Thursday, 25 April 2013

Unlocking the Liberal Mind - Part 5 - Entering The Liberal Matrix

It was good advice to a young person, "Always do what you are afraid to do." from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance
I think Emerson might well have added, "And always think what you are afraid to think, and say what you are afraid to say."

Thinking what they are afraid to think is something that liberals desperately need to do. They huff and puff self-righteously about respecting "otherness" and celebrating diversity but in their hearts they are so awfully scared of being themselves and thinking their own thoughts.

At the beginning of the last section I talked about The Matrix and how what we're dealing with here is like a consensual hallucination. This hallucination is maintained by the shared assumptions and perceptions of the people in the matrix. For those in the liberal matrix these are liberal perceptions and assumptions.

Take this example:
 "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."  [The United States Declaration of Independence - 1776]
This is a perfect expression of liberal thought and the United States has been the clearest example of liberal principles in action. I thoroughly approve of this declaration but, note the word "self-evident". What does that mean? Surely it means that we take it to be obvious, incontrovertible, an unquestionable assumption? With a moral and political doctrine you have to begin somewhere and the concept of fundamental "God-given" rights is a fine place to start. However, the idea that these are self-evident can easily lead us to assume that they are universally obvious, which they are not. Nor are they universally held or even admired.

For example, the Muslim nations were not at all happy with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights which was set out (along liberal principles) in 1948. In particular, the Muslims were unhappy about anything which contradicted Sharia, which was just about all of it. So, they made an alternative declaration, The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, in which they make various noises about the superiority of Islam, thus undermining the whole point of universality.

Contrast these two excerpts, one from the Universal Declaration, the other from the Cairo Declaration:
"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..."
"Reaffirming the civilising and historical role of the Islamic Ummah which God made the best nation that has given mankind a universal and well-balanced civilisation in which harmony is established between this life and the hereafter and knowledge is combined with faith; and the role that this Ummah should play to guide a humanity confused by competing trends and ideologies and to provide solutions to the chronic problems of this materialistic civilisation..." (my italics)
You can see immediately the different worldviews at work here: the liberal worldview is very like the Declaration of Independence above with equality, inalienable rights, and freedom. The Islamic statement is immediately divisive, talking of the best nation, "should guide humanity confused by competing trends" (i.e. eradicate every idea that contradicts Islam). The Cairo Declaration proceeds in a similar vein all the way through and in Article 24 states:
"All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'a."
So after going round the houses it concludes by saying that Shariah is the ultimate arbiter and anything which contradicts it is not permitted. That's more or less what they said at the outset too.

When reading Mark Durie's book The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude, and Freedom I was struck by how different the worldview of Islam is to that of Liberalism. I came to see how a very different worldview is constructed on a different set of foundations - in this case, the example and teaching of Muhammad. I came to see how a different moral matrix was formed in which things that I find abhorrent are treated as the expression of divine sanctities. The appalling judgements and punishments of Sharia may seem barbaric to us but to Muslims they are self-evidently true and just since they were made by Muhammad, the perfect example of conduct and the only source of truth.

Liberals find it extremely hard to face these differences because they are caught between their dominant Care foundation and their commitment to being non-Oppressive, and an awareness of facts that would make them feel much more hostile to Muslims if they were to allow them to enter their minds. Liberals protect themselves by projecting their own liberal assumptions onto alien people who hold very different views to their own.

I now want to look at how the liberal matrix came into being. I'm not claiming to be an expert on the history and development of liberalism (it's too vast a subject); what I will do is to give an overview of liberalism as I see it. I'm particularly interested in the psychological dimension of this development so that will be my focus. I will also be concentrating on the British experience as Britain was very influential throughout most of this period through the British Empire.

I'll be using the concepts outlined in the previous sections to help illuminate aspects of liberal thought. I will be making particular use of the concepts in Moral Foundations Theory, so to help make things a little less cumbersome let me make something clear: when I use the words Care, Harm, Fairness, Cheating, Loyalty, Betrayal, Authority, Subversion, Sanctity, Degradation with a capital letter I am referring to that moral foundation. It will save me from repeatedly writing Care/Harm Foundation etc.

The liberal worldview has not always existed. It is a relative newcomer to the world and, though highly successful for many societies, it has not become universal. How did it come into being?

