Sunday, July 22, 2012

Does liberalism allow group survival?

The Democratic Alliance is the major opposition group in South Africa. It's a party that was historically made up of white liberals. In its 2009 election manifesto the party declared that it stood for a society in which:
...everybody has the opportunities and the space to shape their own lives, improve their skills and follow their dreams... People are not held back by arbitrary criteria such as gender, religion, or colour...

That's your standard liberalism. Liberalism claims that our human dignity depends on our ability to autonomously self-determine who we are and what we do. Therefore, predetermined qualities like our ethnicity or sex are thought of negatively as potential impediments to a self-defining life.

The problem is that this assumes that our "dreams" exist at a purely individual and self-determined level, i.e. that who we are as men or women, or as Afrikaners or Zulu, doesn't matter.

But not everyone in South Africa is a white liberal, so that assumption hasn't gone unchallenged. Former president Thabo Mbeki labelled it a "soulless secular theology" that was based on an atomised view of the individual.

Ryan Coetzee is the Democratic Alliance strategist. He has written a column in response to Mbeki's claims. It's an interesting piece as it shows a white liberal trying (unsuccessfully) to fit in a group identity within a liberal ideology. Coetzee tries his best to make concessions but he doesn't get very far.

Coetzee sets out the debate with this:
...during the 1980s and 1990s there was a detailed and sustained debate between liberals and communitarians concerning the liberal conception of the self, which does not need repeating here. Suffice it to say that it is perfectly possible and indeed desirable for liberals to hold a view of an autonomous self grounded in society without ceasing to be liberals.

The communitarians were a group of academics, some of whom made similar criticisms of liberalism to the ones I make. They did push liberals onto the back foot, but without changing any fundamentals.

Anyway, what Coetzee is saying is that he thinks it possible to retain the liberal view of an autonomous self whilst still, as the communitarians urged, having that individual grounded in a particular society. The liberals had not paid much attention for some generations to that communitarian concern.

Coetzee goes on to argue that liberals believe that despite the influence of predetermined qualities like our biology and our environment, individuals are unique and can choose "who and how to be".

Traditionalists would agree that individuals are unique and that individuals do choose aspects of how they live, but we would not make such a blanket assertion that it is an individual thing to choose who and how to be. Some of that is given to us. For example, if we are men, and attempt to realise that part of ourselves, then not every way of being is equally masculine. We will be naturally oriented to some ways of being rather than others. Similarly, if we have a moral conscience, and can recognise aspects of a pre-existing objective morality, then we will be oriented to some behaviours over others. And our ethnicity is not usually something that it is in our hands to choose. A Japanese man can choose to live in exile, or to make little effort to support his tradition, but he cannot suddenly make himself not Japanese in ethnicity.

Coetzee then makes a partial concession:
...individuals have a variety of identities, including group identities, and that these are perfectly legitimate. They are not atomized centres of consciousness with no connection to others: a person may be an Afrikaner, coloured, a woman, a socialist, a mother and a lover of classical music, and all these attachments (and many others besides) comprise her identity.

That's a lot better than the usual "ethnicity is a fetter" type of liberal argument. But note that some key aspects of identity (our sex and ethnicity) have been placed at the same level as an artistic taste (lover of classical music).

I'll take the concession, though, given that in many liberal societies a white identity is considered illegitimate. But as we'll see, the limited concession isn't enough by itself. Coetzee goes straight on to make this qualification:
....while individuals may be in part the product of biological and environmental forces, they are still able to exercise choice and thus can decide their identity and attachments for themselves, at least in so far as they feel alienated from the identities imposed on them by their history and environment. The woman described above can choose not to be Afrikaans, not to identify as coloured or as a socialist. She can even choose not to identity as a woman...

It's an insistence that identity has to be autonomously self-defined. And if you think that autonomously self-defining yourself is the key aspect of your human dignity, then your bias will be toward not accepting the predetermined aspects of your identity, i.e. you'll think yourself greater in dignity if you reject an identity as an Afrikaner or as a woman.

Second, it's odd to take the approach that we must decide for ourselves whether we are to identify as a man or as a Japanese. These things are so constitutive of who we are, that to deny them would mean failing to fulfil important aspects of self. Yes, a woman "can even choose not to identify as a woman" but that would be denying something that you already are.

Coetzee then makes this strange claim:
This is an optimistic and empathetic vision of what it means to be a human being. If we are mere representatives of larger entities (the middle class; Muslims; Africans; whatever) then there would be nothing about others to respect or with which to empathise. Indeed, there would be no other people (as we use and understand the term) at all – just ciphers representing abstractions.

This is an example of how liberal thought can be very alien to non-liberals. Surely I can identify ethnically as, say, a Frenchman and still respect a Bolivian for a whole range of qualities: being a good father, a good Christian, having masculine bearing, showing commitment to his own tradition, working productively etc.

