Nuances of liberal thought - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity



Liberals & Conservatives

Nuances of liberal thought


Conservatives see the world in simplistic black and white. Everything is either absolutely right or absolutely wrong, with no allowances for in between. Liberals, on the other hand, see the world as more complex. There are always shades of gray. A particular action might be right in some circumstances but wrong in others. What's right for you may not be right for me.

But this greater level of sophistication carries with it a certain danger of confusion. When people don't understand the true complexity of the situation, when they don't understand all the factors that may be involved, liberal thought can seem confusing or even contradictory.

So in this article I try to help people understand some of the complexity of liberal thought by giving a few examples of issues where liberals make fine distinctions, and try to explain some of those distinctions, to show how a certain action may be right in one set of circumstances or for one person, but wrong for others.

Perhaps I should make clear that this is not intended to be a complete list of every issue on which there is an "orthodox liberal position". Rather, it is simply a small set of examples intended to convey the idea.

Penalizing people for holding political views that do not match the views of those in power, for example, the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950's that resulted in many people who held leftist beliefs being kicked out of the entertainment industry: Bad. The fact that someone's beliefs are unpopular shouldn't give the authorities the power to silence him. Freedom of speech means nothing if it only protects popular beliefs. Penalizing people for holding political views that do not match the views of those in power, for example, university speech codes that result in many people who hold right-wing beliefs being kicked out of school: Good. Some beliefs are so far outside the mainstream that they cannot be tolerated. Freedom of speech does not include the right to advocate extreme and dangerous ideas.
Attacking an entire political movement based on the personal failings of one of its leaders, for example, claiming that liberalism's commitment to women's rights is discredited because Bill Clinton failed to show respect for women: Bad. The fact that a few individuals don't live up to their own ideals hardly proves that those ideals are not worthwhile. The fact that even opponents think it's important that someone didn't live up to his ideals proves that the ideal is worthwhile. Attacking an entire political movement based on the personal failings of one of its leaders, for example, claiming that conservatism's commitment to family values is discredited because Newt Gingrich divorced his wife: Good. People like this prove that conservatives are all a bunch of hypocrites. If they can't live up to their own ideals, why should others care about them?
Assuming that your own culture or beliefs are inherently superior to all other cultures, for example, the belief that Christianity is superior to paganism, or that American capitalism is superior to Third-world socialism: Bad. All belief systems are equally valid, and we should learn to respect other's beliefs. It is especially arrogant to try to "convert" others to your own beliefs: they have their own beliefs that are good for them. Assuming that your own culture or beliefs is inherently superior to all other cultures, for example, the belief that tolerance is superior to intolerance: Good. We must stand up for what is good and right, and work to educate the rest of the world.
Protecting the weak and helpless from those who would use their superior political, economic, or physical strength to abuse or exploit them, for example, protecting poor black people from being exploited by rich white people: Good. A major purpose of government is to protect the weak from being abused by the strong. Protecting the weak and helpless from those who would use their superior political, economic, or physical strength to abuse or exploit them, for example, protecting unborn babies from being killed by their mothers and abortionists: Bad. A woman is more than a fetus, and to give a fetus legal rights only serves to diminish women.
Making fun of people based on accidents of their birth, for example, the fact that they were born black: Bad. This is shockingly insensitive, cruel, and unfair. Making fun of people based on accidents of their birth, for example, the fact that they were born in the South: Good. These people are a bunch of illiterate hicks and and we have to make fun of them constantly to keep them in their place.
Government funding of the display of a religious symbol, for example, a crucifix displayed in an honored position in a national park: Bad. For the government to fund a display that honors Christianity violates the rights of taxpayers and other citizens who do not share that particular set of religious beliefs. Government funding of the display of a religious symbol, for example, a photograph of a crucifix displayed in a jar of urine with the caption "Piss Christ" displayed as part of an art exhibit: Good. For the government to refuse to fund a display that attacks Christianity violates the rights of people who want to express such views.

As I say, this list is certainly not complete. But I hope that these examples give you a feel for the depth and complexity of liberal thought. By studying and reflecting on examples like this, perhaps you can see the underlying principles that allow us to properly determine when a particular action is good or bad.

© 2003 by Jay Johansen


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