Early Liberalism

There were various social currents which led to the break-up of medieval Christendom. The Renaissance brought a resurgence of classical civilisational cultural forms and the reassertion of classical philosophy and literature. It became possible to see medieval Christendom in some sort of historical context; a fact which made it less absolute. The Reformation brought Protestant subjectivisation to religion, by which I mean a person's relationship with God was ultimately their private affair and not something requiring an intermediary such as a priest. Conscience was the ultimate arbiter, the ultimate confessor. Freedom of conscience took root here and continued to proliferate in non-conformist religious movements. The development of democratic movements in the 17th century, often inspired by non-conformist elements paved the way towards the recognition of individual rights and universal suffrage, both cornerstones of the liberal edifice. The scientific approach to knowledge in the 17th century began to erode religious certainties and religious authority. This trend was reinforced by the growing freedom of conscience which laid the foundations for freedom of enquiry, both in science and other disciplines.

Where the medieval social order had been fixed, stratified according to a blend of religious and secular authorities, the early liberal era became much more fluid, particularly with the growing middle classes who took the opportunities provided by the loosening of social structures.

John Locke (1632-1704)
Liberalism was given a loose-knit theoretical foundation in the work of John Locke. His approach was pragmatic rather than dogmatic; he did not attempt to provide a coherent rational system but rather a new temper of thought which sought to reform society on the principles of personal liberty, the enjoyment of private property, freedom of conscience, rationality, a system of checks and balances in government to forestall the creation of tyrannies, and an empirical approach to knowledge which would seek progress through science, based on observation, and its application to human affairs. Its recipe for social change was not wholesale revolution but incremental changes that would be broadly agreed upon at each step. Its byword was tolerance and its most powerful weapon was freedom of speech, most famously expressed by Voltaire when he said, “I disapprove of what you say but will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.” In fact, Voltaire was responsible for taking Locke's ideas to France where he championed them.

In the first half of the 18th C. liberal society consolidated the gains of the Glorious Revolution and held back any resurgence of Catholicism in the form of the Jacobites (those still loyal to the catholic James II), culminating in the decisive defeat of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Notable during this period was a group known as the Kit-Cat Club. This was a group of influential Whigs who were determined to see the fruits of the Glorious Revolution realised. The Hanoverian Protestant kings (George I, II, III, IV) were also key agents in seeing the Protestant hold on power maintained.

Liberals during this period were acutely aware of the perils of religious fanaticism and unreason, as played out during the previous century, and therefore strove to develop a social order based on rationality and tolerance, and that included tolerance of free speech. Today's progressive liberals might find this rather difficult to understand since it was a form of free speech in which differences of opinion could be hotly contested without the risk of being made into a moral pariah for expressing a viewpoint deemed off limits.


I recently bought James Burnham's book "Suicide of the West". This book, written in 1964, is a brilliant analysis of liberal ideology. I can do no better than base my exposition of the liberal matrix on his analysis.

Burnham had also arrived at the idea that liberalism constituted a sort of disorder, "the liberal syndrome" in his words. He saw this syndrome at work in relation to the threat from communism whereas I see it at work in relation to Islam. The parallels are spooky, to say the least.

Like myself, he saw various social and philosophical currents feeding into the development of liberal thought. He also saw liberalism as a rather nebulous, unsystematised philosophical tendency rather than a highly logical system. He identified 19 key liberal ideas which I shall work through in the same order as he does. As Burnham said, these ideas are often not precisely defined, they express tendencies or presumptions rather than laws or precise hypotheses. These core ideas illuminate a lot of liberal priorities and also why certain thoughts are now considered taboo in liberal circles. He also analysed the way liberal priorities have changed during the past 300 years, which is very important.

The liberal ideas:
Although we call these things ideas, they are not generally clearly defined or articulated. They are more akin to articles of faith. They have more emotional power than pure intellectual strength. James Burnham puts this point extremely well,
Modern liberalism, for most liberals, is not a consciously understood set of rational beliefs, but a bundle of unexamined prejudices and conjoined sentiments. The basic ideas and beliefs seem more satisfactory when they are not made fully explicit, when they merely lurk rather obscurely in the background, coloring the rhetoric and adding a certain emotive glow. "Democracy", "equality", "popular government", "free speech", "peace", "universal welfare", "progress", are symbols that warm the heart; but the mind has a hard time getting through the smoke that surrounds them. (Suicide of the West p.145)
For example, the great slogan of the French Republic "Equality, Liberty, Brotherhood" begs the question of how one actually reconciles equality with liberty since they pull in opposite directions.


To be continued...

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