Standing Your Ground and Being Fair in an Age of Polarization
A reply to Damon Linker and Parker Molloy
Today, I want to reply to two articles at the same time, because I think there is a common underlying theme there. The first article is ‘On Being a Conservative Liberal’ by Damon Linker, who describes himself as residing ‘on the conservative edge of the Democratic Party’. The second article is ‘On Free Speech and Cancel Culture, Letter Three’ by Parker Molloy, an LGBT activist who is more clearly on the left side of politics. Both articles deal with the rapidly changing and very confusing political landscape of the Western world in recent times, focusing on different, but overlapping aspects. I think the common underlying theme is how hard it is to stand your ground, stay true to your values, and remain fair and balanced towards all sides.
Part 1: It’s Hard to Stand Your Ground These Days
In his article, Damon Linker grounds his politics in the general impulse to resist radical change. He quotes from the British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott: “To be conservative… is to prefer the familiar to the unknown,… the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” Linker says he is ‘pro-choice (within limits)’, and ‘strongly support women’s rights, gay rights, and legal protections for transgender people’. However, he is also worried that ‘the urge to change things for the better would end up inadvertently making things worse’. Hence, he also empathizes with people who are worried that the pace of certain changes is happening too quickly. He also thinks that the left ‘often foolishly ends up providing fuel for right-wing fires’.
I totally understand where Linker is coming from, and I even feel like people like us could form a new faction in the political and cultural landscape. My views on most issues haven’t changed much since 2003, the year I started college. It was at that time, with things like the Iraq War in the background, that I began to understand the importance of liberal values like free speech and freedom of conscience, and started being seriously committed to them. Since then, the political landscape of the Western world has shifted multiple times, but my core values have remained the same, and my views on most issues have remained largely the same. I guess, over the years, I also gained an appreciation of a certain strain of conservative philosophy. I became aware of the fact that people are naturally attached to what is familiar, and continuity is an important thing in life. This conservatism also informed the way my more progressive, reformist impulses pointed: back in 2012, then British Prime Minister David Cameron famously stated that ‘I support gay marriage because I’m a conservative’. I think that quote sums up what the best kind of progress looks like: an emphasis on the continuation and refinement of tradition and commonly held values, while making society truly inclusive of everyone. I also came to see that approaching issues of social justice this way helps us to avoid going down paths where we could inadvertently make things worse.
During the 2010s, the left experienced a surge of radicalism, strongly informed by postmodernism and critical theory. This change represented a double challenge to the values of people like myself. On one hand, the idea that discourse is about power, rather than getting us closer to the objective truth, challenges the most fundamental principle of the classical liberal consensus, and hence leads to the rejection of values like free speech and freedom of conscience. The liberal in me is upset by this. On the other hand, the idea that almost everything we know is a social construct in the service of the oppressors against the oppressed, and hence needs to be deconstructed, feels very reckless to my inner conservative. Despite all its flaws, what we have now is the result of the innovation, experience and painful lessons of many centuries, and there is just no way we will be able to get something better by knocking it all down and starting from scratch. It is these two challenges that turned myself, and I believe many others, towards focusing our criticism on the left during parts of the 2010s. In doing this, I found myself alienated from many people whom I previously considered fellow travellers, and this was painful. I guess this is what Linker described in his article as “pleading the case to my fellow liberals for understanding and empathizing with the enduringly human appeal of standing athwart history, yelling Stop!”
Right now, however, Linker’s new substack ‘Eyes on the Right’ has a focus on the right, as the title suggests. He wants to warn about ‘the greater dangers of the Republican Party’s anti-liberal, rightward drift’. His focus is on what he calls the antiliberal right, i.e. what is sometimes called the ‘post liberal right’, which he clearly differentiates from conservative classical liberals in the vein of President Reagan. I think his differentiation here is important: the illiberal right is a problem not because it is conservative, but because it is illiberal. People have the right to be conservative, and a healthy society surely needs some conservatives for the sake of balance. But the illiberalism of these people is clearly a problem. Just like the illiberalism of the postmodern critical theory left is a problem. I think we need to separate the progressive/conservative out from the liberal/illiberal in order to make our critique of the rising illiberalism (on both sides) clear and strong.
Part 2: The Imbalance of the Free Speech Movement in the 2010s
Molloy’s article is the third in a series of letters between her and Freddie deBoer, discussing free speech and cancel culture. In this letter, Molloy complains that those who raise concerns about cancel culture on the left often don’t apply their criticisms to both sides in a fair and consistent manner. In her view, the media has painted a skewed version of reality, where cancel culture and denial of free speech only occurs on the left, while instances of similar nature on the right are ignored.
I actually agree that the problem Molloy has highlighted actually exists. But I also think there is a reasonable explanation: there was a recent time, where almost all the worst violations of the classical liberal consensus happened on the left. As someone close to the political center, I generally prefer having an approximately equal amount of criticism directed at both sides, but it was actually difficult to do that during parts of the 2010s, at least regarding free speech. Moreover, as described in Part 1, these violations were clearly part of an ideology that is hostile towards, and seeks to supplant, liberalism, even though many of those participating in the activist movements of the left were probably not aware of this. For those of us who are committed to liberalism and also aware of the intentions of the ‘successor ideology’, the cancel culture of the 2010s represented nothing less than an existential threat to the continuation of the liberal consensus in Western society. Hence, while each incident might not be significant on its own, we saw it all as an overall threat to defeat. Thanks to our efforts, I think the situation has actually improved in the past two years, but the fight is far from over.
I agree with Molloy that the right has a major free speech problem right now, and it appears to be getting worse. However, this problem is relatively recent. The book bans, the Don’t Say Gay bills, and the drama between DeSantis and Disney all happened within the last two years, specifically after President Trump left office, which I believe has been a real turning point for both the left and the right. Many free speech activists, intellectuals and journalists have developed a habit of focusing on the left during the 2010s, and it will probably take time for them to fully take on board the recent changes in the political landscape. This, of course, is not to excuse their present imbalance. As I recently analyzed, the rise of an authoritarian, ‘post-liberal’, culture war obsessed faction within the right is a very real thing, and something we must not ignore. This is why I am already turning my attention rightwards, and also calling on my fellow pro-free speech intellectuals to do so.
Originally published at The TaraElla Project on Substack where I reply to interesting and controversial points of view in the trans discourse.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for the West.