The Impotent Liberal VI: Friends and Enemies, Research Time, 04/01/2017

When the influential political figures of your time are sociopathic
provocateurs of political and racist extremism for fun and profit,
a dedication to tolerance for a diversity of viewpoints won't be
quite adequate to deal with this mess.
Continued from last post . . . Like I said when I started this series more than a week ago, liberal democracy has a dangerous vulnerability.

The philosophy’s dedication to total freedom of thought, speech, and expression for all creates a space of tolerance for those who are dedicated to erasing freedom of thought, speech, and expression.

That old question of toleration of the intolerant plagues modern liberalism. I remember it being an issue going back as far as John Stuart Mill. Though I want to revisit his argument itself this year, I remember it basically as being the conviction that self-contradictory stances like arguing for intolerance on an omni-tolerant platform would fail to gain traction in the marketplace of ideas.

About that, John . . .

The free market of ideas was one of the original guiding ideas behind, for example, the founders of Twitter making their platform completely unrestrained. Free speech was sacrosanct, and must be protected at all costs.

The result? Twitter has become a training ground for white nationalists. And the company culture remains completely unwilling, unable, and incompetent at getting rid of them.

The culture of free speech without the restraint of moral respect has made the simple act of telling an obnoxious prick to shut up and go away into a form of censorship and oppression.

Lindy West wrote a deserved lambast of Twitter for its refusal and
inability to curb the Nazis among its user base. But if your approach
to politics is fundamentally about conflict avoidance, someone who
advocates tolerance loudly will be lumped into the same category
as the Nazis – someone who stokes conflict.
The principle of totally free speech rests on a premise that everyone is redeemable by reason and discourse. Reality has convinced me that this premise is not true. We may be able to influence a society as a whole in a progressive, freer direction. But there are many (not a lot, but enough) individuals who are utterly broken beyond repair.

They are racist, sexist conspiracy theorists who believe that the expression of another’s rights and freedoms actually oppress them. For example, men who believe that it is an act of anti-democratic censorship to prevent him from screaming rape threats and ethnic slurs at his family members.

So we have to take a key lesson from Laclau and Mouffe to heart – antagonism is central to politics. Opposition and conflict – rooted in the concepts that define fundamentally our very identities – are the processes that bind our societies together.

Because our societies are constituted through struggles. Human society develops by diversifying – left to our own devices, we create new kinds of identity. We differentiate ourselves.

Sometimes, those struggles are constructive. They build relationships between communities in a society that help inform each other and their wider neighbours about their mutual humanity.

But all these struggles come with conflict. Conflict between systemically or historically disadvantaged groups and a mainstream dominant class – black civil rights activists and whites who don’t even notice that anything is wrong.

"We have got onto slippery ice where there is
no friction and so in a certain sense the
conditions are ideal, but also, just because
of that, we are unable to walk. We want to
walk: so we need friction."
Ludwig Wittgenstein as political philosopher?
Terribly out of context, but maybe needed.
Conflict between different demographics who each have seemingly intractable problems – Christian fundamentalists and reproductive choice activists.

Conflict between groups disadvantaged in different ways as their various members succeed and fail to understand each other – the countless, messy, tense alliances between black, Muslim, gay, women, and trans activists.

Liberalism has an admirable utopian vision because it’s of a world without conflict. Where every fight is settled with calm, friendly, rational reasoning. It’s a beautiful ideal but profoundly realistic.

There’s an intense fear of conflict underlying this vision – the notion that any open antagonism in society will tear our communities apart. It’s not that this can never happen. But conflicts that rip societies to bloody, radioactive messes are rare and especially intense.

Most of the time, we all exasperatedly yell at each other about our differences in how we should live. Most of the time, that’s how we form our different identities. It’s how we each figure out and become who we are. Conflict isn’t just a means of breakdown and collapse – it’s the primal productive force of human thought, society, and morality.

A philosophy that can’t grapple with the reality of conflict will – no matter how many real political parties it inspires – always remain in some fundamental way in an imagined ideal. When the rubber hits the road, those ideals alone can’t go anywhere.

A utopia that can’t honestly and authentically understand the power and necessity of conflict will be as useful as frictionless shoes on ice.

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