Why liberals cannot escape intolerance
Recently on Twitter, I debated with British liberals. David Campanale, a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats and a Christian, has been deselected following his desire to reduce abortion time limits. Whilst I regard this as an act of intolerance – concern about abortion is associated with faith - some of my Twitter friends saw it differently, emphasizing that there are many Christians in the Liberal Democrats and the deselection reflected Campanale’s failure to meet party standards.
After the usual back-and-forth, I realized that the debate was going nowhere. One can approach this case from multiple perspectives and certain facts remain unclear. Of course, there are countless debates about liberal (in)tolerance across the West, all occurring in distinct contexts and involving topics such as the right to hold controversial views, the right to teach unpopular ideas and the right of businesses not to serve conservatives. In some instances, liberals (let us call them that for now) will have better cases; in others, they will have worse cases.
Despite these debates, it struck me that I almost never see liberals address the strongest case for the liberal intolerance hypothesis. In Western countries, certain liberal values have achieved hegemony. Traditionally, liberals champion dignity and self-expression, recently emphasizing the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities. As Western societies have become more affluent and secure, majorities have embraced these causes.
Yet this creates a dilemma. Along with dignity and self-expression, liberals traditionally emphasize tolerance, freedom of speech being a classic liberal right. This reflects historic balances of power. Crucially, the minorities who seek dignity and self-expression face cold climates in traditional societies, majorities holding conservative values and institutions such as churches enforcing these. But as majorities have embraced liberal values, the different parts of liberalism have divorced. Recent work confirms this trend. In a survey of academics, the Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris found that concerns about cancel culture depend upon whether scholars share the values of wider society. In Western countries, conservative academics are more worried.
This process deserves more attention than isolated cases. Whilst individual episodes will involve different rights and wrongs, the large number of cases means that irregularities will even themselves out. For this reason, researchers tend to be concerned with structural trends. One should avoid determinism - the responses of national liberals will be distinct, reflecting path dependency – yet one cannot overlook the restructuring of liberal incentives; increasingly, liberal belief in dignity and self-expression is at odds with tolerance.
On one level, debate must move forward. Analysis of specific issues, such as the case of Campanale and the Liberal Democrats, misses the wood for the trees. Structural issues are much more important and interesting. On another level, liberals must ask themselves whether this circle can be squared. Of course, individuals may combine different positions, research showing that much political opinion is unstructured, especially among non-elites.
Yet in ideological terms, I am not sure that liberalism will overcome this. Broadly, ideologies and political movements adopt positions which suit groups, political space being predicated on inter-group competition and rewarding efficient groups. If incentive structures deter liberals from advocating tolerance, liberalism will struggle to counter this trend.
The Liberal Democrats are the party of John Stuart Mill. Not only did Mill serve as a Liberal MP, but the party revere his On Liberty, a copy of the book being the symbol of office for the president of the English Liberal Democrats. Reading On Liberty, one notices the centrality of freedom of speech; at length, Mill outlines how legislation and atmospheres which are conducive to freedom of speech promote truth and liberty.
All thinkers are reinterpreted and liberalism has undergone recent reworkings, some emphasizing Popper’s warning about tolerating the intolerant. Yet Popper’s caution was restricted to very authoritarian movements and, more broadly, one wonders whether liberalism without tolerance is credible. Michael Freeden, the great scholar of ideology, reminds us that ideologies which are stripped of central elements become something else.
When the values of self-expression and dignity are hegemonic, liberal tolerance seems to erode, implying that liberalism is becoming something else. Though nascent, social justice ideology (or progressivism) seems to have succeeded liberalism, this ideology adopting a markedly different approach to tolerance. We will never know what Mill would have made of developments in his ideology and party, yet I suspect that he would have regretted them.
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