Perhaps Coetzee really believes that if we identify with a communal tradition that we so merge into an abstracted mass that we lose all individual qualities. If that is what liberals think, then they need a good lie down on a sunny Queensland beach. If anything, individuals in traditional Western societies were more self-confident in asserting themselves rather than less so. Was Shakespeare just a cipher representing an abstraction?

Coetzee does give an example of what he fears. He criticises the "coconut" accusation levelled at some blacks by other blacks:
Blacks who think or behave or sound “like whites” are not real blacks, they are “coconuts”. The idea that one can be black, and think what one likes, and still be black, is anathema. In other words, the idea that you can self-identify as black and then define for yourself the meaning and significance of that identification is anathema.

Perhaps it's true that the "coconut" jibe is used to coerce some blacks into remaining within black norms. But there are norms generated in a variety of ways in every society, including liberal ones. There are norms of behaviour within social classes, for instance. In liberal societies, there are very strong norms about what makes you a good person or not, and what is correct or incorrect to say or believe. Norms can have a positive effect or a negative one, depending on what they are and what they push toward.

So we shouldn't be frightened of the existence of norms - they're always going to be with us. What matters is their quality. And nor can we do as Coetzee suggests, which is to define for ourselves the meaning and significance of an ethnic or sex identity. If that were possible, then such identities would have very little significance. If I could just make up what it means to be masculine, then that would be a merely invented, subjective identity which would not connect me to anyone else or to anything outside of myself.

That's not to say that the individual doesn't act upon such identities. Generally, we look to what's best within our tradition, or within masculine or feminine qualities, and try to draw on those things; and that means that there will be some individual variation and some changes in culture over time.

Here's something else from Coetzee:
We in the DA are a collection of complex individuals with many identities. We are not a collection of race or linguistic or religious or cultural groups that are immutable and that define the individuals in them, rather than being defined by the individuals in them.

It's the same problem. We are allowed to belong to a group as long as the group doesn't somehow define who we are; it is only allowed to work the other way  - we have to define for ourselves as individuals what identifying with the group means. But that makes belonging to the group less meaningful. Say I identify as a Catholic. If every Catholic self-defines what identifying as a Catholic entails, then you've reduced the sense that there is a real essence to being a Catholic.

The truth is that we are partly defined by being a man or a woman, by being an Afrikaner or a Zulu, by being a Muslim or a Catholic and so on. And although these identities are not strictly immutable, nor are they up for self-definition either.

Finally, Coetzee has an odd way of justifying social solidarity:
What makes solidarity possible for liberals is not the idea that other members of my group are facsimiles of me. In this conception of things, no solidarity (identification, care or compassion) is possible anyway, because there is no other with which to identify or empathise. In this (collectivist) conception of things, solidarity is really just self-interest masquerading as compassion for others who aren’t really other at all.

First, he assumes that solidarity means compassion and empathy rather than loyalty, a feeling of relatedness, or working toward common ends. Second, he seems to believe that you can't show compassion or empathy towards someone you are more closely related to because that would just be self-interest. That leads to his striking conclusion, that you can only experience solidarity with those who are most alien to you.

Coetzee supports this statement by Richard Rorty:
In my utopia, human solidarity ... is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increases in sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves ...

So solidarity with your own group is impossible because the very notion of solidarity has been redefined to mean compassion for people who are alien to you.

Now, having compassion for people who are other to you is a good thing. But it's no use for Coetzee to say that it's legitimate for people to have a group identity and then:

a) insist that there are no larger essences to these identities that help to define the individual, but that the individual himself defines what these identities are


b) redefine solidarity as something that only applies to those outside of the groups you belong to.

If liberals are going to declare group identity to be legitimate, then they have to commit to a philosophy which makes it possible for these groups to survive over time. Coetzee has not done this and so his concession to the communitarians isn't as significant as it might initially appear to be.


  1. All I know is I'm encountering reverse racism more and more. Here where the left is setting up a race war via the media, class warfare, and all the other schemes, the liberal whites are in for a rude awakening.

    What I find very awakening is how it's all the rage that black males date white women but woe be the black woman that talks to the white man. Causally on the street. I personally encountered this just last night simply walking down the street and chatting with a group of black women. For she is shamed by black males. Hence why white males should in turn do the same to white women now.

    The USA is getting out of hand and unfortunately there is no middle ground left. The time to choose sides is fast approaching. I'm not a racist by any means but I'm seeing for myself that blacks in general have chosen what to believe and it's not conducive to anything harmonious. White males, no matter their background are their enemies. Especially with the current President and the lies. We have indeed become more divided now than ever before and I fear for the future.

