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Bleeding Heart Liberals

Enjoy your Paradox

by Kavish Chetty, image Laugh It Off / 17.01.2011

The syllables that make up ‘liberal’, when stuck together like that, have started to sound immediately flimsy. There’s something oily about the way it comes out. Something ineffectual. Weak. It’s a word that sounds paralysed, hinting at the moral stasis it inevitably gives rise to. Conservative assholes may bleat and berate over this phenomenon in a nauseating wave, but even Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times is hip to this logic. He writes, “Liberals, no less than conservatives – and for that matter revolutionaries and reactionaries; in other words, all of us – believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth.” The upshot? Liberalism has to choose between cultural relativism (the principle that an individual’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture) and cultural imperialism (the practice of promoting a more powerful culture over a least known or desirable culture). Nice.

If you’re liberal (as am I; as you probably are too, if you’re reading this online do-rag), you have to essentially believe that liberalism is a ‘superior mode of existence’ – if not, you’d take a la carte from the ideologies which you find more suitable. But liberalism, founded on those grand and desirous principles – to ensure the autonomy of the individual, to protect personal liberties from the tyranny of the majority – is based on a practical paradox. And this paradox is never more properly pronounced than when it flounces out calling itself ‘multiculturalism’.

Liberal multiculturalism believes that minority (or oppressed) cultures need to be given special rights – group-specific rights, or rights of preservation. The logic is compelling and noble; if we discriminated against minority cultures, we’d just be injecting our own cultural apartheid into the mix: a ‘speak English or die!’ attitude. But this veil of pluralism obscures the brute fact of cultural pluralism: something’s got to give! Cultures trying to assert the superiority of their practices upon each other will inevitably spark and fight. It’s just a matter of how long the postponement will last.

In The Satanic Verses, a masterpiece of postcolonial magical-realism, Salman Rushdie (or rather his character Otto Cone) writes, “Anybody ever tries to tell you how this most beautiful and most evil of planets is somehow homogenous, composed only of reconcilable elements, that it all adds up, you get on the phone to the straitjacket tailor… the world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot blissful happiness, while down the road inferno. You can’t ask for a wilder place.” In fact, the reaction to The Satanic Verses itself acts as wonderful, if less-than-contemporary, exemplar of liberal moral stasis. Remember 1988, when the book was published? The Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of wonderful Iran (come visit sometime!), issued a fatwa against Rushdie, a theological death-warrant, calling on all good Muslims to ‘kill Rushdie, or point them out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves’. The Muslim community erupted in a Mexican wave of threats and violence because of perceived blasphemous references in the book – translators were stabbed, publishers had to dodge assassinations. Never mind the fact that most of them hadn’t even read the novel, which if they’d bothered, they’d have discovered is an extraordinary thesis on diaspora, hegemony and imperialism.

That religious reaction is laughable, but, to be expected. What was more surprising was the reaction from the international liberal community. See the lily-livered, the ineffectual, the relativists, as they condemn Rushdie for provoking the religious reaction! Non-religious figures like Marxist writer John Berger, and espionage scribbler John Le Carré all voted Rushdie ‘the author of his own troubles’ for offending a monotheistic religion. This essentially demonstrates the liberal moral stasis. The West can’t pronounce on the East – do not interfere in practices you don’t understand! The gulf between the Occident and the Oriental is not purely a matter of physical furlongs, but cultural kilometers too.

But let’s return to the present and the choice between cultural imperialism and cultural relativism which inheres in the multicultural doctrine. Take South Africa as an exercise: this cosmopolitan joint is home to eleven official languages, never mind the range of cultural expressions which run from middle-class, upper-campus ennui to rural polygamy. The Constitutional Court has been audience to a gamut of cultural conflicts – we’ve had Indina girls who want nose-rings in public schools and we’ve had tribal male primogeniture (the rule that only male descendants should have dibs on the deceased’s estate) on circuit too. In each case, the choice to be made is imperial or relative. Either the culture’s practices are whipped in line and integrated into the greater liberal project of our Constitution, or there’s an uneasy “Hmmm… we disagree, but as you’ve been doing that for decades, you can keep on doing it.”

Let’s start with imperialism, certainly a contentious word to employ in this context, but come on: it’s a rhetorical sledge-hammer. If we disagree with a practice like male primogeniture (which was outlawed in the 1990s for, primarily, just being further female oppression under the guise of ‘culture’ – which conflicted with our Constitution’s Section 8 ‘equality clause’) and we outlaw it, we’re essentially saying the following: your cultural practice doesn’t agree with our own. It isn’t liberal enough. Either you make it liberal enough or we’ll make it liberal enough for you. We’ll impose our esteemed values of liberalism on your culture. Make your culture like ours in all the important ways. This goes a long way in explaining why the host of cultural practices which have been undisputedly preserved are largely aesthetic and non-frictive: wear your funny lampshade hat or belt out your quavering hymn at dusk – these don’t bother the liberals. But the moment a practice steps outside of the aesthetic and starts wanting to affect the world in its own, cultural, non-liberal way, here comes the liberal police – step aside!

What about cultural relativism? If we disagree with a practice but allow it to survive, it’s the political equivalent of saying, “Ag, shame. What they’re doing isn’t alright for us, but they don’t know any better and they’ve been doing it for decades. So let them have their quaint cultural practice.” There’s something about polygamy that is essentially unpalatable for the modern liberal (perhaps it’s more opaque than just ‘something’ – perhaps it’s the rather obvious misogynistic motivation which informs the practice, that relegates women to dependants, and denies them the equality to take multiple husbands, if they like). Yet, by extending the bounties of customary law, we’re operating by two laws: one for the liberals here in the city and another for the tribes out there in the dust. Equally condescending and just as dangerous.

