I’ve grappled with a question which feels existential to the very core and which now demands a definitive answer as I stand at an inflection point of my life. I’ve found it extremely difficult to answer this perennial poser with even a modicum of certainty. Am I a liberal?
To even be able to begin to answer this monumental question let’s first explore my beliefs and then delve into some opinions influenced by events that will hopefully precipitate a definitive answer.
I’m treating this piece as a journey of self-realization and therefore I shall endeavor to tackle it with the gravitas it deserves.
I’ve always believed in equality (of opportunity) and liberty (to practice) and it transcends boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, race, physical prowess, mental acumen, speech and expression, faith etc. for as long as my memory can rewind.
The beliefs enunciated above have crystallized opinion that no one is superior or inferior to their fellow earthling because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, the food they eat, the faith they practice, the race they are born into, the wealth the possess etc. Additionally, every single person in this world should have the full freedom to speak their mind, practice the faith they believe in, live the way they want to (e.g. gay or straight, man or woman) and choose what they deem to be best for them (e.g. abortion et.al.) without any societal impediments or persecution.
I fundamentally believe in acknowledging the meaningful existence of all fellow human beings regardless of thier race, position in society, power they wield, the material wealth they posses or their mental acumen. This to me is a sign of respect for your fellow human.
Politically, my respect isn’t reserved just for those who are intellectually superior and philosophically congruent but also for scholars who have practiced and professed divergent ideology to mine.
I just have agreed to ‘respectfully’ disagree with those who I don’t agree with!
I also believe that many of the things we believe in today might be challenged by the advancements in science, logic and demands of time and therefore we should be flexible in our approach toward those changes.
Coincidentally, to unabashedly prove a point I would like to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that a healthy majority of the greatest scientific and literary minds this world has seen have been known to be champions of civil liberties, equality and social justice. They have invariably been in the vanguard of movements against religious bigotry, fundamentalism, social and economic inequity, socio-religious evils, fascism, terrorism etc.
A little empathy goes a long way
I believe that a society should care for it’s own and with the greatest empathy and respect as one would expect from a fellow being when hijacked by distress and misery. I have no issues whatsoever with a merit based society where merit and merit alone should dictate who succeeds in life and gets to enjoy the fruits of ones talent and labor i.e. wealth, fame and success et.al. That said, in doing so we must not forget and forsake those who have slipped though the cracks either due to misfortune or misadventure and thus languish in the depths of despair. It would only be patently humane of those who have attained power, privilege and penny to rescue the ones that are less fortunate and do the very minimum to empower them to seek a second chance at rewriting their blighted destinies.
I also believe that the societal obligations outlined above also apply equally or perhaps more to ruling governments of the nations of the world. These governments not only have a fiduciary but also a moral duty to their populace who voted them into the halls of power. The ballot was cast and the faith was reposed in them in the good hope that the elected government act as the safety net should the voter ever find themselves careening down a bottomless crevice. We have known for long that whales which are such intelligent mammals come to the rescue of a fellow beached whale knowing fully well that they risk death in a shallow grave themselves. What an an act of selflessness and community from a far less intelligent creature!! Shouldn’t we then the most intelligent race therefore follow suit or lead the way perhaps?
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
I also believe that the freedom of speech and expression is absolute and that freedom is non-negotiable. There ought not to be any limits, caveats or constraints placed on the expression of ones views. A society which values democratic principles and the fundamental freedoms that form the core foundation of these democratic societies would be ill-advised to fetter, gag or sensor any form of expression of any individual or group. That said, I’m acutely aware that free speech has since time immemorial been hijacked and abused by many demagouges, misanthropes, criminal minds and other depraved souls to polarize populations and vitiate public discourse or simply tarnish somebody’s painstakingly nurtured personal reputation (to some the greatest wealth we accumulate during out lifetimes). This has invariably precipitated wars, riots, civil strife etc. all of which have had a deleterious effect on the very democratic fabric of societies that we so deeply cherish and so fiercely protect.
We must then laboriously shoulder the responsibility of flagging with alacrity and then unequivocally denouncing any such machinations. That said, to counter this malady and the malicious who are responsible for the subversion of free speech we must petition the courts for legal recourse against the alleged perpetrators. The courts will then apply these laws to determine the culpability of the defendants and if adjudicated guilty ensure that the saboteurs if indicted are sentenced appropriately. This will ensure our democratic principles are upheld at all times and at all costs. Censorship or use of power or intimidation to silence these voices by private parties or the government will only foster more hatred and make these voices more hardline and dogmatic.
Free speech is the cornerstone of any civil society which allows the free flowing exchange of ‘ideas and arguments’ a vast majority of which form the basis of most of the public policy in democracies around the world. These ideas have had a transformative effect on this world packaged up as the myriad revolutions and renaissances. If we then dissuade and drown out free speech we would be moving toward an authoritarian world bankrupt of any ideas or even a soul. North Korea comes to mind!!!
