The word "liberal" used to mean, more or less, libertarian. Obviously both words are derived from the Latin word for "free". We now have to resort to the phrase "classical liberal" if we want to use that word to describe a freedom-minded person, especially one from the 19th or early 20th century. But now the modern left, especially the Millennial generation and older 3rd-wave feminists, often refer to themselves as progressives instead of liberals. And the word "illiberal", having had none of its meaning tainted or twisted by party politics over the years, is more useful than ever to describe the very group that at the end of the 20th century would have called themselves liberals. These linguistic/cultural/political developments have resulted in a reclaiming of sorts of the word "liberal" by those who espouse Enlightenment principles and a laissez-faire attitude toward both culture and economics.
I count myself among them. We aren't going to start calling ourselves liberals anytime soon, but we can without much confusion refer to specific attitudes, actions, and ideals that we embrace as "liberal" and certain ones that we oppose as "illiberal". Interestingly, so can many hard leftists who are equally disgusted by the modern illiberal, anti-Enlightenment, progressive social justice movement. It has been refreshing to read their indictments of modern mainstream leftism, not only because I agree with their diagnosis but also because it takes a fair amount of fortitude and candor to tear into one's own (presumptive) allies. I think it's admirable. They put their principles, their conception of right and wrong, over partisanship and labels and the potential advantages of belonging to the largest possible alliance of "leftists". I liken these disillusioned leftists to the true small-government conservatives who started disavowing neoconservatism a decade ago.
Here is Jamie Palmer, a self-described Jacobin, in a wonderful post-mortem of mainstream liberal leftism titled Stigmatise, Shame, and Silence:
Having fought for and (mostly) won parity under the law, progressive activism found itself faced with an existential dilemma. What was it now for? It was, after all, not simply a vehicle for social change; it was also a productive receptacle for anti-authoritarianism and a valuable crucible of radical thought. Where was all this energy to be directed next?
In response to this challenge, progressivism took a dismaying and thoroughly retrogressive turn. Since inequity in society indubitably persisted, often disproportionately affecting minorities and women, it became increasingly fashionable to question whether universalist struggles had actually achieved anything of consequence at all.
The arrogance of Western cultural supremacism, it was argued, was the status quo now in need of vigorous radical assault. A commitment to universalism was replaced by the fetishisation of difference and specificity; a belief in egalitarianism gave way to demands for exceptionalism and double-standards (only this time favouring the 'oppressed'); and the language of emancipation and liberty was replaced by a cult of victimhood, self-pity, and a brooding, masochistic solipsism. "We have nothing to lose but our chains" was drowned out by the resentful injunction "Listen to my suffering".
In academia, the humanities began a process of decline as the demands of rigorous and fair-minded scholarship gave way to the requirements of a stultifying and increasingly censorious political correctness. The pursuit of objective truth and knowledge fell before endlessly competing claims from subjective 'lived experiences' and 'narratives', and international solidarity fell before a grotesque cultural relativism, itself informed by a neurotic culture of self-lacerating guilt. The lexicon of political activism - originally developed to identify irrational judgements made about people based on their unalterable characteristics - assumed a metaphysical dimension. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were no longer alterable matters of law, belief, and practice - they became immovable structural toxins, against which not even the most broad-minded liberal could be reliably immunised, and to which well-intentioned people were often subject without their knowledge.
As the Left's progressive movements splintered into a kaleidoscope of bitter, competing interests, sectarianism was transformed from a by-product of radical squabbles into an ideological imperative, and a divisive grievance hierarchy was constructed, based upon the intersection of privileged characteristics. The jargon of -phobias and -isms proliferated as every group sought to weaponise language to its own advantage, and arguments from remote etymology were deployed to police the expression of views and ideas. Over time, invective replaced argument and persuasion, and those committed to identity politics lost their ability to engage in constructive debate, to disagree, and - most damaging of all - to think critically about their own ideas and suppositions. Why bother when it is less effort to simply accuse your opponent of bigotry of one stripe or another, or of ignorance and bad faith?
When taken together, these individual cases - niggling and petty in and of themselves - speak to the flowering of a deeply sinister and censorious tendency amongst self-identifying progressives, invariably justified in the name of protecting the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. In their righteous zeal to place certain people, views, and ideas beyond the pale, and secure in the complacent belief that their own opinions are beyond reproach, not one of these well-meaning men and women appears to have considered that their own liberty will, in the end, fall victim to the very same arguments they advance to silence others.
Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as "right wing", these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right's most regressive autocratic tendencies. Dogmatic and unbending in their misanthropic view of human sexuality and race relations; unapologetic in their advocacy of an infantilising, separatist agenda of 'safe spaces'; ferocious in their intolerance of views they deem unacceptable.
British left-feminist Helen Pluckrose wrote specifically about feminism but her admonitions apply about equally well to wider progressivism:
I have noticed a very worrying tendency within feminism to assume that men cannot be attracted to women and respect them at the same time. Any depiction of women as sexually attractive beings created by a man or watched or played (or worn) by a man is considered to demean, objectify, ostracise or harass women and the responses are vitriolic in the extreme. This has happened even when the women are cartoon characters on a shirt or characters in a video game and those female characters are armed and powerful and wearing more clothes than feminists wear when protesting (quite rightly) 'slut-shaming.'
It undermines feminism if we are seen to be inconsistent in the views we have about the right not to be judged by our clothes or by our sexuality, particularly if we consider the rules to be different for men and women.
If it is not demeaning for women to be dressed scantily (and there is no reason it should be,) and we make this point repeatedly and aim it at men, we cannot reasonably then say that men should 'know' that it's demeaning to depict women dressed scantily.
It seems that men are required to accept that such clothes do not demean women unless they enjoy seeing women wearing them in which case they do. The man's attraction is the point at which objectification occurs because he could not possibly be attracted to women and see them as people at the same time. That it is feminists discouraging men from seeing women as whole human beings with bodies and brains is truly worrying.
Even more alarming is the vitriol, the name calling, the closing down of all discussion and the defamation of many male (and female) allies that result from any man's failure to successfully navigate his way through these contradictions. Having spent so long attempting to dispel the stereotype of women as irrational, illogical and hysterical, it is very disappointing to now have to point out to my fellow feminists that:
We cannot read insult into clothes & games & lighthearted articles about annoying words and then respond by calling everyone who challenges this, ' insecure, misogynist douchebag dudebros' and consider this a perfectly acceptable way to speak to people.
We cannot accuse men of 'mansplaining' feminism when they remind us its meant to be about equality and then tell them what masculinity is, how they're doing it wrong and how they've been damaged by 'patriarchy'
We cannot take an example of a woman being presented negatively on TV or in a game, complain that this reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and then use 'men' as shorthand for 'misogynistic, murderous sex offenders' before accusing critics of being oversensitive because it should have been obvious we didn't mean all men.
We cannot take violent and sexual crimes, point out that they are committed, in the majority of cases, by men and decide that this defines masculinity, ignoring the fact that the majority of heroic and defensive acts are also done by men, and that the vast, vast majority of men are neither violent criminals nor heroic saviours but people trying to live, love, thrive and succeed and do some good along the way, just like women.
Well, obviously, we can do all these things because many of us are doing just that.
What we can't do is expect to be recognised as a movement for gender equality whilst this continues.
Julie Bindel, another British feminist writer and activist, wrote about the misguided focus on "offensive" individuals instead of real oppression and inequality:
Feminism, a great social movement, is in danger of becoming toxic and repressive. The focus on individuals, however vile they may be, signifies a shift away from the more difficult, long-term work of making institutions such as the Crown Prosecution Service and other governmental departments accountable.
The current climate of McCarthyism within some segments of feminism and the left is so ingrained and toxic that there are active attempts to outlaw some views because they cause offence. Petitions against individuals appear to be a recent substitute for political action towards the root causes of misogyny and other social ills. Petitions have taken over politics.
The “ban this sick filth” approach is starting to look more like censorship than progressive politics. Political protest and heated debate has been replaced with a witch-hunt mentality.
It would appear we have forgotten how to target institutions. The tactic du jour is to wind up a crowd and shut down any nuanced discussion or debate. Patriarchy is being left to its own devices while bad and unpalatable men are being taken to task one by one.
Last year more than 20 student unions in the UK banned Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, which was widely thought to glamorise rape, forbidding the playing of the song at functions within union spaces. But when the Islamic Education and Research Academy hosted an event on University College London premises at which seating was segregated by gender, a National Union of Students delegate at King’s College London said that “gender segregation should be respected, if not tolerated, in institutions of higher education”.
Identity politics and the emergence of feminist preciousness – the tendency towards putting trigger warnings on everything and wrapping each other in cotton wool – has translated into a disproportionate focus on individuals who offend, rather than the culture that allows them to do so. That lyrics could be a more legitimate feminist target than universities that support gender apartheid is depressing.
