With critics like Ismail Lagardien about, it’s not so obvious that political parties need to spend time defending themselves, rather than simply pointing to negative opinion pieces about them while trying to resist guffawing. This is because while much of what Lagardien says contains a kernel of truth, this contribution is hyperbolic – and prolix – enough that it would only entrench existing biases rather than change any minds.
If you ask 3 people what they understand “liberalism” to mean, you’ll likely get three different answers. Even after name-checking some canonical figure – Mill, Berlin, Rawls, Kymlicka, etc. – we’d still be left with confusion, thanks to now being able to argue about the how “classical” liberal tenets differ from “social democrat” ones.
So, I’m not going to try define liberalism in general at all, but rather offer a few remarks on what I understand it to be, or rather what I mean when I identify as a liberal. If you want to read a good summary of the theoretical debates alluded to above, I’d recommend the political philosophy page on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
I’m by and large a “classical” liberal, who takes a utilitarian approach to resolving any inconsistencies that may arise, such as when trying to reconcile individual freedoms with the responsibilities of the state to care for everyone’s interests equally.
To pick a trivial example of such an inconsistency, I’m happy to be taxed higher than some other people as a way to cross-subsidise those with more material wants (which maximises equality overall), even though some might think it “unfair” to one person to pay a higher proportion of tax from their salaries than others do.
But there are more tricky examples than this, of course – liberals typically value freedom of speech, which raises the question of whether it’s consistent with liberalism (or a contradiction) for a (allegedly) liberal party such as the Democratic Alliance to eject a member for sharing positive sentiments about apartheid monsters.
I’d say it is consistent (whether or not it was the correct decision), because individual freedom to speak might sometimes be trumped by some broader conception of liberty (in other words, it’s not necessarily the case that freedom of speech be treated as an absolute, without exceptions), and for the pragmatic reasons offered in the first example.
You can be a liberal without being a free speech fundamentalist, in other words (at least on my definition – yours might differ).
A second, less controversial way of resolving this apparent contradiction would be to argue that if you voluntarily agree to a certain code of conduct, as was the case in the example in question, you can be held accountable for violations of that code even if there’s a general commitment to free speech. (Not to mention, it’s not a free speech restriction in the strict sense anyway, in that the person in question can say what she likes, just not in specific and pre-specified contexts.)
Enough preliminaries, except to note that I’m certainly not a libertarian, contrary to the impression I’d apparently inadvertently created for one student who asked me about it on Twitter the other day. I certainly think that there are occasions where freedom overall is certainly maximised by compromising individual freedoms.
Ensuring freedom from undue or unjustified interference is certainly constitutive of my understanding of liberalism – the difficulty, of course, is knowing when the interference is justified or not.
Being judged as an individual is also an essential element of liberalism. This means that a person shouldn’t be assumed to have certain views or a certain character by virtue of what race, sex, gender, nation and so forth they happen to belong to – you get to define yourself (including the freedom to define yourself into one or more of the groups I’ve just listed.)
As Mill put it in On Liberty, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way” – and while I’d quibble with the “only” in that quote, I do think this one of the most accurate descriptions of what lies at the heart of liberalism.
But because others can get in the way of us pursuing our own good, we’re justified in implementing certain constraints on behaviour. Equality, for example, sees legal expression and reinforcement in concepts like the rule of law, and equality before the law.
And, even though the scope for governments explicitly telling us what to do needs to be very carefully limited, and justified by secular and universal concerns, rather than partisan ones, I’ve got no problem with governments “nudging” us (an idea I defended at length in a previous post).
While many of the points above need further defence, my objective here is to provide a starting point, laying out what strikes me as fundamental to my understanding of liberalism: freedom, equality and self-determination. I’ll hopefully unpack this more in future posts.
But to conclude, I’d like to reiterate that you’d rarely find me defending any given principle as an absolute. Instead, it seems more useful to have strong commitments to clear guiding principles, only violable with very good justification.
There’s perhaps an argument for saying this about any election, but to my mind, the upcoming national elections in 2014 will be South Africa’s most interesting since our first (democratic) election in 1994. Various factors align to make it so – the ANC’s corrupt leadership, and President Zuma’s apparent inability or unwillingness to do anything but enrich himself; the untested effects of Ramaphosa’s re-emergence as a political force; the reaction of a nation to scandals (Limpopo textbooks) and murderous police (Marikana); and whether these (and other) factors will lead to mass apathy and a low voter turnout, or to more votes being cast for the official opposition.
And that’s where another complication can be introduced – one that I intend to be the topic of this post – namely the identity of the Democratic Alliance, and whether liberalism can accommodate concepts like ubuntu, or be sympathetic to “African-ness” (whatever either of those terms might mean). In her Sunday column for the City Press, Carien du Plessis asked:
Rather than splitting hairs on whether its leaders are true blue liberals or not, the party would do well to think about how its version of liberalism could include rather than reject Africanness and concepts that are a hot sell among a South African electorate craving some feel-good ubuntu.
Otherwise the DA could be wandering in an elitist wilderness forever.
