Liberal self-criticism

I frequently come across interesting articles and blog posts that trigger a desire to write, to explore for myself the issues they raise. This week, a long train journey gave me a rare opportunity to actually do so.

These two articles were posted on social media by friends of mine recently:
Ayaan to Liberals: Get Your Priorities Straight
The New Intolerance of Student Activism

The interview in the first article mainly focuses on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s views on reforming Islam. I’m particularly interested in what she says about western liberals being too politically correct: refusing to criticise foreign systems of oppression (such as sharia laws), in an apparently mistaken belief that it would be wrong to impose their cultural paradigms and conceptions of freedom on others around the world. They prefer instead to nit-pick the supposedly relatively trivial problems in their own societies.

I don’t really recognise this picture of a liberalism of excessive humility. I recently ruffled a few feathers in an online Sunday Assembly forum by daring to suggest that atheism as a “movement” had some issues with sexism, ableism and other ways of marginalising people. Apparently rationality is immune to such things and it is, frankly, disloyal of me to suggest otherwise. 😉

Clearly I am one of those Ayaan would criticise. She asserts that the oppression faced by various marginalised groups in the US is pretty minimal compared to what these groups face elsewhere, and focusing on it feeds a victim mentality. For example, feminism has done its job, and the issues faced by women in the west now amount to nothing more than an argument about who does the dishes.

The second article, in a similar defence of western society’s progress, accuses student activists of making mountains out of molehills after their university refused any longer to officially discourage cultural appropriation at Halloween. The writer argues that these students are upset not because of real marginalisation but because they have been sold an ideology of victimhood. That the way out of a sense of disempowerment is to stop reinforcing it by talking about it:

“Here’s one of the ways that white men at Yale are most privileged of all: When a white male student at an elite college says that he feels disempowered, the first impulse of the campus left is to show him the extent of his power and privilege. When any other students say they feel disempowered, the campus left’s impulse is to validate their statements. This does a huge disservice to everyone except white male students.”

Is this true? I think it depends on whether there is some significant, unacknowledged power differential, of which those who are privileged by that differential are blissfully unaware. If so, then surely it does need to be called out and addressed. Unconscious attitudes can’t be changed just by pretending they are not there.

Is it possible that people cling unhelpfully to a victim status? Yes. It’s possible for anyone to feel victimised in some way, and of course in excess it can be hugely problematic. But I’m not sure it makes sense to demand that a person’s disproportionate reaction is cut down to size before being willing to listen to them – willing to understand what needs to be understood. Especially since without that full understanding, it is not possible to judge what is and isn’t a disproportionate reaction anyway.

A counter to Ayaan’s rosy view of the west might say that we have chopped the most ugly tip of the iceberg off: at least women, gay people, and ethnic minorities all have appropriate legal rights now, and more physical safety than before. But the iceberg remains. The cultural ideas and attitudes resulting from the legacy of domination of one group over another are stubborn, despite society believing that it has fully moved on. They still cause real pain and real disadvantage, and the threat of worse things reappearing is ever-present.

It’s all about perspective. Maybe it’s not very helpful to loudly demand other cultures chop the tip off their own iceberg, when not only does that lack the humility of recognising that we have a long way to go ourselves (and that we don’t exactly have a great track record of exporting brilliant ideas to the rest of the world), but also, it may just reinforce another power differential – the one that gives the western voice such volume in the world anyway…

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This entry was posted in feminism, Humanism, moral issues, social justice, Sunday Assembly and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Liberal self-criticism

  1. Wendy Floyd says:

    I always enjoy your writing. You make me think, and I treasure that.

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