Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Liberalism itself intolerant?

Harriet Harman, the British Minister for Equality, has introduced a new Equality Bill which she hopes will build "a new social order".

One feature of the Equality Bill is that it will allow companies to discriminate against white men in order to boost the number of female or ethnic minority employees.

This effectively means that people will be chosen on the basis of race and ethnicity rather than merit, but Harman doesn't want to admit this. At the government website we're told that employers will be allowed to take "positive action" to hire women or ethnic minority applicants, but that:

Positive discrimination (employing someone because of a characteristic regardless of merit) will remain illegal.

In other words, they want to maintain the fiction that they're hiring on merit even when they're practising affirmative action. A necessary self-deceit perhaps.

Anyway, the Equality Bill was criticised by the Pope as it could potentially be used to force the Church to hire job applicants who acted against the Church's teachings.

Enter Simon Jenkins, a writer for the very liberal Guardian newspaper and a former editor of the Times. He decided to back the Pope in a column which I think is revealing of contemporary liberalism. It's revealing because it demonstrates the difficulty that a liberal like Jenkins has with religion, whilst also being an admission that contemporary liberalism has become intolerant.

This is how Jenkins frames the issue:

The ­Roman Catholic church may be a hotbed of religious prejudice, indoctrination and, somewhere in the United Kingdom, social division. But faced with Harriet Harman's equality bill and her utopian campaign to straighten all the rough timber of mankind, the pope's right to practise what he preaches needs defending.

A hotbed of religious prejudice? Is that how a former editor of the Times looks on the Catholic Church? I wouldn't describe my local parish that way. It usually strikes me as overly sedate and casual and flavoured heavily with a social justice doctrine derived more from secular liberalism than from Catholic orthodoxy.

Jenkins later describes the Church in these terms:

The church's historic aversion to religious debate and dissent, its pathological conservatism, its veneration of relics, its cruelty to its own adherents and its necrophilia make the pope's plea for tolerance ring hollow.

Pathological conservatism? Cruelty to its own adherents? Necrophilia? Again, I find it disconcerting that someone from the upper echelons of the media would write this way. (And why is the veneration of relics an act of intolerance - what is happening in the liberal mind here?)

Jenkins does not, though, support the use of the Equality Bill against the churches. He believes that this only furthers the imposition of state control. He goes so far as to admit that,

British liberalism has had a good half-century, but has begun to lurch into the intolerance it purports to oppose. It should loosen up and acknowledge that some communal space must be allowed the old illiberalism.

I'm not entirely sure how to react to this. Jenkins does recognise that liberalism has become intolerant, but his alternative is merely that we non-liberals be granted "some communal space". So much for liberalism supposedly being neutral. It is revealed here as the governing principle of society.

Nor am I sure how to respond to this attempt at sympathy toward traditionalists by Jenkins:

There are still large numbers of Britons who are uncomfortable with those whose behaviour diverges from what they see as traditional norms. These conservatives have swallowed much this past half-century, as authoritarianism has been steadily eradicated by liberal legislation on homosexuality, abortion, divorce and free speech.

Occasionally the liberalism has looked more like intolerance, as over smoking and aspects of "hate speech". Indeed to some people, liberalism's onward march has seemed more like a jackboot in the face. A few have reacted by retreating into a know-nothing fundamentalism, as witnessed in many parts of America.

Jenkins has already admitted that liberalism has become intolerant in imposing itself on society. So it's not really a case of liberalism ushering in a less authoritarian society, thereby upsetting traditionalists. There is still an authoritarianism, a liberal one, combined with the divergence from traditional norms.

Nor is the most significant reaction against liberalism a "know-nothing fundamentalism". What's more important is the growing sense of division between the liberal elite and the rest of society. Many people now have the sense of no longer being truly represented by the political class.


  1. Nor is the most significant reaction against liberalism a "know-nothing fundamentalism"

    Sure. So what do you know?

  2. OT, Mark, but Stanley Fish has an really good blog post today:


    It's the comments by Steven Smith that are most acute:

    "But since secular men reject any source of knowledge apart from secular reason, and since they need normative notions in order to reach any policy decision, where do they get them? Says Smith:

    ". . . the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway--but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.

    Fish continues:

    The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include "notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian 'final causes' or a providential design," all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a direction--to even get started--"we have little choice except to smuggle [them] into the conversations--to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise."

  3. This is the link to the description of the book by Steven D. Smith, "The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse":


  4. Rob, thanks. Looks like another significant admission from a liberal.

  5. This equality bill is all well and good but it works on the assumption that white people are the majority and non-whites are the minority. Certainly in parts of the country that isn't the case. So what are we left with? The permissibility to discriminate in favour of non-whites, by white or non-white employers, but that benefit being extending to nobody else?

  6. Mark Richardson: "Jenkins does recognise that liberalism has become intolerant, but his alternative is merely that we non-liberals be granted 'some communal space'."

    Traditionalists are to be reduced to living in cultural Bantustans. Amazing that even a heretical liberal will nevertheless favour creating an apartheid system where we're tolerated but never treated as equals. It is his protestation against liberal fascism (see Goldberg) that are "hollow".

  7. Affirmative Action Legislation is purely a Political Class cause, it is overwhelming without any popular support, it flies directly in the face of the common understanding of merit as the sole arbiter of your right to a position.

    The slyness of the Political Class was to tack it to the back of what does have overwhelming support, No Discrimination Legislation, e.g. almost no one would support a job advert saying "No Black or Jews need apply"

    It is my belief that what is labeled as the conservative side of politics in Britain can find a gold mine of votes by splitting the two.

    Declaring that an elected Tory Government would outlaw all affirmative action programs while retaining anti discrimination legislation would have amazing benefits. It would set the Tories up as serious about tackling Political Correctness while only promising one easy delivery , the MSN could be mauled if they attacked:

    Tory Rep: "I think Mr "MSN Reporter" that most people would agree with me that talent alone is what counts in Britain and where 2 people are of equal talent nothing could be less fair than letting one person get the job on the basis of their Gender or Race."

    MSN Reporter: "But surely Women and [Insert Race] are under represented in some areas.

    Tory Rep: "We are aware of that it is why we have not removed our educational programs for [Insert Race]" they are still up and running, but Mr MSN you do understand that when people look at top positions in say the British Police and see women getting positions, they think they only got them because they were women and were not really the best candidate. Under our Tory policy the British public can be assured they were the top candidate to serve the British people who pay their wages"

    The Tories live in a "First Past Post" and "No Compulsory Voting" environment they need people to vote for them direct.

    I have serious reservation about the BNP in the UK (I could not bring myself to vote for them) but it needs to be said they are the only party that are not heavily Political Class and I think most of their voter have very serious reservations with them also but they are the only major non Political Class party on offer.

    It is said the BNP has about 2 Million voters and I would put a lot as finding the BNP pretty offensive but the only non Political Class vote on offer.

    A Conservative Party policy against Affirmative Action should be considered and coupled with some genuine help to low income families to support children they could take a lot of BNP votes into the Tories without compromising Tory policy at all

    I also suspect that once Affirmative Action is outlawed no one will ever try to make it policy again.