As globalisation marks out its trans-continental territory in 2011, this dynamic is being played out all over. From Zulu bull-slaughter practices, to Japanese whaling on the other side of the world; and somewhere in the middle, the French burqa-ban for Muslim girls.

Is it possible for liberalism to recuperate itself and offer a multiculturalism that isn’t morally bankrupt at its core? Should liberalism reconstitute itself and continue doling out little brown bags of individual freedom, forgetting about the ‘culture’ that wedges itself in the way of that liberating task? Josef Goebbels once said, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.” Vicious and violent words – but the logic is clear and sonorous. Either we six-gun the shit out of this ridiculous idea that the word ‘culture’ should be trembled at and respected… or we just sit back and enjoy our paradox.

*Image courtesy and © Laugh It Off.

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RESPONSES (9)
  1. Lizzy says:

    Cultural relativism is bollocks. Culture is in a state of constant evolution and it is people who make culture – culture does not make people! Change and adaptation and a myriad of sub cultural offshoots are essential to ensure any culture’s survival in the world.

    so dont let them tell you its your culture so you must/can’t do it…

    great topic.

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  2. james says:

    either mahala should stick to club reviews, or let writers have their own style. this drowns in its own facile condescension, and comes across as politics 101.

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  3. David says:

    I don’t buy your characterization of liberalism. Most liberal theorists draw a distinction between the right and the good. The right refers to those rules/ principles that delineate what a society will allow and what a society will prohibit. However, within those boundaries pluralism is permitted. People can pursue their own visions of the good (whether that be Christian, ‘traditional african’, philanthropic, selfish) provided that these don’t violate the broad rules imposed by liberalism. Some of these conceptions of the good (I for instance wouldn’t accept a theostic conception of the good) are clearly stupid/ wrong but don’t violate the right. Liberals respect for the autonomy of persons means that they don’t intervene to correct wrong conceptions of the good. This doesn’t mean they endorse those conceptions or believe that there are no objectively true/ better conceptions of the good. It just simply means that they respect the right of people to pursue their own ideas of the good.

    In this way I don’t think there is any inconsistency with saying 1. Some cultural practices are in conflict with basic rules of society (the right) and should be prohibited. 2. Other cultural practices are wrong but don’t conflict with the basic rules of society and should thus be permitted.

    This isn’t condescending. Quite the reverse. This says that people are autonomous and should make their own decisions/ develop their own moral capacities without being manipulated by the state/ dominant group provided that those individuals operate within broad constraints.

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  4. marigold says:

    @ David

    But your use of the term ‘basic rules of society’ is still as defined by liberal principles, though? That’s the point.

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  5. Murray says:

    @David

    You’ve fallen into the exact trap that Kavish is speaking about. Where is the line drawn? Why are your ‘right’ rules better than the ‘good’ rules of someone else? I see your point, and kinda agree, but this is the trap.

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  6. David says:

    @Murry & Marigold: There is no paradox here. You can assert that you found the true set of moral values while recognizing that others haven’t found that set of values. People who are religious often believe something similar when they have rules for the faithful and rules for those who don’t share their faith. They believe that the rules for the faithful are obviously true and that the rules of the non-faithful are second best. However, because they hold that people must believe the faith/ discover it through revelation they don’t impose those rules on others. In fact, for many religious people, imposing religious beliefs strips away the very value of those beliefs. The liberal position is something similar to this – liberals can and do claim they have a better way of organizing society while still preserving space for disagreement because to do otherwise would be to defeat their own vision of a just society.

    As to whether liberal rules are better than the rules of someone else – this is a case that I also think can be made. Liberals don’t just assert the strength of their position without justification. The author above has not engaged at all with any of the arguments as to why the rules of liberals are better than the rules of other political philosophies (theistic, customary etc). Some of the better know arguments are made by Rawls (who argues that liberal rules for society can be generated by an overlapping consensus), Nagel (who argues that if we respect the limits on what types of arguments may count in public discourse we are driven towards liberalism) and Raz (who argues from a particular conception of the good towards liberal principles in the Morality of Freedom). I won’t repeat them (no doubt wikipedia has a decent outline) but they exist and you may even find them compelling.

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  7. marigold says:

    This idea of ‘conceptions of the good’ is worthwhile. Liberalism allows people to pursue their conceptions of the good up until the point that it’s no longer liberal. So, kind of, what’s the point other than a shallow gesture of individual autonomy?

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  8. BleedMart says:

    “Conservative assholes may bleat and berate over this phenomenon in a nauseating wave.”

    Thanks Kavish for so adeptly demonstrating that what liberalism is REALLY about is replacing racial and cultural bigotry with ideological and (pseudo) intellectual bigotry. I’m glad you’ve found something that makes you feel good about yourself.

    As for your definition of liberalism as the drive “to ensure the autonomy of the individual, to protect personal liberties from the tyranny of the majority”

    I suppose that’s why Mahala, your liberal blog, is the only one I know where the group can silent a dissenting individual by ‘zapping’ their comments until they fade from view. That’s the essence of collectivism, really, the group silencing the individual. the dissenter, the independent thinker.

    Zap on \m/

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  9. Bogen says:

    BleedMart, you’re a twit. There is nothing outside ideology, so you’re first paragraph is hot air. And secondly, you don’t “silence” the individual by zapping their comments. You can still read them, they’re just grayed out. It means people get to call bullshit on people’s comments. Hundreds of websites have this feature.

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