Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


Liberalism Gone Haywire

Today a forward came over the WoGAN listserv about an action being planned to support the pro-choice "March for Women's Lives" in DC this weekend. Naturally, pro-life groups have organized a counter-demonstration. The email urges people to participate in a "phone jam," calling the hotel where the pro-lifers are staying to let the hotel management know that "we do not appreciate their support of fascism, and that no one in the pro-choice movement will patronize their businesses when they obviously support a right-wing agenda."

My initial reaction was simply disappointment, that members of groups like WoGAN, who are so active in defending their own right to protest and so attentive to the intentional and unintentional ways their own message is silenced, would approve of browbeating not just their opponents but also people who would "support" their opponents by declining to impose an ideological test on customers. It's somewhat analagous to the case of proponents of hate speech laws, who call for tolerance and neutrality when it helps them but are willing to turn to power politics when they can.

Thinking about these led me to think about what liberalism (broadly defined) means. The essence of the liberal tradition, I think, is procedural fairness. The classical liberals had great faith that fair procedures -- the marketplace of ideas, individual choice, democracy, the scientific method -- would lead to outcomes that were both right and legitimate. This is in opposition both to a conservatism that says we people aren't worthy to question the eternal word of God or tradition, and to a leftism that says that reason is an illusion and only raw power exists.

Habermas's distinction between strategic and communicative action is relevant here. Liberalism as I've defined it is a defense of the possibility of communicative action. The fair procedures advocated by liberals are the framework under which something approximating communicative action is possible. For all their rhetorical -- and perhaps honest personal -- commitment to liberal communication, phone bank jammers are not quite willing to take strategic action out of their toolbox, to relax their insistence on winning.

Of course, as Habermas recognized in his more recent work, liberalism is only ever an approximation. Leftist critiques -- Chantal Mouffe's does a good job of not throwing out the baby with the bath water -- are useful as a caution against the hubris of thinking we've come up with the final word in implementations of liberalism, reminding us of the inescapable partiality of our viewpoints. But such humility, coupled with the willingness to take a responsible chance, is entirely consistent with liberal ideals.

This brings us to the question of "beyond the pale" rhetoric. "Beyond the pale" can be framed as a form of conservatism or leftism, denying the freedom to take wrong positions. But I find it more interesting to see it as liberalism gone haywire. Liberalism demands that fair procedural framework under which communicative action can occur. "Beyond the pale" is an attempt to shift the grounds of the argument to the framework rather than the content. It's a charge that the view in question is inherently inimical to communicative discussion. We're left debating the legitimacy, rather than the content, of the view.

It's true that discussions of the framework are necessary. Habermas argued that there are three types of communicative action, and hence three grounds on which one can challenge another's statement -- one of which is legitimacy. Mouffe argues that modern society is necessarily caught in a constant contestation over how to draw the framework, how to resolve its contradictions and get the best approximation of pure communicative action. However, defining the framework is only the first step. There's no point in having the framework if there's no communicative action underneath it that grapples with substance. So the problem with the politics of "beyond the pale" is not just that it makes incorrect charges of illegitimacy, but that it sees nothing beyond the question of legitimacy.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home