The “splitting hairs” she refers to is contained in a sequence of op-ed’s and blog posts by Mmusi Maimane (DA national spokesperson), Gareth van Onselen (previously communications head at the DA, then executive director for innovation and projects, and now resigned from party leadership) and Gavin Davis (current communications director for the DA, but writing in his personal capacity). If you want to read them, go here, here and here.
I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to contest whether or not leaders are true blue liberals, if we believe that there’s something important about being one, and can agree on what liberalism is. Van Onselen has strong views on what liberalism is, and on how the DA should compete for the flourishing of liberal ideas in South African politics. Du Plessis, in saying that the party should think about how it could include African-ness and ubuntu, is making the implicit claim that liberalism can include those concepts. Well, the DA’s “version” of liberalism can, at least – and it’s exactly what this version should be that van Onselen is concerned with, arguing that these are essentially illiberal ideas.
So, I think a legitimate case can be made that if we were to foreground (or “include”, however we end up defining that) these concepts, this would involve some sort of betrayal of classical liberal values. For some, that would be a good thing, for others a bad one. And we can argue about whether that makes the party no longer liberal, or liberal-lite, or whatever.
But let’s be careful of thinking this a crucial step in defining the nature of the party, or rather, let’s acknowledge the fact that the party hasn’t been a classically liberal one for quite some time now. To pick only some recent examples, some would say that a liberal party should not bow to religious pressure and act as a respondent in a court case aimed at the revocation of a liquor license on the grounds that booze would be sold next to a mosque. Some would say that our provincial transport MEC didn’t sound very liberal when threatening to confiscate the car keys of sleepy drivers, and when asked if this was legal, saying “I have no idea, but I don’t care either”. There was Helen Zille’s suggestion that she’d like to make the wearing of condoms law in non-monogamous sexual intercourse, or Jack Bloom’s claim that “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen” – which, while not obviously illiberal, certainly makes human agency and freedom seem subservient to some powerful force in the clouds.
So in summary, this might in the end be hair-splitting, because the party might have stopped being liberal a while back now. And perhaps van Onselen knows this, and is now saying things (at least, publicly) that he’s been thinking for some time. And, maybe, we can understand his concern at what Maimane had to say, in that Maimane is likely to be an increasingly influential force within the party, and thus serves as a bellwether for the ideological stance of the party in 2014 and beyond, where the party might start openly embracing illiberal ideas, rather than having to suffer through occasional bouts of illiberality from one of more of its leaders.
Maimane’s comments do matter, as do any prominent DA official’s comments on topics like these, because they indicate not only ideological direction, but also the extent to which a party is willing to compromise, and how honestly it’s willing to do so. For instance, Maimane could have chosen to say: “liberalism cannot include collectivist ideas like ubuntu, and in this respect, I consider liberalism flawed”. Or, he could argue that this version (to go back to du Plessis’ suggestion) of liberalism is more suited to a people who do have strong collectivist tendencies – or even that freedom has to include the freedom to be part of a collective, even if that seems counterintuitive to some.
But van Onselen is right in pointing out that Maimane does himself seem to believe in the idea that “being African” means something, and he also seems to think it should mean something – not just to him, but to “Africans”. And that is illiberal, because if Maimane restricted himself to the purely descriptive claim that “many people in Africa seem to believe X” or the more personal “I happen to believe or feel X” there would be less of an issue, in that self-identification is part of what liberalism is about. Prescribing versions of identity, or (at least) presenting them as normative, runs counter to self-identification, and thus to liberalism.
The problem, though, is that as much as you’d be free to think of yourself as an African, or to subscribe to something like ubuntu (on Inside Politics, van Onselen and I have previously discussed what that concept means) within a broad liberal framework, the DA don’t create the impression of welcoming those sorts of self-identification – and this is the real problem, and has been since the party came into existence (and before – I remember having the same debates at PFP Youth meetings in the 1980’s, and I’m sure they were discussed long before then too).
(An aside: on Twitter, van Onselen stated that the “ideas themselves are illiberal“, so he’d presumably dispute the paragraph above. I’d argue that whether African-ness was illiberal or not would depend entirely on what it meant, for you, seeing as we’re now talking about self-identification rather than someone else’s label. If African-ness means some sort of sentimental attachment to the continent, for example, calling that illiberal seems to me as false as it would be to call my identification as a Manchester United fan illiberal”.)
As I was saying, these debates have gone on for some time. To my mind, this is the same debate that Ryan Coetzee (former and current all sorts of things, but at the time, writing as CEO of the DA) was talking about in a 2006 strategy document where he noted (in a passage explicitly framed as generalisation) that:
all South Africans don’t share the same concerns about what might be called “identity issues” … white South Africans don’t have the same attachment to the cultural heritage of black South Africans – indeed black South Africans have always felt that their culture is regarded as inferior by whites, and that by extension they themselves are regarded as inferior.
The DA in 2013 looks vastly different to the DA of 2006, partly because it has taken the lead on initiatives (street renaming) and policy (basic income grant) that demonstrate a commitment to redressing history’s injustices rather than reinforcing some “neoliberal” caricature of wiping the slate clean, and letting people compete in some Darwinian pure market economy.