Moral superiority and “call out” culture has trumped political activism. Feminists have a proud history of taking state institutions and corporations to task. It would seem this is being lost in a sea of vitriol. We built this movement on a desire and willingness to question and challenge old assumptions and truisms. We are in danger of becoming autocrats who would rather organise a pile-on than try to change systems. The life blood of feminism is in danger of becoming bile.
In a very personal, soul-baring essay titled "Everything is problematic", a McGill University student reflected on her descent into, and near-consumption by, radical Marxist crusader-activism:
Something has been nagging at me for a long time. There’s something I need to say out loud, to everyone before I leave. It’s something that I’ve wanted to say for a long time, but I’ve struggled to find the right words. I need to tell people what was wrong with the activism I was engaged in, and why I bailed out. I have many fond memories from that time, but all in all, it was the darkest chapter of my life.
I used to endorse a particular brand of politics that is prevalent at McGill and in Montreal more widely. It is a fusion of a certain kind of anti-oppressive politics and a certain kind of radical leftist politics. This particular brand of politics begins with good intentions and noble causes, but metastasizes into a nightmare. In general, the activists involved are the nicest, most conscientious people you could hope to know. But at some point, they took a wrong turn, and their devotion to social justice led them down a dark path. Having been on both sides of the glass, I think I can bring some painful but necessary truth to light.
There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. ...
First, dogmatism. One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. ...
Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup — believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. “I hate being around un-rad people,” a friend once texted me, infuriated with their liberal roommates. Members of the ingroup are held to the same stringent standards. Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. ...
Anti-intellectualism also comes out in full force on the anti-oppressive side of things. It manifests itself in the view that knowledge not just about what oppression, is like, but also knowledge about all the ethical questions pertaining to oppression is accessible only through personal experience. The answers to these ethical questions are treated as a matter of private revelation. In the academic field of ethics, ethical claims are judged on the strength of their arguments, a form of public revelation. Some activists find this approach intolerable.
Perhaps the most deeply held tenet of a certain version of anti-oppressive politics – which is by no means the only version – is that members of an oppressed group are infallible in what they say about the oppression faced by that group. This tenet stems from the wise rule of thumb that marginalized groups must be allowed to speak for themselves. But it takes that rule of thumb to an unwieldy extreme.
If I said the same thing about another context that isn’t so simple — when the correct opinion isn’t so obvious — I would be roundly condemned. But the example’s simplicity isn’t what makes it valid. People who belong to oppressed groups are just people, with thoughts ultimately as fallible as anyone else’s. They aren’t oracles who dispense eternal wisdom. Ironically, this principle of infallibility, designed to combat oppression, has allowed essentialism to creep in.
It is an ominous sign whenever a political movement dispenses with methods and approaches of gaining knowledge that are anchored to public revelation and, moreover, becomes openly hostile to them. Anti-intellectualism and a corresponding reliance on innate knowledge is one of the hallmarks of a cult or a totalitarian ideology.
Anti-intellectualism was the one facet of this worldview I could never fully stomach. I was dogmatic, I fell prey to groupthink, and I had a crusader mentality, but I was never completely anti-intellectual. Ever since I was a child, the pursuit of knowledge has felt like my calling. It’s part of who I am. I could never turn my back on it. At least not completely. And that was the crack through which the light came in. My love for deep reflection and systematic thinking never ceased. Almost by accident, I took time off from being an activist. I spent time just trying to be happy and at peace, far away from Montreal. It had been a long while since I had the time and the freedom to just think. At first, I pulled on a few threads, and then with that eventually the whole thing unravelled. Slowly, my political worldview collapsed in on itself.
The aftermath was wonderful. A world that seemed grey and hopeless filled with colour. I can’t convey to you how bleak my worldview was. An activist friend once said to me, with complete sincerity, “Everything is problematic.” That was the general consensus. Far bleaker was something I said during a phone call to an old friend who lived in another city, far outside my political world. I, like a disproportionate number of radical leftists, was depressed, and spent a lot of time sighing into the receiver. “I’m not worried about you killing yourself,” he said. “I know you want to live forever.” I let out a weak, sad laugh. “When I said that,” I replied, “I was a lot happier than I am now.” Losing my political ideology was extremely liberating. I became a happier person. I also believe that I became a better person.