Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

What’s a liberal to believe any more?

The plea for a big tent

With political polarization at an all time high, some of us who historically considered ourselves further left than either of the parties will now have to rename where we stand. I’m still “left” in the sense that I wish the world had open borders and equitably distributed land, I wish we would go carbon neutral, I wish we could eliminate extreme poverty and wealth, and so on. But I’m not on board with eliminating police or curtailing freedoms or putting causes of identity above traditional principles of justice.

Some people are taking regular progressive ideas and making them so extreme that I can’t support them any more. Some of those extremes are:

  • Guilt by association – white people being called guilty because of the actions of their ancestors
  • Compelled speech – such as requiring that people use correct pronouns for others
  • Eliminating police and prisons to the extent that there is no penalty for hurting others
  • Reparations paid based on genetic markers or skin color
  • Pushing the responsibility for ones trauma triggers on everyone else
  • Punishing failures to be accessible – such as missing image descriptions for blind people
  • Canceling well known people for being “problematic”
  • Canceling powerless people for being “problematic”
  • Criticism of culture blending (using words, wearing clothes and adopting anything “from another culture”)
  • The idea that no one should ever be hurt or that life is not primarily suffering
  • Substituting oppression labels for credentials

With many of these things, the more hard and strict they are, the more “radical” and laudable they are intended to appear, as if we are competing to be the most strict and to drive out any nuance. If you follow these things to the limit, you lose compassion and would no longer be communicating. But I feel it is actually more radical and more difficult to listen and accept differences, than to fight, win, and cancel your opponents.

I suspect that the most marginalized among us are not participating in this kind of new-leftism, and actually it is people who are fairly high up on the social ladder who are doing this the most. And I further suspect that they are doing it because it is helping them rise higher on that ladder by pushing the rest of us down.

It’s especially ironic to silence all dissent when the underlying motive is putatively to include marginalized people. I would know if the new ideology was actually inclusive and empowering because I would feel its effects on me. The people with the loudest voices would be championing outsiders like me and giving all of us more of an equal voice. But I can tell that the ideology is not actually inclusive or empowering because every brush-up I have had with it has been in the form of an attack against me rather than support of me.

People who are more marginalized than me have essentially no hope of being heard over the battle cries. The extreme irony is represented by the person who is marginalized by being between worlds and labels – say half native American and half European, who’s bisexual – they get attacked the hardest because they represent the opposite of at least one thing being fought for by each of the sides.

So what’s an alternative? Things that are actually “radical” (if the word has any meaning left), and which I support include:

  • Upholding free speech and the other pillars of the Bill of Rights, even if people are shamed and criticized
  • Competitive and transparent markets
  • Restoring large parts of the earth to non-human use, including eliminating land ownership and migration barriers
  • Understanding there is no such thing as race; moving beyond race as the cornerstone of social order
  • Local direct democracy and many levels of governance all the way up to a world democratic government
  • Pluralism protected, whether integrated or in isolated communities
  • Including people (not just helping) because they are human, not because of certain limited identity labels

We need structure and compassion. The structure is fair market regulation, voting, transparency, blind justice – the dull, stabilizing things. The compassion is the welfare state, prioritizing health over defense, and listening to people who come from an uncomfortably different point of view. Liberals should be fighting for all this, not seeking attention for being the most extreme. We’re individuals, and we’re families, and we’re one world. All of us need to accept that we are different and make the tent big enough to hold all the contradictions. We need to do this because it’s the only way to win over the actual enemy. The actual enemy is not slight differences of liberal opinions; it is the authoritarian rigidity and white supremacy of the extreme right, which treats dissenting people as unworthy of a voice, or even unworthy of life.

Appendix A: The most problematic word

People say a component of a mechanical system is “problematic” when it is developing problems and threatens to break. We can use the word for elements of culture too (terminology, policy or arguments) when the thing is likely to provoke objections. Something is problematic if it is ill-conceived, or possibly well intentioned but not workable. Some people frequently label other people as problematic, which is… problematic. People are not broken, ill-conceived or non-workable. You might not agree with them but calling them problematic is both denying their humanity, and at the same time refusing to engage with the ideas in question. It’s an intellectual-sounding criticism that is just a veiled insult.

Appendix B: Identity politics

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