But if we say things like “ubuntu and African-ness are illiberal”, or that Mmusi Maimane is being unfaithful to the tenets of liberalism in trying to define those concepts, an impression of hostility to that “cultural heritage” would be created. You might think it wrong that people perceive it as hostile – perhaps preferring that the argument be had on the facts, rather than on the emotive impact of pointing out those facts – and I would agree that it’s not ideal that we can’t dispassionately consider the merits of these competing views.
Unfortunately, humans – and politics – have never been only about the facts, or about rationality. Many of you might think the facts have even less to do with political argument than rhetoric does, and I’d be reluctant to disagree. So, when we ask if liberalism can “accommodate” these concepts, even if the answer turns out to be “no”, we should be concerned about how we get to that answer.
Asserting that it is the correct answer in a way that dismisses competing views as a nonsense can do little but feed in to a stereotype about liberals and liberalism, namely that they are and it is un-African. The concept is flawed, and it’s to my mind a nonsense, especially when prescribed to others.
But nobody will listen to your arguments as to why that might be the case if they think you’re insulting them, or even worse, telling them what they should believe – or ironically, even perhaps who they should be.
As submitted to Daily Maverick
Arguments with self-described liberals, feminists and various other sorts of people were part of the motivation for my column last week, in which I argued that it’s always illegitimate to dismiss an argument simply because it’s expressed by someone you regard as speaking from privilege. In summary, the person whose view you’re dismissing might be simultaneously privileged as well as correct.
The other side of this particular coin involves the labels we ascribe to ourselves. While people sometimes preface claims and opinions with formulations like “as a liberal, …”, I wonder whether that’s typical or whether we instead believe the things we do regardless of (or even, despite) those labels. Jonathan Haidt’s provocative (albeit not entirely convincing) paper “The emotional dog and its rational tail” (pdf) makes the case for (moral) reasoning always being after-the-fact justification for something we already believe, rather than an account of why we believe that thing. For political labels, I worry that we have the causal relationship back-to-front in a similar sort of way.
Namely, that instead of using a label like “liberal” to describe or summarise our general stance, the label ends up dictating the positions we feel we should take. Instead of thinking about and debating each issue on its merits, we instead assume that the one corresponding to our label is the correct one.
If there’s something to this, then just as it would be wrong to dismiss someone else’s argument because of their privilege, it would surely also be wrong to take up a position simply because a group you identify with tends to hold that position. To put it more simply: Whatever ideology or political stance you have should really be a general description of how you view a certain political or epistemic terrain, rather than a set of instructions for how to interpret the evidence. The evidence can speak for itself, and we might simply corrupt it when ideology intrudes on interpretation.
On this view, it would be wrong to say “as a liberal, I think that x should be the case”. Instead, we’d say things like “I believe that x should be the case, and it’s therefore somewhat accurate to describe me as a liberal”. Because if you think liberalism superior to some other political stance, your primary reason should be that you think liberalism gets certain positions right where other views do not.
In other words, liberalism is a summary term for someone who holds certain positions. If we instead start treating liberalism as a binding set of instructions for how we should make up our minds and which positions we should hold, we’re handing some of the responsibility for thinking about things over to dictionaries, spin-doctors and sometimes hysterical media, all of whom play a part in re-defining how these words are deployed in our various debates.
The essential problem is that the perspective we tend to hold or usually hold isn’t guaranteed to be the best one on every issue. It’s partly because some positions borrow or inherit virtue that they can get away with bestowing the impression of respectability on a claim. Saying “as a patriot, I believe that South Africans should care about the country’s image abroad” gets you part of the way to persuading, because who would want to sound unpatriotic by interrogating you? What you might have gone on to say could have been utter nonsense – but we won’t ask, and you won’t need to tell.
As much as it is oversimplification to say “as a liberal, I believe that free speech trumps dignity”, it’s nevertheless one of those useful oversimplifications, where the reasons for its evolution are perfectly sensible (clichés and stereotypes are sometimes entirely accurate, after all). These devices are timesavers, and also help save us from having to constantly repeat old arguments. But just as it’s only a signal for caution rather than a disqualification when someone who is privileged expresses views on poverty, or when a wealthy Republican male expresses views on women’s rights, we should also be cautious of justifying our political views via these labels. It’s not wrong, but it can be lazy – and eventually, make us more prone to error.
Not only do we save time with these devices, but they also help give us something to say and a way of making our interventions sound more authoritative. As I’ve argued in the past, the urge to have something to say can be part of the problem, because we forget that not only is agnosticism okay – it’s often the most rational position. You’re not forced to have an opinion, and forming one can be the first in a chain of errors.
Reclaiming intellectual humility is essential for re-invigorating public debate, whether on nationalisation or on Nkandla. This doesn’t mean that we can’t hold strong convictions. But whether you’re a liberal or whatever else, it’s the argument and not the label that should change our minds. In other words, I’m speaking of the possibility that we might sometimes forget the difference between the convictions we hold strongly for good reasons, and those we hold strongly mostly because, well, we and others “like us”… hold them strongly.