspect came out of thee ensuing debate.
Some people argued, by misrepresenting cosmopolitanism once again, that the journalists that were killed knew the risk of their actions and that a way of preventing this kind of tragedy in the future would be not to criticise Islam or Mohammad. This is profoundly incorrect.
If terrorists threaten free speech by gunning down satirists who offended them, the solution isn’t to not criticise their views, it is to criticise them more. I am offended by many things like the fact that the British government is cutting the welfare payments to the poor and disabled, and people are dying as a result. I am offended when the US Congress refuses to act on gun control, and hundreds of people are continually massacred. I am offended when the Russian government persecutes the LGBT community so much that people are regularly beaten in the streets. However I do not go around shooting up the Russian embassy and throwing bombs at the Palace of Westminster.
Don’t get me misunderstood, I know there are many genuine liberals who are resisting this tide of stupidity but they cannot do it alone. As I have said I’m not a liberal but this doesn’t matter; whether socialist or conservative, we all support liberal principles to one degree or another. I have spoken a lot about cosmopolitanism, and I do this because I support this principle. In countries around the world there are political parties and candidates that are endeavouring to peddle racist agendas for political gain.
A way of combating this intolerance is educating people about what cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism are, and reclaiming these terms from those who peddle illiberal ideas whilst cloaking themselves in the language of liberalism. We need to move to a world in which liberals, conservatives, and leftists agree that the principles I have spoken about (free speech, tolerance, secularism) are the foundations of our societies. If these principles offend some people then I have one word for them: good.