Thursday 30 May 2013

A new kind of liberalism has to emerge

I listened to Bea Campbell and Laurie Penny on the Today programme with a sense of nostalgia. Of course, I felt, we all used to be like that – we all used to enjoy those endless, repeated, circular arguments about the nature of men and women.

This particular argument will have been recognised by all of us who remember the 1970s and the brand of feminism that emerged from there – it is the central tenet of small-L modern liberalism: that anybody can be anything. That all human difference, and gender differences, are down to cultural stereotyping.

It was a useful thing to think, and it drove the kind of tolerant society we have now (where it remains tolerant), but it overstated the case.

We should not be imprisoned by our differences, but of course there are variations between the genetic make-up and pre-dispositions of men and women, and many sub-classes of those too. We refuse to be categorised – that is the core belief of liberalism – but the categories are there, and you can see them under a microscope.

I am a product of my own time, as well as everything else, so I accept the premise. I believe that individual possibilities are unlimited.

But there is a hidden danger here, and it is a danger for liberalism too. If we recognise no limits, no communities, no ideals, no institutions, no relationships, no belief systems, no common moralities, then we fling ourselves into a whole new kind of tyranny – and we will be undefended against the intolerant forces of fundamentalism battering on the gate.

Liberalism has been a liberating, but – let’s face it – also a corrosive creed. It allied itself with the power of money in the nineteenth century, aware that money would corrode privilege and power wherever it was. The power of church and aristocracy crumbled and fell before it, seeking out American heiresses to prop it up.

The danger for liberalism is that the power of measuring everything in terms of money just carried on corroding.  So does the power of individual self-determination.

The truth is that human civilisation and well-being depends on us setting limits to ourselves - in relationships, in behaviour, even just on the London underground.  When we limit ourselves to seasonal fruit and veg, for example - rather than satisfying our craving for strawberries which have to be flown in for Christmas - we lead a better life, paradoxically.

Because, in the end, we are moral beings and our shared morality is stronger – or it ought to be – than any of the forces unleashed by the great wave of liberalism over the past two centuries, money and self-determination.

Because, in the end, the argument put forward by Bea Campbell has been overtaken by science and genetics.

This is a crisis for cultural liberalism, and it needs to be rescued by political Liberalism. We are not in an entirely relativist world, after all. There are many ways of looking at morality, but not all of them are valid. We need to be able to defend the tolerant society we have created – and on the grounds put forward by Karl Popper when it was last under attack: because the open society “sets free the critical powers of man” (he meant also the critical powers of women!).

For me, this is a new kind of liberalism, beyond the kind of lazy relativism that we have been living with, and because it emphasises what we share – our humanity. We are not just isolated, self-determining individuals, who can’t communicate with each other without the support of the institutions of political correctness.

We are human beings, with a shared genetic heritage, diverse enough to be ourselves, but with enough between us to learn together, to love and to defend our tolerant institutions.

And if all we can do, when that tolerance is threatened by machete-wielding terrorists is to interview spokespeople for the security industry like John Reid, or with breathless horror devote our front pages to the terrorists' demands – with hardly a word about what we are defending – well then, the achievements of liberalism will be seriously under threat.

Amazing, Bea Campbell and feminism to John Reid and machetes in a few deft sentences...


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

"the argument put forward by Bea Campbell has been overtaken by science and genetics."

Context, David, context! That interview with Campbell and Penny was a response to the earlier interview with Stephen Pinker who is a genetic determinist ultra - and criticised by many biologists for his reductionist interpretation of the evidence.

Are you positive that the science is telling us what Pinker suggests? Because books like Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender make a well argued case for the defence. I'm not qualified to referee this debate, but I do know that it isn't going to get decided on the Today programme, and I'm extremely conscious of how, for example, marketing, is getting more gender oriented not less.

I suspect the reasons for that have a lot more to do with making money (if selling pink pens aimed at women works, then Bic is going to exploit it) and a lot less to do with Stephen Pinker's pronunciations.

On what basis do you feel the case for a strong genetic based determinism of gender has been proven, and that all views to the contrary are all best left in the wishy-washy 70s? It seems like a more live debate today, not less of one.

Simon McGrath said...

"When we limit ourselves to seasonal fruit and veg, for example - rather than satisfying our craving for strawberries which have to be flown in for Christmas - we lead a better life, paradoxically."
How are we leading a better life? Our utility is lower because we are spending the money we would have spent on strawberries on something we want less. The farmer who would have sold us the strawberries is worse off as well.

Simon said...

Simon - we are ultimately adaptable species. If we eat strawberries all the time we adapt to doing so and they really don't make our lives much better. Personally I eat persimmons around Christmas, the Spanish ones are really nice around then but disappear in January. yesterday I saw a box of Sussex Raspberries in, first of the new season, they were not a touch on what they will be in a month, but they where delicious in a way they could not have been had I scoffed sub standard imports all through the colder months.

Utility is fine - I'm a utilitarian - but it takes more than mere consumption to maximize it.

David Boyle said...

James, I don't think the "case for a strong genetic based determinism of gender has been proven". Quite the reverse, in fact. But I don't think you can accept any more that we are born completely blank tabula rasa. I can't see how anyone can believe that any more.

Anonymous said...

How should we use our money? By spending it on the stuff with the most utility. How can you tell what stuff has the most utility? Why, it's what you spend the most money on. Sheesh!

If we leave the Panglossian economic perspective behind, did you see Jay Rayner's article stepping back from a full-on locally sourced food policy on the grounds that Life Cycle Analysis suggests that, e.g., Moroccan strawberries at Christmastime may actually have a lesser footprint than English strawbs in summer? (With the caveat that this ignores their aesthetic qualities.)

Squirrel Nutkin