Monday, August 06, 2012

The militant liberals, walking talking oxymorons

In our networked world, there are fashions that grip a majority of people of a certain class and background everywhere around the world at certain times. It could be an item of clothing, or a gadget, or even a worldview such as “Left liberalism”, which is the prevailing intellectual fashion among cultural elites.

I admire both Leftist politics and liberalism, but the militancy of some “liberals” makes me wonder whether for them it just another ‘cool’ accessory, like the clothes and gadgets.
The intolerance of liberals is a paradox I’ve been unable to fathom. If Left liberalism becomes a religion and is practised with similarly fundamentalist attitudes then it becomes a parody of itself. It ceases to be liberalism and turns into an intolerant faith.
To practitioners of this faith, anyone who questions anything they say or do is an enemy who must either be silenced or converted. This was the attitude of the man who wanted the fistfight with the philosopher.
I’ve experienced milder versions of this myself on some occasions. Sometimes, I’ve noticed that in the course of debating a point, the avowed liberal lets slip animosity towards the courts, democratic procedures, and any processes or institutions that contradict their views. On the question of the Bus Rapid Transport system in South Delhi, for example, plenty of liberals railed against the courts for admitting the Public Interest Litigation suit against it. They also questioned the utility of having a technical body conduct a study to ascertain how well the BRT is working. They were willing to attack important processes and institutions that they otherwise cheer for, because the results were not to their liking.
To me, this is worrying. 
Like fundamentalists, these individuals cannot bear to have their certainties questioned. Their world is very simple, black and white. Their views are predictable.
This is the secular equivalent of the religious attitude. In that, you believe something because it is the word of God. There is no altering of views once you’ve accepted a faith; that would be apostasy. You might consider those who don’t believe in the same gods and books as you do to be infidels. Your beliefs would not be subject to tests of reason. Anyone questioning your beliefs would be met with vehemence, or even violence.
This is the attitude I see in militant “Left liberals”.
A few days ago, I was at a friend’s place for a birthday party. We were having a philosophical discussion when one of the participants became agitated. He challenged another, a philosophy teacher who had dared to politely disagree with him, to a fistfight. It was ironical, considering the intolerant man was espousing the more liberal view. 
There is no doubt that many who take strong Left liberal positions are intelligent people with their hearts in the right place. They tend to be young men and women educated in fine colleges, from relatively wealthy backgrounds, and eager to help those less fortunate than themselves. All this is admirable, but somehow some of them end up mirroring the attitudes of the fundamentalists they so detest.
In this worldview, all corporations and their employees are evil; the police are always lying; the government is mostly bad; and politicians are abominable. Rebels, including Maoists and other terrorists, are mostly misunderstood good guys, but Baba Ramdev is not. The Right is always wrong, the Left is always right. Rich people, excluding their family members, are rapacious capitalists. Development is awful, but progress is wonderful. However everyone should have electricity. And what’s the meaning of this grid collapse? We need the Internet, the Mac and the iPhone or Blackberry, and sorry, we need our ACs, too. But power plants and dams are damnable; just don’t tell me where my electricity comes from. Air travel is evil but we can’t walk to London or New York, so it’s okay. Everything organic is good, too bad it’s so expensive. Don’t tell me Apple is a corporation, it’s only a fruit. And so on.
Such a worldview betrays confusion and a failure to grasp complexity. It captures elements of the truth, but it is highly reductive, like this characterisation of the militant liberal. However I may ponder about the reductive nature of my own characterisation, but militant liberals (an oxymoron if ever there was one) seem to harbour no doubts about theirs.
The progressive attitude is one that allows for abundant doubt. Science, which powers progress, is based on doubt, just as religion rests on faith. In the scientific method, every theory is provisional, and subject to constant measuring and testing. The laws emerge by inductive reasoning from experimentation. The conclusion is arrived at after the experiment, not before. You change the theory if experimental results disprove it. The theory could be about how the universe came into being or Bus Rapid Transport.