Saturday, April 14, 2007

Letting liberals explain

How do rank and file liberals explain their beliefs? Last month I wrote two articles which eventually drew out some serious comments by Larvatus Prodeo readers.

What most seemed to stir the LPers was my argument that liberals don't want such things as religious, ethnic, gender, national, class or cultural identity to matter.

Two LPers denied the claim. One of them, Mick Strummer, wrote that both liberals and conservatives believe that such identities matter but that:

It is their origin that is the main area of disagreement, with “Liberals” believing that much of the social, political and cultural significance of these factors is arbitrary and historically determined. As such, “Liberals” are suspicious of anyone who claims that they may be natural in the sense that they have always existed, and thus will always exist.

These factors - religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural identity - are not the same thing as many other things that ARE natural. They are not phenomena like rainfall, the dispersal of species, or the seasons. It seems to me that these factors - religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural identity - are the result of human decisions and actions throughout history, and that thus we can decide and act to make them different from the way they are currently defined and perceived.

Anyway. There is more that we could say about things, but as a “Liberal”, I will always believe that the social, political, cultural and economic world is the way it is because it has been made that way as a result of human belief and action. Thus, (it would seem to me) that it is entirely possible and feasible (indeed, necessary) to remake and reform the social, political, cultural and economic world that we inhabit…


Mick Strummer is here following the "autonomy" or "self-creation" strand within liberalism. This is the idea that it is the human capacity to "self-determine", according to our reason and will, which dignifies human life.

If you accept this idea you won't like to think of identities being natural. A natural identity is relatively fixed, and has a justification outside of human will. It isn't something that is self-determined.

You might well prefer to insist, as Mick Strummer does, that identities are social constructs, which can be remade according to our own purposes:

It seems to me that these factors - religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural identity - are the result of human decisions and actions throughout history, and that thus we can decide and act to make them different from the way they are currently defined and perceived.


But if identity is to be thought of, in the liberal way, as a social construct, can it still be considered to matter in a positive sense?

I think at the very least its significance has been degraded. Mick himself tells us that identity is arbitrary and unnatural, which surely undermines the importance we accord it.

Note too that the social constructionist viewpoint places stress on a negative aspect of identity, namely the need to keep forms of society open against concepts of enduring human identity, rather than a more positve aspect, of recognising and defending the forms of identity we value within society.

Anyway, it's common in practice for those following the autonomy strand of liberalism to hold negative views toward traditional forms of identity. Typically, such liberals will see these forms of identity as being a constraint on the individual, from which individuals need to be liberated or emancipated. There's often an insistence that any replacement forms of identity be multiple, shifting and negotiated, so that it's possible to think of them as being self-determined.

The second LPer to take aim at my position followed an entirely different strand of thought within liberalism, but I'll leave a consideration of his comment for my next post.

1 comment:

  1. Just cos "identity is arbitrary and unnatural" don't mean that it is unimportant. Mick Strummer

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