Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Liberal dilemmas

The fifth layer constitutes a difficult terrain for liberals, interspersed as it is with some ethical and ideological quagmires. Its hallmarks are confusion and uncertainty, precisely because it attempts to amalgamate incompatible sections of the other layers. The incorporation of group diversity and uniqueness into the liberal lexicon has introduced a particularistic counter-current that has partly eaten away at liberalism’s former—and challengeable—pretensions to universalism. One could, of course, regard the current emphasis on the uniqueness of groups as an expansion of Mill’s insistence on the uniqueness of individuals, or at least of some individuals. With Mill, however, that wholly attractive diversity was not intended to revel in cultural diversity but to protect eccentric individuals whose cultivation could enrich social life. Fifth layer liberals are more hesitant. They are aware that, while much social diversity may indeed be celebrated, some has to be eyed warily. Notably, this new layer illustrates the typical, disruptive, and messy features of present-day liberalism, exemplified in liberal perplexity over recent high-profile debates. Those include arguments over female Muslim head coverings (free religious choice or social coercion?); the caricaturing of religious holy men (freedom of speech or respect for fundamental religious sensitivities?); the persistent unequal status of women in many social spheres (gender oppression or deeply engrained cultural codes?); or the introduction of gay marriages (freedom of lifestyles or affront to religious and traditionalist beliefs?). The tensions between such liberal particularisms and liberal universalisms would have seemed unreasonable to pre-1914 new liberals, who professed faith in the harmonious and organic unity of a liberal society.

The markings on the previous sheets thus begin to show dissonance with those on the new top sheet. Individual and group rights were compatible as long as there was only one group—society as a whole, and as long as that society was infused with the idea of harmony between the parts and the whole, as postulated by the fourth layer. But in a society of many groupings, what should happen if one group identity clashes with another? Or if discriminatory practices that liberals considered illiberal, based say on patriarchy or on belief, took place inside those groups? Did the old first layer right to private space extend to groups who would consequently be entitled to do as they pleased inside their own domain? Could liberals tolerate the illiberalism of group practices in their midst solely in the name of diversity and group self-determination? And what would the appropriate reaction be if some groups—for example, some indigenous or aboriginal people—engaged in special demands to have the weight of their voices increased, in view of their past and present invisibility, employing the discourse of victimhood?

Moreover, what if two groups picked and chose different liberal principles from the multilayered tapestry that liberals have woven? What if anti-abortionist pro-lifers push back the right to life to include foetuses at any stage of development? And pro-choicers insist on women’s right to decide on what happens inside their bodies, relying on liberty and self-determination—all available in layer one—or on privacy as manifested in layer three (as did the US Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade 1973)? Such indeterminacy and inconclusiveness cut liberalism down to size as its analysts recognize that, like any ideology, its conceptual arrangements cannot offer decisive and permanent solutions to major social and political issues when conflict among them seems intractable.

Liberalism developed as a theory outlining relations between the state and its members. With the increasing blurring of distinctions such as public/private, governmental/non-governmental, civilized/abusive mass electronic discourse, and with the emergence of ‘private’, segmented, or circumscribed publics who insist on their exclusivity, liberalism faces deep problems concerning its individuality-enabling and harm-forestalling framework assumptions. An ideology whose principles preclude unambiguous answers may reflect the state of knowledge that we have, and even current understandings of reasonableness, but it does not offer the assured conclusiveness that most ideologies fallaciously flaunt, and in which liberalism has joined during its more self-confident phases.

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