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

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Deliberate and inadvertent discrimination

Liberalism has its own silences and misrecognitions. If other ideologies often blatantly and deliberately tell a misleading tale about liberalism and its beliefs, liberals have themselves been guilty of walking around with blinkers and refusing to confront, or optimistically ignoring, crucial issues in their midst. Questions of race and ethnicity have only slowly crept into their field of vision in fifth layer liberalism. Liberal responsibility for their neglect cannot be overlooked, particularly in an ideology deeming itself to be socially aware and responsive. Even now liberalism exhibits a colour blindness it cannot completely shake off and its self-proclaimed inclusionary concern for the general interest has not eliminated an exclusionist, predominantly white, racial patriarchy.

Gender issues have been problematic for liberals in their own right, despite an earlier awareness of some of the problematics involved in the political standing of women, as illustrated by Mary Wollstonecraft. Mill, together with Harriet Taylor, his wife, was an early advocate of equal political rights—and votes—for women, insisting that ‘the inequality of rights between men and women has no other source than the law of the strongest.’ But the attainment of formal and legal equality that women’s enfranchisement brought in its wake has been attacked by feminists on two grounds. First, it was too superficial and partial a reduction of inequality, as economic and cultural gender divides still obtained. Second, a theme common among recent feminists, it did little more than turn women politically into men, absorbing them into the already existing category of a citizen based on masculinist cultural characteristics, without any sensitivity towards constructive gender differences. That type of gender blindness doomed liberalism to fall short of feminist aspirations. Its historical association with contracts carried on to marriage with potentially oppressive practices. It was accused of falling prey to glib dichotomies in which men inhabited the public domain of mind, rationality, and universality, while women occupied the private domain of body, emotion, and particularity. Instead, feminists approached radical Marxist and postmodernist ideologies for more effective and more ethical solutions. Perspectives from outside the liberal camp tend, though, to exaggerate liberal ill-intent and incompetence, and some feminists have stereotyped all liberalisms with some of its early 20th century incarnations.

All these instances demonstrate how an ideology such as liberalism can falter the moment it pursues one of its core values or concepts in an extreme way, disregarding the others. Legal propriety without tolerance or regard for the general interest leads to institutional brutality. Unconstrained markets and wealth accumulation without social justice lead to profiteering and new unregulated concentrations of power. The search for civilized standards of living without democratic sensitivity leads to a remote elitism. The belief in rational consensus and national homogeneity without alertness to diversity and difference leads to social exclusion. The inclusion of women without recognizing the continuation of patriarchy by other means has proved inadequate. Any one liberal value on its own is no guarantee of liberalism and is more likely to undermine it. Liberalism as an ideology always has recourse to a set of values. It holds its various components in mutual check, balancing them out while allowing for flexible permutations as long as they are not self-destructing.

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