The cowardly, lazy notion that liberalism cannot tolerate dissent

I published an article on Canadian Atheist blasting the absurdity and hypocrisy of Islamophobia masquerading as secularism and “concern” for women’s rights. Naturally, supporters of faux-secular bigotry showed up in the comments, and their defences have been… underwhelming. No big surprise there; bigots are hardly known having particularly well-thought-out ideologies. Or being intelligent in general – one even had to resort to calling me a “wife-beater”. For simple attempts at deflecting criticism, like complaining that the word “Islamophobia” can be misused, I prefer to respond directly in the post’s comments. But there was one apologetic that I felt deserved a little more space.

Here is the entirety of the comment:

Too long … didn’t read. You can’t compete against the Closing Ceremonies, dude.

All I can say is that French laïcité (and increasingly, other European governments) are FINALLY doing the right thing.

Liberalism means nothing if you welcome in cultures that actively oppose it, and seek to undermine it.

Now, put aside the “tl;dr” comment; we already know we’re not dealing with a particularly deep thinker. Put aside also the hilariously idiotic claim that France is doing the right thing by banning the burqini, made in the comment section of a post that explains in expansive detail why the burqini ban is so stupid; he’s already admitted he didn’t read it, so his ignorance is to be expected. What I want to focus on is that last line:

Liberalism means nothing if you welcome in cultures that actively oppose it, and seek to undermine it.

The reason this deserves special attention is not because it’s a particularly cogent point. It’s just very popular, and quite pernicious. You’ll hear it in various forms not only from clueless Internet commenters, but also as a common talking point used by politicians. It’s not just for “liberalism” either; you’ll see the same basic form trotted out for “democracy”, “freedom”, “tolerance”, and so on. Basically, the argument is that all the progressive freedoms we enjoy must be protected by keeping the barbarians safely out of our privileged lands.

The name of the system that insists citizens fall in line with its ideology is not “liberalism”. It’s “totalitarianism”.

The easy way to dismiss this claim is simply to point out that the name of the system that insists that all citizens fall in line with its ideology is not “liberalism”. It’s “totalitarianism”. Or at best it’s a “tyranny of the majority”. Either way, it’s clearly not real liberalism by any sensible definition of the term.

But if it were that easy to make proponents realize how ridiculous this argument is, it wouldn’t be so pernicious. So we’re going to have to drill a little deeper.

For the moment, let’s ignore the obvious (but not to the bigots) point that choosing to wear a burqini is not actually opposing “liberalism”. It’s always a question of context, and in some contexts – ironically, such as the one the bigots are creating in France right now – the burqini could actually be a very progressive choice. If you can’t quite grasp the logic of that, try thinking of it without Islam involved. Whether things like lipstick, high heels, miniskirts, and so on are feminist or not depends on the context. When a woman is wearing them because she feels obligated to in order to be accepted socially, they’re a problem. When a woman chooses to wear them to flip off assholes who tell her to dress “modestly”, they’re a very feminist choice. The logic is the same for the burqini. When a woman is obligated to wear it by body-shaming or religious pressure, it’s a problem. When a woman chooses to wear it to defy cultural expectations that she put her body on show for men’s viewing pleasure, it’s a very feminist choice.

Let’s also ignore the fact that liberal democracies have done quite well despite the presence of other virulently illiberal religions and other regressive ideologies. I don’t doubt that many of the bigots cheering the burqini ban would also gleefully agree to banning crosses on churches or making it illegal for priests to wear robes in public places. But the fact is, neither of those things has resulted in the collapse of Western society, as the burqini allegedly will. (Yes, I know, it’s mind-numbingly obvious that the real motivation of these people is specifically anti-Muslim bigotry. But just play along for a moment and pretend that we actually believe these bozos’ claims that this is all about protecting “liberalism”, or women, or whatever.)

Let’s unpack what’s actually being said. When someone argues that liberalism (or democracy, or peace, or whatever) requires everyone to support it, what they’re actually saying is that it cannot tolerate the existence of people within its sphere who oppose it.

Think about what that implies about such ideologies. It implies that they are so weak and brittle that they will topple if even challenged. It’s as if these people think that liberalism is a house of cards barely managing to stay upright only so long as no one dares question it.

It also implies that these are ideologies that must engage in thought-policing citizens. Any citizens who have ideas that don’t align with the ideology must be dealt with. Does that really sound like liberalism?

To be fair, it is true that ideologies like liberalism, democracy, peace, and so on are not invincible. They do require maintenance, and vigilance on the part of those who wish to protect them. We can’t just set them up then dust off our hands and walk away, declaring we’ve totally completed civilization. It is necessary for supporters of such things to defend them. That’s the responsibility that comes part and parcel with the freedoms you enjoy living in a progressive, liberal society.

Even the bigots understand that “eliminating opponents from existence” is illiberal, but they bizarrely think they “fix” it by changing it to “eliminating opponents from sight”.

But there are many different ways to “defend” an ideology, and most of them are simply incompatible with liberalism. For example, one could defend an ideology by murdering everyone who expresses disagreement with it. Effective, perhaps, but certainly not liberal. Even the bigots understand this, yet they bizarrely think that they “fix” it by not actually “eliminating from existence” and instead only “eliminating from sight”.

The correct way to defend liberalism is not to banish everyone who disagrees, or to use the hammer of the law to silence every disagreeing opinion without even attempting engage it. The correct way is to challenge the one who disagrees and their arguments. The correct way is not to push them into the shadows, but rather to pull them into the light, and let them take their best shot at arguing against liberalism in full public view.

Contrary to what’s implied in the idea that liberalism must be shielded from dissent, liberalism grows stronger when challenged and defended by reasoned argument. It does require people to step up and mount the defence, but that’s the responsibility that comes along with freedom.

What’s truly ironic is that many of the people who push this silly idea that liberalism must be protected from criticism are atheists engaged in activism against religion. Hmm, isn’t there some thing that can’t tolerate criticism, that once its adherents start doubting its fundamental precepts it falls apart, and that has to be stridently protected by its believers and leadership from doubt and skepticism about its dogmas? What was that called again?

Oh, right. Religion.

The bottom line is that when someone claims that liberalism (democracy, whatever) has to be protected from people or ideas that challenge it, what they’re really saying is they think it is weak. They don’t really believe in its ability to weather criticism. They put all their stock in liberalism as an act of faith, unsure that it can really stand against challenge, and terrified of putting it to the test.

They are, put simply, cowards.

Cowards, and also lazy, because they are unwilling to put up the effort to meet the challenges, and would rather just have them disappear. They’re like children, praying that Mommy and Daddy Government will just… make the bad people go away.

Cowardly. Lazy. Immature. That’s what’s behind the claim that liberalism and other such ideologies cannot tolerate the existence of doubt or challenge.

If you’re one of the people repeating that mantra because you heard some big-name atheist say it once… stop and think about what you’re really saying.

CC BY-SA 4.0 The cowardly, lazy notion that liberalism cannot tolerate dissent by Mark A. Gibbs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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