Wednesday, 21 May 2014

How I was given a liberal education by “bigots”

I was reading a column by Damon Linker the other day that asked what had happened to the true liberals on US university campuses, and described finding them in unexpected places, which made me think about what it means to have liberal habits of mind, rather than simply conventional liberal beliefs.

According to the ideological taxonomy of our era, my parents are classified as bigots – that is to say, conservative Evangelical Christians with traditional moral views. Such people are generally assumed to be unthinking, small-minded drones parroting ancient prejudices without any reflection or critical acuity.  

It is striking, then, that when I look back to my childhood and young adulthood, my upbringing was a liberal one, in the proper old-fashioned sense of that word. Our home was full of books and I was encouraged to read widely, critically and intelligently. I was taught to respect other people’s views and to listen to them carefully – interrupting was a cardinal sin chez Gooch – and respond thoughtfully. We boys were encouraged to think for ourselves and not be bound by conventional wisdom, and to disagree without being disagreeable (my parents rightly believed it was very important to be able to have “an argument without a quarrel”). My mother insisted to me on numerous occasions that referring to a person or argument as “silly” without properly explaining why you disagreed – as children are wont to do – was meaningless and rude and ought to be avoided. 

What is even more striking is that a great many of those who would regard my parents as irrational, angry bigots and themselves as freethinking liberals do not actually display the liberal intellectual virtues. They do not listen carefully to opposing ideas or treat their interlocutor with respect. They have not studied opposing arguments with an open mind. They approach debate in a dogmatic, hostile and dismissive spirit. I often hear people say things like “I don’t know why anyone would think X”, seeming not to realise that this isn’t a criticism of their opponent, but a damning indictment of their own lack of curiosity or understanding. 

The problem of course is that virtue has been politicised. What I mean by the politicisation of virtue is this: fifty years ago, if you described someone as tolerant or kind or generous or open-minded, you were not making any kind of definitive statement about his public or political views. You were talking about how he interacted with the people around him, how he related to his wife or his kids or his colleagues or his friends. But now we ascribe character traits to people not on the basis of how they behave, but on the basis of what they think. Open-minded, for example, no longer describes a person who is willing to change his mind when he encounters new data or new explanations; in modern parlance, like "tolerant", it now denotes agreement with a particular set of political and cultural ideas.    

It is for this reason that progressive morality can be more judgmental and self-righteous, in its way, than traditional religious morality, in that it seeks to label persons, not acts, i.e. to make vast sweeping judgments about the arc of a person’s life and their whole character based on certain aspects of their thinking about morality. The problem is that is almost always inaccurate, and thus deeply unfair, to define an individual based on a particular attitude. 

Practical ethics is not about dividing the world into good and bad people. Practical ethics is about distinguishing between good and bad acts (and to a lesser extent, good and bad attitudes and intentions). Calling someone a bigot or a homophobe or a racist is thus not a useful contribution to ethical debate.       

Since the insult is meaningless unless it is intended to distinguish the recipient from the donor, the implication of my calling someone a bigot is that I am not a bigot, and should thus be considered somehow more virtuous than the recipient of the insult. The same applies to calling someone a misogynist; a racist; a hater. It is – implicitly – a claim to personal moral superiority, without any substantial descriptive or conceptual content. 

The same is not true if we confine ourselves to discussion of specific acts. My argument that X is wrong, for reasons Y and Z, is a much more limited claim and does not involve claims about the totality of an individual’s character. In other words, it is more realistic about the complexities and nuances of human nature (as well as being genuinely open to debate because it invokes reasons, which may be disputed and debated between rational individuals). As Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said, the line between good and evil doesn’t run between humans, but within them. The most cursory reflection on human experience, or on the canon of great art, will reveal this to be the case.   
Take Mrs A, a Catholic with traditional moral views. Mrs A believes that all forms of sex outside marriage are wrong, and that gay marriage should not be allowed. However, Mrs A is a nurse who volunteers for various charities in her spare time, including working with AIDS patients, many of whom have contracted AIDS through forms of sex of which she strongly disapproves.  Yet she spends hours caring for them, loving them in a highly practical way. Is Mrs A a bigot? It is certainly possible that her reasons for opposing gay rights are bigoted; perhaps they are based on fear or hatred or prejudice (though by no means certain – whatever else it may be, the Catholic view of sexuality is not arbitrary, illogical or poorly-reasoned). But does that mean that can we make the sweeping claim about Mrs A that she is a bigot? I would argue no. Such a claim would be next to useless in helping us think about the moral arc of Mrs A’s life.         
Moreover, the fact is that nearly everyone has some views that might plausibly be described as bigoted. It’s just that certain kinds of bigotry are more disliked and derogated than others. I would argue that a great deal of criticism of Christians by progressives is bigoted, but no-one cares about anti-Christian bigotry, so it is not considered morally reprehensible. By contrast, we are ultra-sensitive when conducting ethical debates that touch, even tangentially, on issues of sexuality, because we live in an age when individual desire and feeling may not be gainsaid.  

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