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on wanting freedom (confessions of a stealth liberal)


In the recent past I mentioned that I’ve decided to make my peace with being a liberal. Again, in part because I revisited the philosophical notion of liberalism. In which, as now seems quite obvious, the fundamental value of liberalism is…. liberty. Not really something I can say isn’t a big deal to me.

Indeed, one of the reasons why I chose this current URL to be my long-term home/archives/blog/website isn’t just because its the title of one of my books, but because it expresses one of the fundamental tenents to my philosophy. In a lot of different ways many of the things I write about and posit are about freedom (and oppression, of course, which can be considered a restriction, reduction of, or absence of freedom).

It might be worth a discussion at some future point to see if there is any meaningful difference between the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. Sure, they are very closely connected and usually treated as synonyms or equivalent concepts. Is this actually the case? I’m not sure. But… that’s really not the point of this current post.

What is the point? Well… somewhat to situate myself and my concepts within the larger liberal framework, so that I gain a better understanding of how my positions relate to it but also how ppl will probably perceive it. To some extent, this post will also be apologism for liberalism as a philosophical idea.

#a general discussion on ‘liberal’ as label and concept

I know my initial resistance to the notion of calling myself a ‘liberal’ has a lot to do with the current political climate. In many ways the label of liberal has been far more closely associated with particular political parties, like the Liberal party in canada. This situation ends up obscuring the philosophical underpinnings behind why some particular parties align themselves in this way. The label ends up getting mired by partisan politics and too many concrete details which may or may not actually be liberal in the philosophical sense.

Additionally, when you come from my perspective which is somewhat having spent the past few years immersed in what could loosely be called ‘radical’ politics, liberal really is a pejorative term. And, in many ways, given the situation described in the previous paragraph, I can’t really fault anyone for this.

For example, while I do often see radical feminists mocking liberal feminists, I also see a bunch of people who may or may not be feminists at all (radical or not), likewise doing so. And… in the contexts where I usually see this, the mocking is warranted and something I’ve done myself.

Add on to this the current moral panic about trigger warnings, censorship, etc in higher ed, leading to people saying ‘my liberal students scare me the most’ or ‘i’m a liberal professor and students these days are histerical babies’, and it is increasinly undesirable to call yourself a liberal.

I certainly have zero desire to be lumped with with liberal white feminists, crusty old college professors, any given liberal-aligned political party, and etc and so one.

Even without the current pejorative connotations to ‘liberal’ it still has become a fundamentally meaningless term, by and far. Given that, I bet many people – if asked – would not be able to identify ‘liberty’ as the fundamental value of liberalism. It certainly surprised me when I took another look at it (and I even did a whole class on social and political philosophy where we explored issues exactly like this).

#my own conceptual problems

One major philosophical site of resistance I have to liberalism as a philosophy is its roots (at least in white-european philosophy) in the enlightenment. My issues with the enlightenment ought to fairly well-known at this point. As in: I think the enlightenment as ideology is one of genocide, colonialism, and utterly unredeemable as an ideology.

(I could go into greater detail about some of the specific values – things like rationalism – but my position on these can be found sprinkled amongst my writings over the past four years.)

It cannot be denied that the founders of the US, for example, were liberal in the classic sense. And that this liberalism was very much grounded in enlightenment thought (indeed, some of the more prominent founders are outright known to be key figures in the enlightenment). But as I’ve said before, I cannot give any credit to people who either owned slaves, were major figures in the ongoing genocides of Indigenous people in the americas, were happy imperialists, settlers, and colonialits.

What do people like this know about freedom? Nothing.

Most of the effort to reform and rehabilitate the generally liberal foundations of the modern world has been about expanding the notion of who gets to count as a person (and, thus, who has the right to be free). I find this unsatisfactory, especially when this framework allows settler governments like canada and the US to continue to feel justified in their occupation and settlement of Indigenous territories. Settler governments are fundamentally imcompatible with any meaningful notion of liberty or freedom.

My other issue with the current label of ‘liberal’ is how closely it has become tied to certain economic beliefs. In general, I’m not a fan at all of thinking that economics needs to be a major part of a political/social philosophy. For a few reasons.

One is that conflating ‘economics’ with the issue of the equitable distribution of resources does more harm than good. Economics itself is too closely tied to current monetary institutions that, once included into your philosophy, end up making issues of justic about dollars and cents. We end up in too many discussions about how justice – even in its blandest form – is always too expensive. Its simply too costly.

The other is that, by and large, because of this inclusion of economics most white derived forms of liberalism (and social-political philosophy in general) end up focusing on the issue of economic disparity and class to the exclusion of almost every other major axis of oppression. Things like racism, sexism, etc are all afterthoughts in most of the socio-political philosophies created by white men. And this isn’t good enough.

#where things stand

In a lot of ways, this post represents the beginning of my time interrogating what it means to be have liberty/freedom as your fundamental value in the year 2k16. Since, if you do, then you are by definition a ‘liberal’. And yet all the previous conceptual problems adhere to it.

(As always too: I’m generally not a fan of the {conservative, liberal, radical} framework for viewing social and political philosophy. I don’t really buy into it and, in general, would prefer not to have to locate myself within this framework. But since people are already doing this for me, I figure that taking an active role in it will at least give me some agency over where I’m located within the framework. In other words: if I have to be a liberal, I want to make it clear that my liberalism is not that of white feminism, political parties, or crusty old white men.)

Its funny how, given my current perspectives and contexts, it feels dangerous to outright identify as a liberal. And to begin exploring and discussing it in the way that I’ll hopefully be doing for the next little while.

It amuses me because, really, it shouldn’t be an unpopular stance to think that freedom/liberty is a fundamental value of any just society. And maybe its just the label that’s become so unpopular (look: even liberals aren’t using it, given how many will describe themselves as ‘progressives’), rather than the value itself.

But I do want to take a principled and open stance about this. I really do just want freedom.

However, I think its about time I stopped treating ‘freedom’ like a primitive term and actually started exploring it as a concept and how I think about it. Especially if I want to divorce my own stance as a liberal from the white, enlightenment derived one. The burden is utterly on me to try and find some way to articulate political and social philosophy with liberty as its fundamental value that doesn’t carry the stain of enlightenment with it.

(Sidenote because I’m actually ready to stop. In the SEP entry on liberalism, I’m super intrigued by the distinction between classical liberalism and new liberalism – for which the entry states that ‘social justice’ is a synonym. I think this warrntes some serious thought. It also puts a very interesting spin on the reddit, d00br0 creation of ‘social justice warrior’ as a pejorative term. They are, in effect, saying that freedom fighters are a bad thing. Which… lmao.)