The term “liberal” is wide-ranging and potentially confusing. This is unsurprising considering that the label ‘liberal’ is culturally specific to the extent where it is often understood to refer to leftists in the US, centrists in the UK and rightists in Australia. However, here, by “liberal,” I am referring to a clear set of values associated with liberalism which has a long intellectual history of being defined in opposition to illiberalism: that is to the restrictive, unfair and unequal treatment of individuals and to authoritarianism in all its manifestations. Liberals in this sense, whilst otherwise ideologically and politically diverse, are united in their rejection of authoritarianism, in their commitment to consistently supporting equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality or religion and in their defense of the freedom to hold any views and express them without fear of punishment. People who do not ascribe to these values are not whom I am describing as “liberal.” These values are underpinned by the concept of the “marketplace of ideas” or what Jonathan Rauch dubbed “liberal science” in which knowledge advances and moral progress is made by the free and open exchange of ideas between people with very different ideas.
It is of interest, then, that among those whose values are defined primarily as “liberal” in this broad sense, there is a clearly discernible scale of attitudes and approaches towards engaging with other ideas. This stems from the significance and weighting that individuals give to the concept of freedom. Is the freedom to believe and say anything at all the paramount liberal ethical issue to the extent that what is believed and said becomes almost irrelevant? Or is that freedom accepted as an inviolable principle before moving on to the more pressing liberal concern to engage ethically with the ideas whose expression it enables? Liberals can fall anywhere on a scale in weighting these two aspects resulting in a laissez-faire cultural libertarianism at one end and a moralistic call-out culture at the other.
Liberals who take cultural libertarianism to an extreme can often seem as though they believe freedom of belief, choice and expression to be the only issue of concern and what is being said and done, provided it impacts on no-one else’s freedom, is none of their concern. This is a coherent position, but it does little to advance the liberal goal of producing knowledge and improving society. The potential for ethical evaluation does not end at “Did you choose to do or say this freely and did anyone try to stop you?” The liberal principle of the marketplace of ideas depends not only on being able to express a wide range of ideas and engage with, challenge, qualify, critique, refute and reject those of other people but also actually doing that.
Those liberals at the far end of the culturally libertarian scale have a tendency to argue strongly and well for the right to freedom of speech and they point out, with clear and incisive arguments, that supporting the right to express an idea does not indicate support for that idea and that bad ideas are best defeated by better ones. They also have an unfortunate tendency to leave it at that. The question “Why should people be allowed to say that?” is an important one to answer but so too is “Why did you say that? What is your argument? What evidence supports it? What ethical justification?” The answer “Because I have the right to” is not an ethical rationale for thinking, saying or doing anything. “Why did you say same-sex marriage is bad?” is not answered by “because I have freedom of speech” and “Why do you defend gender-specific modesty codes?” is not resolved with “Because I believe in freedom of belief.” There are simply more issues of concern to liberals in what others believe and say than whether they have the right to believe or say it.
Liberals on this end of the scale need to be careful to avoid reducing all their principles to one and seeming to support or lend validity to ideas and people who are profoundly illiberal by failing to challenge or disagree with them. While liberalism is and should be a tolerant and open set of principles, it should not encompass illiberal ideas nor ally itself with illiberal public figures. We need to have principles and uphold them consistently and with integrity.
Call Out Culture
At the other end of the liberal scale are those who address the ethical implications of speech and beliefs in great detail but tend to do so in highly moralistic and combative terms. They want, not only to strongly disagree with an idea but to “call out” the holder of it and hold them to account. Unlike the authoritarian ideologues on the left, they will not call for no-platforming, censorship or firing of any individual and, in fact, stand strongly against this, but their narrowness, purity testing and combative attitude can be very chilling to productive conversation. The certainty of one’s own rightness is the prerequisite to a “call out” mentality which allows an individual to feel confident to call others to account for their perceived moral failure.
Liberals who engage in this kind of “call-out culture” have often researched very thoroughly and thought very seriously about the positions they take, and they argue for them well. This unfortunately leads them to regard everyone else who considers themselves liberal but has not reached the same conclusions with suspicion. This can produce a very hostile atmosphere in which other people with very similar values can feel afraid to speak, become defensive because their very moral character is being impugned or prepare themselves to fight back in the same condemnatory way. This is exhausting. It also leads to the forming of tribes over small differences which could have been disagreed on but set aside at times to work together for one of many shared causes. Because of this, within a “call out” mentality, a person is often judged not for their own ideas but for the group they are perceived to belong to or the company they occasionally keep.
Liberals on this end of the scale need to consider whether they are undermining their own aims and driving support away. For freedom of speech to be effective in producing knowledge and advancing human wellbeing, it is not enough for people to be protected from prosecution or firing because of their ideas. They need to be neither too nervous to speak nor motivated to defend bad ideas to the death because their entire moral worth as a human being has been bound up in them.
Getting a Balance
Trying to find a balance between these two poles is harder than it seems. It requires defending freedom of belief and expression — even for people with terrible ideas — without legitimizing those ideas or allying with influential people who would enforce them. It also takes encouraging vigorous and even heated debate without making others too intimidated to speak or attacking them as a person. Most of us fall somewhere between those extremes and many of us think we have the right balance but there will always be others we respect who think we don’t. I don’t claim to have the right answer and I don’t think it is easy to find one. Of the liberals I respect, there are some I think lean too far towards tolerating intolerance and failing to challenge illiberalism and there are some whom I think need to lighten up a bit and stop scolding. I have also been approached by people I respect and told they fear I am leaning too far one way or the other.
I think the best approach for any liberal who considers themselves to be in support of freedom of belief and expression as an individual liberty and a way of advancing knowledge and making moral progress, is to keep asking themselves if what they are doing is the best way of achieving that. The right to hold and express any views at all must be non-negotiable but this is seldom the only liberal issue at stake. For the free exchange of ideas to be productive, illiberal ones must be challenged. Those challenges should be direct and argued strongly but should not devolve into attacking the character of those we disagree with or judging others guilty by association. The marketplace of ideas must be a place of debate rather than of laissez-faire cultural and ethical libertarianism, but it must also be open, civil and honest. The only things to fall victim to it should be bad ideas.