The quotation in the title of this essay is lifted from a recent Guardian article written by Scott Bixby on the so-called “confirmation bias” endemic among young and politically engaged users of the social media site Facebook. The argument goes like this: given that Facebook’s algorithms decide on which posts to show a user based on posts they’ve previously clicked on, liked, or otherwise engaged with, it is highly likely that those accessing political news through Facebook (like 61% of millennials) will unwittingly create an ideological echo-chamber for themselves, where only opinions they already agree with are presented to them. The “four in ten” figure is from a 2014 Pew Research Centre survey, and at first glance appears almost oxymoronic: surely liberals should live up to their name and be tolerant of political views that differ from their own? Sadly, however, this example is emblematic of modern liberalism’s fatal malaise – self-described liberals are at the forefront of a battle (fought most clearly on university campuses) to censor and no-platform those who express views that seem to go against the canon of political correctness. The question then poses itself: how and why has liberalism declined to become a censorious, intolerant movement since the days of Locke and later Mill?
In order to address this question fully, it is necessary first to establish the form in which liberalism first appeared – known as ‘classical liberalism’ – and contrast it to modern liberalism. The man who is often credited with first formulating the principles of liberalism is John Locke, who envisioned a nation-state in which all men’s liberties and rights were enshrined in law – he thought that every person should be able to do as he pleased, so long as it caused no harm to others. In his 1690 Second Treatise of Civil Government, Locke noted that, in his opinion, “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.” This forms part of the fundamental basis of classical liberalism – the idea that anyone should have the right to express themselves or behave however they choose, and that their right to do so should be enshrined in law. It is here, incidentally, that liberalism and absolute democracy come into conflict – it is impossible to fully uphold the principle that no legislature should be bound by its predecessors if we also believe that there should be certain laws, regarding fundamental liberties and rights, which cannot be argued with. In the scheme of ‘classical liberalism’ there is an inherent tolerance of views which differ from one’s own, and a respect for a variety of conflicting opinions. Writing almost two centuries later than Locke, John Stuart Mill (one of the founders of utilitarianism and a prominent liberal thinker) suggested in his On Liberty (Chapter two: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion) that denying people the right to express their opinion was detrimental not just to the censored individual but also to his society at large. If the censored opinion was in fact a previously undiscovered truth, society is “deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose… the clearer perception… of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Although in this instance Mill is railing against state intervention in the realm of public debate, he makes clear earlier in the same essay that a large body of like-minded individuals can exercise the same censorious faculties, in a phenomenon that Mill calls “the tyranny of the majority” (a phrase coined by the second president of the United States of America, John Adams). Majority opinion on matters of taste and what is and is not socially acceptable behaviour or speech can create “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression,” despite the fact that informal groupings of like-minded citizens cannot themselves prohibit speech or action through the exercise of any traditional form of punishment. This social tyranny has a tendency:
This is precisely how political correctness works in today’s liberalism: it operates as series of ideas about what constitutes proper and decent speech, and how to best protect sacrosanct demographic minorities from speech that may be potentially ‘triggering’ or otherwise offensive. Political correctness deals with its opponents (and occasionally the unfortunate few who break its rules without such an intention) in much the same fashion that Mill describes above: by alienating and ostracising those who openly disagree with its diktats, and by quietly imposing its rules on those who wish to call themselves members of the modern, enlightened, liberal society. Mill also addresses a similar problem to that of the social-media echo-chamber. He argues that most people realise that having their own opinion is not, by itself, sufficient to justify an assumption of their own infallibility. They therefore fall back “on the infallibility of ‘the world’ in general.” This logic, however, falls apart under scrutiny, as any individual’s conception of the world really only represents “the part of it with which he comes into contact; his party, his sect, his church” etc. This can be seen to a great extent on social media: because the “world” that people connect with is automatically set up to reflect their own views back at them, they assume their opinions are close to infallible, given a backdrop of thousands of assenting and self-congratulatory voices all in harmony with their own. This, of course, is a fallacy, and a dangerously misleading one to boot: think of the number of people who are able to convince themselves that Jeremy Corbyn could win a general election based on the chorus of his supporters who are active on social media – their “world” is self-selectively comprised of young, tech-savvy left-wingers with similar views to their own. It can clearly be seen then, that liberalism as it was originally conceived of by its founding thinkers, was an ideology of tolerance and respect – where each and every opinion, no matter how ‘offensive’ it might seem, receives equal attention and everything can be subject to debate (except the fundamental liberties, perhaps).