  2. The beginning of Steve Martin's "The Jerk" - where he says, "I was born a poor black child..." - must be terribly confusing and unfunny to liberals. Rather than something hilariously stupid and obviously wrong (a white man saying he was born a poor black child), the liberals would say, "he's choosing not to identify as a white man, there's nothing wrong or funny about that!"

  3. The guy seems pretty worthless.

  4. Anon, your comment reminded me of something Germaine Greer wrote back in 2004:

    "Supposing Australians accepted their destiny and, as if by an act of transubstantiation, declared their country and themselves Aboriginal."

    She believes we can become, "as if by an act of transubstantiation" some other race and ethnicity.

  5. Liberalism is a disease and Apartheid is the cure. Lived in SA all my life and have never voted. Absolute waste of time. The DA is a sell out party and Helen Zilla would rather dance around 'happy like' with Africans than ever talk about the murdered Boere on their farms by black monsters.

    Skrew the DA!

  6. Normal Guy is right, apartheid is better for all. Negroes, for whatever reason are far more prone to criminality than any of the European peoples. The most intelligent among them admit that they were far better off when they were ruled by the British or French Empires, or by the Portuguese. Left to themselves, they revert to a state of savagery with astonishing rapidity, or it is more accurate to say in many cases that they never really left it, but were held in check by the threat of armed force. As for the original liberal premise, I feel like being a Chinaman today.......just looked in the mirror, it worked sure enough, all I've got to do is think it & it becomes so, ha ha. As easily refuted as the theory that there is no such thing as solid matter, which Dr. Johnson famously refuted by stamping his foot on the pavement if I remember right.

  7. There's a quote towards the middle of your post that distills the problem. It's the one in which, as you note, he mixes superficial and basic sources of identity. A socialist can, of course, reject socialism, and be henceforth a "former socialist," but almost no one thinks of a man who disowns his manhood as a "former man." They think of him as a man who thinks he's a woman (or something else). Does anyone seriously believe that a man who used to like romantic poetry is on the same level as a man who used to think he was white?

  8. To me no absolutely no one has summed up the left as has Theodore John "Ted" Kaczynski a/k/a "The Unabomber"

    From his Manifesto -and everyone should read this especially the lefties, so they can see just how skewed their take on the real world actually is.

    15. Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the leftist’s real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful.

    16. Words like "self-confidence," "self-reliance," "initiative," "enterprise," "optimism," etc., play little role in the liberal and leftist vocabulary. The leftist is anti-individualistic, pro-collectivist. He wants society to solve everyone’s problems for them, satisfy everyone’s needs for them, take care of them. He is not the sort of person who has an inner sense of confidence in his ability to solve his own problems and satisfy his own needs. The leftist is antagonistic to the concept of competition because, deep inside, he feels like a loser.

    17. Art forms that appeal to modern leftish intellectuals tend to focus on sordidness, defeat and despair, or else they take an orgiastic tone, throwing off rational control as if there were no hope of accomplishing anything through rational calculation and all that was left was to immerse oneself in the sensations of the moment.

    18. Modern leftish philosophers tend to dismiss reason, science, objective reality and to insist that everything is culturally relative. ....

    The leftist’s feelings of inferiority run so deep that he cannot tolerate any classification of some things as successful or superior and other things as failed or inferior. This also underlies the rejection by many leftists of the concept of mental illness and of the utility of IQ tests. Leftists are antagonistic to genetic explanations of human abilities or behavior because such explanations tend to make some persons appear superior or inferior to others. Leftists prefer to give society the credit or blame for an individual’s ability or lack of it. Thus if a person is "inferior" it is not his fault, but society’s, because he has not been brought properly...

  9. The most common saying of Liberals in Australia on the left and right would be the "Accident of birth." fallacy.

    Which I find to be a false statement, being parents and ancestors had no accidents of birth. It's called survival, and with out our survival we would have nothing in this world or the next.

    Liberals use emotion to manipulate people, so they can manoeuvre themselves into power.

    Pity the Liberals had an "Accident of Birth.".

  10. "very notion of solidarity has been redefined to mean compassion for people who are alien to you. "

    Joseph Sobran termed it as alienism in his amazing essay Pensees:Notes for the reactionary of tomorrow. The liberal weaseling was the same back then; 20 years later it's the shrieking that has gotten even louder.

  11. I was looking at Israeli companies for cubicle ideas (weird huh? LOL!)

    Anyways, there was company that had all around their cubicles pictures of 'suffering minorities'

    Really really creepy especially considering reality.

    I think they did this as a smokescreen to confuse gentile-type Coetzee liberals.

    But I could also see a group of Coetzee-type liberals sitting in all white cubicles surrounded by pictures of suffering minorities.

    There is something just so wrong and weird and

    I'm glad I didn't get that gene!