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What Liberal Rhetoric Obfuscates

January 5, 2009

pluralismI think I laughed out loud the first time I saw the cover for William Connolly’s Pluralism (Duke, 2005). The message sent by the photo of differently sized, shaped, and colored eggs all side by side in the same egg carton is clear: why can’t we all get along? Presumably, if brown and white eggs and big and small eggs can get along, then so can blacks and whites and Christians and Muslims.

I won’t comment on Connolly’s thesis (it has been too long since I read it), but I will comment on the John Stuart Millian idea implied in the picture—the idea that we can all get along if we stick to principles like “to each his own” or “different strokes for different folks” or “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.” Of course we’ll also have to invoke the harm principle: you can do what you want—as long as you’re not hurting someone.

Unfortunately, what aren’t pictured here are the eggs that didn’t make it into the shot: the square eggs, the really big eggs, and the leaking eggs. Here are the questions they have:

  • Who got to determine that the slots would be round instead of square?
  • Who got to determine what the packaging is made of?
  • Who got to determine the size of the slots?
  • From the big eggs: Isn’t it unfair that the smaller eggs have more leg room than the bigger eggs?
  • And if the bigger eggs were compensated, the smaller eggs would ask: Isn’t it unfair that the bigger eggs have more space than we do?

If we frame our discussion with “to each his own” and the harm principle, these questions will never make it onto the agenda. The big eggs’ objection is not that the small eggs are harming them in some way—their objection is that the shared space is set up in a way that benefits the small eggs more than it benefits them.

When thinking about pluralism, I think we should always foreground structural concerns:

  • How should our shared space or social structure be organized?
  • How are some groups or individuals disproportionately impacted by specific structures?
  • Who doesn’t fit at all?
  • Who gets to determine how our space should be organized?

The conservative Christian objections to teaching evolution in the schools or extending additional rights to gays and lesbians can’t really be understood well in terms of the freedom/harm binary. They’re not really claiming “harm,” they’re objecting to the fact that the shared space—in which they have to live—is being organized by someone other than them.

The secularist eggs aren’t harming the conservative Christian eggs, but the secularist eggs are getting to decide what the egg carton looks like. As Cynthia Burak says in Sin, Sex, and Democracy:

I can say with complete honesty that I know of no move afoot in the LGBT rights movement to deprive nonhomosexuals of civil rights, convert homosexuals to homosexuality, or prohibit the free exercise of religion. Of course, unlike many of my peers, I understand that these assurances are all beside the point. Homosexuals and transgender people are dangerous not because we intend or aspire to do anything to anyone but because we are more emboldened than ever to live openly and without apology, to call into question the settled beliefs of our fellow citizens, and to alter historical patterns of the distribution of rights and status. Make no mistake: these are radical acts, and it is understandable that those challenged by them are dismayed, disgusted, anxious, angry, and determined. (136)

In my opinion, we should abandon the superficial and obfuscating freedom/harm rhetoric and deploy another discourse. What matters to me is not whether or not gays and conservative Christians are interfering with each others’ freedoms—what matters is that the social structure is currently set up in a way that disproportionately benefits heterosexuals.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2009 4:22 pm

    Your egg carton analogy reminds me of Terry Eagleton’s point about the dead-end politics liberalism; to each his own means that one cannot claim with any authority that one value or one idea of the good life, such as the democratic control of the economy, is more valuable or superior to another value or another idea of the good life, such as eating yourself to death.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 5, 2009 9:04 pm

    I think a lot of liberals would deny it, but I think you’re basically right. You can see it in the way they behave. “Imposing your views on others” is apparently the greatest crime for a liberal, which causes them to turn a blind eye to a great deal of exploitative practices that participants “voluntarily” enter into. Some will even go so far as to defend female genital mutilation as the right of another group to their own practices, etc.

  3. January 6, 2009 9:24 am

    Although at the other extreme you get yer liberal imperialists, especially when dealing with gender issues, be it the notion that war in Afghanistan is necessary to save Afghan women or that any woman wearing a headscarf has obviously been forced or coerced by a man – cos you know if they were truly free to choose, they’d choose to look just like middle class white liberals. A less aggressive version of this is what Stanley Fish calls ’boutique multiculturalism’; it’s fine to accept superficial differences in things like food and furniture and fashion – the basic liberal choice between coke and pepsi – but any more substantial differences are condemned.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 6, 2009 11:00 am

    “If they were truly free to choose, they’d choose to look just like middle class white liberals.” Right on. I have such a hard time getting my students to see that the things they desire are not the things everyone else desires.

  5. Lynne permalink
    February 23, 2010 4:29 pm

    >I have such a hard time getting my students to see that the things they desire are not the things everyone else desires.

    Doesn’t that depend on what “things” we’re talking about? The idea that the mind is just a blank slate has been debunked long ago. There is such a thing as human nature. Except in extreme circumstances, we all have a survival instinct. We all have an innate sense of fairness (see game theory studies on “spite”, etc.). We all have to do a balancing act between our natural tendency toward competition and our natural tendency toward social bonding and cooperation. We all are incapable of withstanding perpetual and unending pain, combat or sensory deprivation. We all have some need for autonomy, although how much does depend somewhat on the individual and that individual’s culture. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that there are some similarities in the things we all want (food, shelter, safety, security, autonomy, social ties) and what we don’t want (death, pain, suffering, oppression) even though there may be cultural and individual differences in what sort of trade offs we are willing to make.

    We should also be aware that some individuals within a particular culture might not necessarily agree with all the cultural practices that get forced upon them. So for example, when people say, don’t worry about female genital mutilation because that’s just their culture – they fail to take into account the feelings of dissidents.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 23, 2010 8:20 pm

    I’m inclined to agree in part: we DO all get hungry. However, we don’t get hungry for the same sorts of things. People don’t just get hungry; they desire particular dishes. It gets messy very quickly.

    I don’t agree that we have natural tendencies toward competition and social bonding—especially the competition. See, for instance, my recent post on the Hobbes and the origin myth of capitalism.

    But more to the point: the lack of basic needs (food, shelter, etc.) is not generally what liberalism is supposed to solve. John Stuart Mill didn’t recommend the harm principle because he thought it would help with starvation—he thought it would help with other, more subtle types of social conflict.

    I agree about FGM: there is not one monolithic culture where everyone consents. But what about the ones who do consent—and more to the point, actively desire to consent? Liberalism doesn’t give us any language to talk about that in a sophisticated manner.

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