Sunday, April 15, 2007

Letting liberals explain II

Do liberals think that identity matters? In my last post, I looked at one liberal's attempt to claim that they do. He argued, following the autonomy strand of liberalism, that liberals only differed from conservatives in believing that identity was a social construct, rather than natural, and that as a human construct it could (and should) be remade.

Another Larvatus Prodeo reader, Cliff, also defended the liberal attitude to identity. He, though, followed the "neutrality" strand of liberalism. The neutrality strand is the idea that you will have social conflict unless people adopt a neutral stance toward important truths, beliefs and values in the way society is organised.

Cliff, in response to my claim that those without identity are "empty men fit only to observe and admire the "colourful" life they witness in the non-liberal subject", wrote:

To argue that someone is “empty” simply because they believe that their religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural, identity, should not be used as a basis for coercion of, or discrimination against, “the other” is a pretty “empty” argument, if you ask me.

The basis for liberal reasoning on these factors is not that they should be “erased”, but that they should not serve as a basis for political action, inclusion or exclusion, because of, not despite, the fact that they are such powerful and basic determinants of an individual’s identity.

Religion, for example, is so strongly based in the conscience and identity of citizens, that to make religion a substantial factor in politics could only result in conflict.

Liberalism is not about erasing the non-negotiable factors in one’s identity, but about basing politics upon the negotiable factors, because only by doing so, can peace in a pluralist society be assured. If a liberal wanted to erase religion, ethnic and national identities etc in society, he would be defeating his own logic because he would be making these factors a basis for coercion.

Whilst it is true that Liberalism has a “neutralizing” tendency, its neutrality is based on intersubjectivity, not subjectivity. If a liberal argues that, in our political and social relationships, religion should not be a basis for our inclusion or exclusion of others, this does not mean that a Liberal is themselves devoid of religion.

It's true, as Cliff asserts, that the neutrality principle doesn't directly disallow the holding of a personal identity. It doesn't stop someone, for instance, from identifying themselves as a Catholic or a Canadian.

In practice, though, the principle doesn't allow a significant place for identity. There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary reason is that identity is often sustained in a communal, rather than a purely private, setting.

For instance, an ethnic culture can't be sustained over time "subjectively" by private individuals. If there are only a few members of an ethny in each suburb, their culture won't survive to the next generation, no matter how important this culture is to them subjectively.

An ethnic culture requires a communal setting in order to be absorbed, expressed, developed and reproduced. To maintain a communal setting does require at least a limited form of discrimination in its own favour, particularly in terms of immigration.

Also, if identity is thought of as a danger to social harmony and therefore is excluded from the organisation of political or social life, it won't be associated positively with the higher, ordering values of society. Some individuals, at least, will then treat identity negatively as a less important sphere to be ruled over and controlled:

Cultures and religions are either about weddings and music and fancy clothes or they're about to get their asses kicked. I think Nietzsche called it "The Will to Power," and it is that which we Americans possess and which we cannot allow in the cultures and religions we take in. If all religions and cultures are equal then none is superior, and that is how we keep them in line.

There are also problems with the coherence of the neutrality principle itself. For instance, Cliff wrote that:

Liberalism is not about erasing the non-negotiable factors in one’s identity, but about basing politics upon the negotiable factors, because only by doing so, can peace in a pluralist society be assured.

There are several things which strike me as false about this statement. First, it makes it sound as if liberalism only excludes things which are locked in a dangerous, non-negotiable impasse.

Identity is excluded, though, even when there is no such dangerous impasse. There was a recent case in America in which cheerleaders were told they had to cheer for female sports teams, despite the fact that neither the cheerleaders nor the female sports teams wanted this to happen. There was no dangerous impasse, but simply an insistence on following the principle of excluding gender as a basis of social organisation.

Second, liberalism insists on excluding identity even where there is no pluralism to be negotiated. In fact, it is often the liberal principle itself which creates the pluralism, which then sets up the potential for conflict.

Sweden, for instance, was until recently an ethnically homogeneous nation, and yet the political class there still adopted the idea that the Swedish state should be neutral in terms of ethnicity, which then led to large-scale foreign immmigration, which has now created a degree of ethnic conflict which previously hadn't existed.

In fact, liberalism seems to work best, and to be taken furthest, in the least pluralistic of communities. Holland and Sweden, for instance, were relatively homogeneous countries, well-known for stability and orderliness. At least some aspects of liberalism were taken further in those countries than elsewhere.

They have now become less stable and orderly. Holland, for instance, has witnessed in recent times the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, ethnic riots in Utrecht and a spate of school stabbings. So the effect of liberal neutrality has not been to take a violent, pluralistic society and to render it peaceful, but to make a relatively orderly and homogeneous society more pluralistic and more violent and disorderly.

There is another reason to be sceptical that the neutrality principle orders societies peacefully. The principle itself can become an article of faith, thought to be universally valid, and therefore to be imposed everywhere. It can, in other words, itself become the justification for coercion and force.

So does identity suffer under the terms of liberalism? It suffers more, it seems, than some liberals are willing to recognise. It is subjected to a one-two punch, the first blow coming from autonomy liberals who treat identity as an unnatural and oppressive social construct, the second from neutrality liberals who won't allow society to be organised in ways which recognise identity.


  1. The really important point you make here is that the "neutrality" stance is inconsistent with liberals' obsession with what they call diversity as a good in itself, to be pursued to whatever extent humanly possible, even at the expense of ordinary fairness and justice. You use the example of Sweden, but many more are obviously available. The extent to which liberals are willing to go to impose plurality where none previously existed does tremendous violence to the coherence of identity. To claim that it does not, or that it dis not intended to, seems frankly dishonest.

    That this hostility is applied selectively (no one ever hears a liberal bemoan the horrible, stultifying ethnic homogeneity of your typical middle class Japanese neighborhood) is another issue altogether.

  2. I find it hard to read their screeds anymore. It so disgusting and denatured. None of their ‘philosophy’ stands up to scrutiny.

    All of their debates go round and round in circles. Whatever they decide on is always wrong. They deliberately ignore the consequences of every retarded ‘public policy’ they’ve instigated, then put the onus back on ‘society’ to fix it with some nauseating sloganeering that makes the sheep from Animal Farm seem intelligent.

    They’re parasites and bottom dwellers in every nation they’re allowed to inhabit. Parasites and slave moralists who claim the moral high ground; open yourselves up to our ideas, be inclusive...what are ya, racist or backwards or summin?!

    Their only utility is as barometers of what is good and bad; as long as they dislike you, you’re still strong, righteous and a well rounded human.

  3. It turns out that as I was writing my post about neutrality making Sweden more pluralistic and less peaceful a small-scale riot was happening there. Emergency services are now refusing to enter parts of Malmo without police escort.

  4. To me, the ‘neutrality’ stance of liberalism is far too convenient for a working society model. All it does is abdicate responsibility and ethics. It’s corporate thinking, where unwelcomed consequences become an ‘externality’. That is, (as Shane mentioned) society is left with leftist’s clean-up bill.

    “Do what you feel is best.” Has replaced “Do what you think is best.”