By way of contrast then, liberalism in the sense of the ideology of modern-day self-described ‘liberals’ must also be examined. Liberalism in the modern day is characterised by the tolerance of a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender expressions etc. It is the doctrine of acceptance of a variety of socially-sanctioned lifestyle choices and genetic realities, often involving fierce protection of a certain interest group from any perceived ‘hate speech’ – that is, ideas and opinions that are deemed too damaging or offensive to the particular minority that is being defended. President Kennedy defined the modern liberal as “someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted that, in the 20th Century, “the liberal party insists that the Government has the definite duty to use all its power and resources to meet new social problems with new social controls.” While these sentiments are no doubt worthy and well-intentioned ones, the ideology espoused in both cases bears surprisingly little resemblance to the liberalism that John Locke or J.S. Mill would recognise. Liberalism in the classical sense does not entail the protection of socially advantageous benefits in kind, as JFK suggests, nor does it concern itself with “social controls” as FDR would have it – his ideology seems closer to a semi-socialist interventionist form of governance. Nevertheless, this is liberalism as modern Americans (and increasingly, British and continental activists) conceive of it – a movement that demands that minorities and other culturally oppressed peoples are cosseted from the worst effects of offensive speech. It is an ideology which emphasises the prevention of harm (even when the harm comes in the form of the expression of genuinely held opinions) over and above the preservation of intellectual freedom. Censorious forms of ‘liberalism’ are becoming ever more prevalent on British and American university campuses – a worrying trend, given that one would expect universities of all places to preserve unbounded intellectual curiosity and debate, and that universities are meant to provide students with the opportunity to learn about the world to the greatest extent possible in our society. Many universities now have what are known as ‘safe-space’ policies (drawn up and implemented most often, bizarrely, by the student body themselves) which attempt to create an atmosphere within universities of academic ‘safety,’ where the right-on liberal orthodoxy admits no challenge, on the basis that students need to be sheltered from views that vary from their own to too great a degree. The radical activist Claire Fox addresses the subject of increasing intolerance in student bodies in her book I Find that Offensive. She notes that ‘liberal’ student unions codify an “accepted, acceptable narrative” on subjects as varied as race relations and transgender issues. Amongst “Generation Snowflake” (as she dubs them), there is a growing, “prickly willingness to take offence,” and this is having a “corrosive” effect on attitudes towards free speech. If we defend the right of the individual not to be offended (a curious modern invention) over and above the right to free speech, we are creating a genuinely illiberal atmosphere for public debate.
There are those, however, who would defend this modern form of liberalism, and who would ignore as irrelevant the question of whether or not Facebook-generation liberals act in a way that reflects the classical liberal values. Why should the alteration and development of 400+ year old ideas necessarily be viewed as illegitimate? Since the days of Locke, Western society has developed along similar lines as those of “Civil government” that he envisioned. We consider ourselves to be governed along liberal democratic lines – that is to say, we have certain liberties enshrined in law and in various international agreements, and we the people elect our representatives democratically. The modern liberal might argue that given that ‘classical liberalism’ has achieved so many of its goals, and so completely, if any notion of liberalism is to continue to offer valuable contributions to public debate, it has to adapt to the modern context. Once liberalism has largely ensured that the rights of individuals to live as they wish in general are respected, the endeavour to protect and promote the interests of specific oppressed minorities – whose lack of freedom is culturally, rather than politically generated – seems like a natural corollary, a noble extension of the values behind liberalism. One example of this thinking is the idea of ‘safe spaces,’ mentioned above, in higher education institutions or otherwise. The journalist Anne Laure White offers a defence of the controversial safe space policy in an article written for the online magazine Dissent. She refers to safe spaces as “consciousness raising groups” – places where individuals can feel free to debate the big questions in a comfortable and supportive environment. Like many modern ‘liberal’ writers, White’s argument relies on illiberal generalisations about the cultural background of her opponent almost to the complete exclusion of addressing their argument. Those who disagree with the formation of ‘safe spaces’ are largely, in the writer’s opinion, “white men,” and as such can be dismissed out of hand: because of being constrained by the cultural norm of hyper-masculinity, men are apparently not endowed with the “ability to hurt, cry, and laugh together” and therefore fail to understand the concept of safe spaces.
A further argument used by liberals who do not view censorship as totally anathema to the purpose of their movement is that some speech can actually be objectively dangerous (as opposed to subjectively uncomfortable to hear). Jonathan Leader Maynard develops this line of thinking in his article When is speech dangerous? written for the website freespeechdebate.com. “There is simply no reasonable doubt,” he writes, “that speech in general plays a central role in violence and discrimination.” He gives the example of the Rwandan propagandist radio station RTLM, and its much-cited role in the Rwandan genocide, asserting that (as per the research of Yanagizawa-Drott) “10% of the total participation in the genocide… was caused by the radio station.” When speech deliberately incites people towards violence, then, we can view that speech as incredibly dangerous and as such we may have no qualms in censoring this type of speech. The difficulty with this argument comes when it is taken from its original legitimate context (the prevention of actual violence) and used instead as an argument for the prohibition of speech which is merely offensive. One example of such a misuse of this principle is the no-platforming of prominent feminist Germaine Greer. She was prevented from speaking at Cardiff University due to some of her comments regarding trans people being interpreted as ‘hate speech’ – that is, speech designed to promote violence. This, of course, is total fantasy: her worst crime in this regard was saying that “a great many women don’t think post-operative men look like or sound like women, but they daren’t say so” – the offence of course arising both in the content of the quote as a whole but also the ‘mis-gendering’ of trans women.
Do the Facebook news-feed censors reflect liberal values at all, then? Arguably, those who block other users of the site on the basis of their political views are perfectly in line with a large body of so-called ‘liberal’ opinion in the modern day. The problem with this, of course, is that modern liberalism is a confused and contradictory movement whose chief tool in promoting the tolerance of minority ways of life is intolerance of dissenting voices. The censorious tendencies of this kind of liberalism are far removed from the ‘classical liberalism’ of Locke and Mill. The question remains then: why has liberalism declined in such a dramatic fashion to be so completely at odds with its founding thinkers? One theory is that classical liberalism has been tainted by association with economic liberalism and all the policy ideas that come with it: extensive marketization in the economy and the restriction, in some extreme views, of the role of the state to that of a night-watchman, providing only defence and internal security provision and little else. I would argue it needs not be so, however – the ideals of classical liberalism, such as promoting fundamental liberties for all, including the liberty to speak as one wishes, can stand completely apart from the less palatable aspects of economic liberalism, and as such are greatly overdue for a revival.