Liberal, in the pejorative

I don’t think that word means what you think it means

According to certain news channels and the comment section of the Internet, to be liberal is to belong to a lesser class of human who are toxic to society and to the political process. Being autistic, I have never paid much attention to such social constructs. I have no particular party allegiance. I just look at society and politics from a systems perspective and support those positions which tend to keep the system balanced in homeostasis. If the comments section of the Internet is to be believed, these positions are liberal, by extension so am I, and this is a Very Bad Thing.

Aghast at my newfound less-than-fully-human status, I decided to look up the definition of liberal to see how much of a disability it is because it sounds really bad. Are there accommodations available to me under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Do I get reduced price at the theater?

Now that I’ve looked up the definition of liberal I’m even more confused than ever. According to the Oxford English dictionary, liberal means:

Liberal

Adjective

  1. Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.

Fair enough. That does actually sound like me. But I’m unsure as to why the opposite position — being unwilling to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own — would be intrinsically Good and being liberal intrinsically Evil. Intuition tells me the opposite would be true but let’s keep an open mind here.

There are some sub-headings; perhaps they will shed more light.

1.1) Favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.

Surely this can’t be bad. I’m in the US of A and the entire premise of the country is individual rights and freedoms. “All men are created equal and bestowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” and all that. I’ll assume this is not the basis of my presumed evilness.

1.2) (in a political context) favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform.

Alright, now we are getting somewhere! This is actual political stuff.

Liberty? Check. Covered above. 
Free trade? Yup, I’m for that. Is that why I’m evil and sub-human? 
Moderate social reform? That’s me. Revolutions, coups and assassinations bring about extreme social reform. Does my advocating for more peaceful reform make me evil? I hope not.

1.3) Relating to Liberals or a Liberal Party, especially (in the UK) relating to the Liberal Democrat party.

So far this is the best match. If the policies for which I advocate are similar to those of a Liberal political party I can see how I’d be mistaken for having that affiliation. The problem with that is I don’t actually have a party allegiance. When my positions sync up with any party platform it is more or less coincidence.

If in fact this meaning of the word is the one on which rests all the contempt and scorn hurled at me, that is troubling because this sense of the word is merely a label. Are people really so shallow as to give their blind allegiance to a label? To reject somebody’s arguments out of hand based not on merit but solely on a label? To pile contempt on strangers and believe ones self superior based on a label?

As I said, I’m autistic and have difficulty understanding social interactions but if people are actually willing to rally around an arbitrary label, prioritizing the label itself above the merits of any and all arguments in the debate, then yeah I’m the opposite of that and proudly so.

Judging ideas based entirely on the label with which they are associated shortcuts the process of reason to the point of amputation. Nobody is seriously arguing in favor of that, are they?

1.4) Theology: Regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change.

By this definition to be liberal is to be willing and able to learn and update one’s beliefs in the face of new evidence. If this is the sense in which liberal is a Bad Thing, then the opposite of this must be intrinsically Good. Let’s parse it out:

Traditional beliefs are indispensable, validated by modern thought, or not subject to change.

An indispensable belief would take precedence over all evidence to the contrary. A claim that modern thought validates pre-existing beliefs in all cases requires one to make all new evidence fit the premise. Insistence on never changing a belief requires a corresponding belief in ones own infallibility.

None of these seem to me to be defensible positions to take. If this is the sense in which I’m being called Liberal then I absolutely agree. The first premise of the scientific method is “I might be wrong” and to update beliefs in the face of new evidence. I just fail to see how that makes me a bad person.

In fact taking the position that belief is inviolable and learning obsolete sounds like extreme fundamentalism to me. Nobody’s arguing for that are they? Well, nobody other than extreme Muslim clerics and Westboro Baptist Church, right?

2. [attributive] (of education) concerned with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience, rather than with technical or professional training.

Again, guilty as charged. I read widely, about 100 books a year, including a selection of non-fiction to broaden my general knowledge. Favorite non-fiction topics include:

  • General human psychology, neuropsychology, neuroscience, abnormal neurology, cognitive bias, influence. (Owing to my autism and epilepsy.)
  • Consciousness, identity, existential philosophy, emergent phenomena, complex systems. (To better understand myself, neurotypical people, and the differences between us.)
  • Privacy, intellectual property, copyright, human rights, consent, systemic incentives. (To understand what keeps systems balanced and how/why they can go off the rails.)

Hard to believe anyone would take a position against this meaning of liberal and argue against lifelong learning. That can’t be the problem, right? You’d tell me if it were?

3) (especially of an interpretation of a law) broadly construed or understood; not strictly literal.

Being autistic I’m going to assume this meaning is definitely NOT the one that applies in this context. If anything, I’m way too literal. It took me a very long time just to understand colloquialisms like “we’re gonna split now.”

4. Given, used, or occurring in generous amounts.

This meaning refers to relative quantity and measurements. If this is the one that makes me less than human, someone needs to clue me in as to what aspect of my generosity is the problem. I’m assuming it isn’t the generous amount of comments I make on the Internet because the people who spit “Liberal” at me as if it were cobra venom are usually also prolific participants.

4.1(of a person) giving generously.

Yup, again guilty as charged. Once I started making decent money, I started giving some of it away. One of my favorite charities is Donors Choose because I know who benefits from my donation and what it will be used for. I also volunteer at the local elementary school. Is this what I’m being tarred and feathered over? A shortage of volunteers is nearly a universal problem among public schools so this does make me a bit unusual, I admit. But evil and sub-human? I don’t think so.

noun

  1. A person of liberal views.

“Liberal” in the comments section of the Internet is often capitalized to indicate that it is a proper noun. But this definition is self-referential. It is meaningless without an understanding of liberal in the adjective sense. We covered all of those above and nothing really stood out that would make a liberal person any more or less evil, any more or less worthy as a human, than anyone else. In fact some of those meanings seemed to apply specifically to people of good character, not bad.

1.1) A supporter or member of a Liberal Party, especially (in the UK) a Liberal Democrat.

It is this exact usage into which is packed so much vitriol and hate. The common variation “Libtard” equates being a Liberal with being of low intelligence and manages to lather contempt on two groups of people at once.

But again, it’s just a label. What’s more important? The label or the meaning of the ideas with which the label is associated? If it is the meaning of the word, see above. If all that matters is the label, we’re all in big trouble.

How is Liberal a Bad Thing?

Nothing in the definition of liberal suggests evil to me. Nothing there supports the position that a person with liberal views is inherently inferior. In fact, some of the meanings of the word — open minded, willing to update a belief — are generally considered positive traits. The political meanings — liberty, moderation, free trade — are generally considered patriotic since they form the basis for the country’s founding documents.

Despite some evidence to the contrary, let’s assume for a minute that there is no intrinsic good in the traits described in the dictionary definition of liberal. Doesn’t the opposite of those traits still seem intrinsically bad? Making evidence fit belief and holding the belief as inviolable? Judging based on labels instead of the merits of ideas? Does someone who believes Liberals to be bad believe these opposite traits to be good? Or do they simply not know what the word means?

If you are among the people for whom Liberal is a Bad Thing, could you please explain to me what, exactly, is wrong with it? I promise to approach the subject with an open mind, ready to change my belief in the face of compelling evidence should there be any. That is, after all, the textbook definition of that word so you should expect nothing less from me.

What is it I should expect from you?