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18.3.06

Liberalism's Hidden Bias

Maia at Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty has a post that I think hits at one of the key dilemmas facing the broadly-defined liberal tradition. She describes how ostensibly "free" and unbiased spaces like Wikipedia and Indymedia have ended up perpetuating sexism.

Pre-liberal social spaces were explicitly biased. They deliberately and openly favored certain ideas and people over others. The classic examples are Mideval laws against being a Catholic or a Protestant (depending on what country you were in) and the denial of suffrage to women, nonwhites, and the poor. Liberalism rejected such bias, arguing that the rules of society ought to be neutral between people and ideas. If we could thereby establish procedural fairness, substantive justice would follow.

Old explicit biases persist in some areas of our society, such as discriminatory marriage law. But liberalism has reshaped the social landscape, such that even those conservatives who prefer the substantive biases of the old order will justify their views -- often with complete sincerity -- in the liberal idiom of neutrality between people and ideas. The open posting rules at a place like Wikipedia or Indymedia are good examples of the liberal ideal.

But leftists like Maia have been quick to point out that liberalism hasn't lived up to its promise. Explicitly unbiased institutions are not enough when there is a great deal of unexplicit bias remaining in society. The sexism of our society -- the set of ideas that individuals have, the ways they've been taught to express/act on those ideas, and the unequal distribution of various types of informal power -- spill over into formally neutral spaces and exploit them for the reproduction of bias. Indeed, I suspect that one of the explanations for liberalism's historical success is that the powerful strata recognized -- even if unconsciously -- that placing formally fair institutions in an environment of entrenched bias would allow that bias to reproduce itself. We don't, for example, need to explicitly ban Judaism or feminism in order to keep society Christian and sexist.

There are at least four possible responses to the leftist critique from the perspective of someone who finds the biases explicitly enshrined by the old order, and continuing under the formal fairness of liberalism, to be substantively unjust. (From her brief reference to a need for "structures" to fix the problem, it's unclear whether Maia favors 2, 3, or 4 on my list -- or something else I haven't thought of.)

1. Settle. Probably the most common response is to say that for all its problems, the procedural fairness of liberalism is better than the explicit bias of the alternative. This is usually coupled with an expectation that in the long run, those unexplicit biases that undercut the liberal promise of substantive justice will be worked out. After all, liberalism has created enough space for a variety of social movements, which have had some success already in changing the biased environment.

2. Retreat to better biases. We might simply give up on liberalism, and decide to return to the explicit enshrining of bias -- albeit this time a bias in favor of the correct conclusions and justice rather than error and injustice. Though some leftists (like the Bolsheviks) have taken this route, I think it's far less common than critics of the left make it out to be.

3. Compensatory bias. Compensatory bias consists in establishing temporary countervailing explicit biases to balance out the unexplicit biases in society. Eventually, it is hoped that the unexplicit biases will fade, and with them the need for the countervailing bias. And once the social environment is no longer biased, the formally fair institutions of classical liberalism will be sufficient to ensure justice.

4. Refexive liberalism. This is the most appealing, but hardest to pin down, option. The goal of reflexive liberalism is to make the committment to procedural fairness go deeper, so that existing unexplicit biases are unable to spill over and unfairly reproduce themselves. Various thinkers (eg Anthony Giddens, Chantal Mouffe, and Jurgen Habermas) have expounded on the parameters for such a project, but as of yet I haven't seen any good solutions at the level of overarching philosophy. Amanda Marcotte's response to the great feminist comments debate provides, I think, an example of an attempt at a reflexive liberal solution to one liberal problem, specifically the way sexism infests the ostensibly fair space of comment threads. Marcotte advocates banning thread drift. This rule, while ostensibly neutral, cuts away one of the key mechanisms by which the bias in the social environment is able to exploit liberal institutions to perpetuate itself. We could debate the merits of Marcotte's particular proposal -- note, for example, her own calls for progressives to reframe, i.e. shift the topic of, the larger media discourse -- but the direction that she's looking for answers illustrates the idea of reflexive liberalism.

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