Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A false freedom

Where have we gone wrong? My answer is that the Western intellectual class follows the principles of liberalism as if it were their religion.

The basic idea of liberalism is that we are fully human when we have the freedom to choose, through our own will and reason, who we are and what we do. It’s a principle which sounds nice but which has destructive consequences. Over time, anything which is part of our nature or which is part of our tradition is rejected as something we don’t get to choose for ourselves. Nature and tradition come to be seen negatively as impediments to individual liberty.

Take the following as an example. Spenta Cama is an American woman who is part of a feminist “mothers’ movement”. She is married and is happiest being a stay-at-home mum, so she is not personally denatured. But politically she is committed to a blank-slate liberalism, in which our own nature as men and women is seen as a sexist impediment to freedom. She writes,

As a feminist, I made a promise as a teenager to treat any children I would have equally, regardless of their gender. No extra protection for a girl or societal reinforcement of gender stereotypes through toys. My son can play with trucks and cars as well as dolls if he wants. After all, I’m the mom who played the “Free To Be … You and Me” compact disc over and over to him when he was in utero. What better message could I send to my baby than he is a unique individual who can do and be anything he wants irrespective of the gender constraints society may attempt to place on him.

Note how liberalism gives a particular meaning here to the word equality: we are “equal” when we are treated androgynously, without reference to our gender.

Note too the specifically liberal understanding of what it means to be “free”. We are free, in Spenta Cama’s view, when the “constraint” of being male or female is overthrown, so that our individual will can decide all.

But what is wrong with this liberal view of freedom and equality? First, it is false because masculinity and femininity are not just a product of socialisation but are hardwired into us. Second, our nature as men and women is important to our self-identity, to our basic sense of who we are. Third, our sexuality is based on an appreciation of gender difference. Fourth, our concept of the good includes virtues associated with masculinity and femininity.

That’s why for most people the liberal attack on gender will not be experienced as a “liberation” but as an oppressive part of modern political life.

[The normal preference for gender difference comes out in the following reminiscence by the Australian authoress, Miles Franklin. She is writing about an experience which occurred when she was living in Chicago sometime between 1908 and 1915.

I can see Floyd clearly in memory with his black stock and walking-stick, on Dearborn Street, as he and Charlie announced to me the glad tidings that they were feminists. I was so uninstructed that distaste awakened in me. It seemed to me that the word was related to feminine, and for a man to be feminine was to be effeminate, and utterly obnoxious to me, reared where men were men.]

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