Please remember that what starts out being perceived as incendiary and disruptive more often than not when put through the blast furnace and smelter of public debate and catalyzed with the flux of reasoning more often than not comes out of the other end as ‘stainless steel’ sans impurities (read bigotry and hate). It is worth reminding us here that a democratic civilized society also demands from all its members tolerance for views and practices of every. This will allow every idea (good or bad) to run its course and reach its logical conclusion. The grain will separate from the husk only when it is allowed to pass through the thresher.
Free Speech under assault
Talking of free speech and tolerance, the recent spate of murders of “atheist bloggers” in the Bangladeshi capital is a ghastly reminder that the world is full of intolerance and religious bigotry. All of these murdered bloggers were simply trying to reason against religious practices and diktats which did not stand up to the test of logic and science. They weren’t hate mongers attempting to subvert any particular religion by indiscriminately spewing vitriol against that religion or maliciously desecrating religious figures or symbols with their words or images. They were simply speaking their minds about their beliefs derived carefully after examining religious teachings under the microscope of rationality and gauging their relevance in today’s world using the parameters of modernity, science and common sense.
On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo massacres teach us just one thing and one thing only: We cannot stop expressing our views because “someone somewhere will always find something offensive about what somebody said” and at that rate we will have “no speech” left let alone “free speech”. The aforesaid “ungodly” events ought to have made every sane and rational human being resolve to do all in their capacity to banish such evil extremist ideology off the face of our planet which poisons the minds of fellow humans and drives them to acts of such unmitigable horror. We can only ‘banish’ such ideology of intolerance by being tolerant!
“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
The middle east is such an interesting case study in how societies which are diametrically opposed have the exact same way of “dealing” with free speech. Iran and Saudia Arabia couldn’t be any more different and yet are so similar in the way they approach free speech and speech or text that is perceived or deemed by the establishment to being tantamount to dissent. Iran a Shia majority nation has consistently muzzled the voices of dissent and other free thinkers by systematically persecuting them and either chasing them out of the country or simply ‘disappearing’ them. Saudi a majority Sunni nation has taken a leaf out of the Iranian playbook it would seem (they will disagree who plagiarized whose idea and probably go to war on that!!) and has for it’s part jailed, tortured, intimidated it’s voices of dissent or other progressive voices. Two very recent incidents one involving a Saudi Arabian blogger and an Iranian-American journalist are cases in point of the aforesaid assault on free speech.
The aforesaid 2 nations are not even democracies.
Which makes the recent incident of an alleged government influenced clampdown on a student body in one of the premier technical colleges in India a nation which prides itself in being the ‘world’s largest democracy’ all the more surprising and serious. India which has enjoyed remarkable political stability (barring a few hiccups) during its nearly 65 years of existence as a democracy has seen its fair share of dissent and associated protests (as any thriving democracy should) but unfortunately the report card on the government reaction to these voices of dissent and protests doesn’t leave much to write home about. The most recent incident at an IIT (Indian Institute of technology) where a student body who had been allegedly critical of the government and allegedly had language in one of its publication which was perceived to be inflammatory was banned by the college authorities. This ban which was allegedly brought to bear at the behest of the central government was another sordid chapter in the history of Power Vs Free Speech.
That said, the transformative power of free speech and the intelligence of the person on the street should never be underestimated as collectively they can bring even the most powerful establishment to its knees and that is exactly what happened when the current Indian government was forced to hear the “vox populi”. The ban was swiftly overturned and the “reign of reason” restored. This was of course easier in India which is a thriving and imperfect democracy unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia which are perfectly authoritarian regimes.
“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.” ~ Oscar Wilde
It definitely helps print ones thoughts. It helps define half-baked notions and also assists in revealing the true identity, magnitude, intent and meaning behind ones ideas and conceptions which was hitherto hidden in the recesses of the human mind or bring these scattered ideas together into a philosophical outlook of import.
Therefore, at the end of this leg of my journey I’ve come to the exasperating realization that I’m as close to the answer as I was when I set out to seek it. That being said, there is a plethora of evidence expressed above in the form of my beliefs and opinions and most importantly the beliefs of the greats who I’ve quoted that I undoubtedly subscribe to a particular school of thought. However, I would never be reticent to admitting it and changing my stand if I came to the realization that I had mistakenly held a particular belief or had harbored a flawed notion upon cogent evidence to the contrary being presented to me. What I have undoubtedly taken away from this is that there are certain basic rules of engagement that we as human beings would do well to conduct ourselves by and that this has nothing to do with being either a liberal or conservative.
In closing, I think I have made a compelling case for embracing and championing the ideology shared by the likes of Aristotle, Roosevelt, MLK, JFK, Russell et.al. which should guide the demeanor and disposition of every human being regardless of what they identify themselves as. I hope we can agree on this and if not then respectfully agree to to disagree and then to continue to respectfully allow each other to continue to make our cases vigorously. That is what I think a liberal would do!!!!
“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.” ~ Bertrand Russell