Classical Liberalism is a Pretext, with Two Examples

Two stories came through the pipeline in the last couple of days that caught my attention.  The first was a piece by Ross Douthat arguing for some sort of extensive ban on pornography.  The other had to do with Shane Claiborne, one of the organizers of an anti-Trump revival in Lynchburg, Virginia, who received very strong push back due to his non-affirming stance on LGBT questions (example here, see also Bill Lindsey here), as well as the corresponding backlash to the backlash.  The backlash to the backlash primarily took the form of "how can you shun or criticize Claiborne and claim to be a classical liberal?," an example of which can be found here.  The link between these two stories is a discussion of classical liberalism, and so it is worthwhile talking about that for a bit.

We can think about classical liberalism as having two dimensions.  The first is political--a particular area of human life will not be regulated or otherwise coerced by the state, with the result being that actors are free to do what they want in that space (at least, from a legal perspective).  The second might be called "discourse liberalism"--the idea that one should be allowed to say whatever one wants without suffering any sort of consequences for one's position, perhaps subject only to what American First Amendment jurisprudence calls "time, place, and manner" restrictions.

I am of the view that classical liberalism, in both forms but especially in its discourse form, is fundamentally tactical in nature, in the sense that it is not a good in and of itself, but instead a vehicle for getting what one wants or achieving some good.  The tactic can be deployed in two senses.  First is the Lockean, unilateral disarmament approach--certain spheres of life are so fraught that consensus is impossible/not worth the cost, so you basically throw up your hands and decide ex ante that we will leave this topic alone.  Religious freedom, at least in its original English Enlightenment form, is the best example--the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th Centuries proved to people like Locke that it's counter-productive to try to get people to agree on religion, so his solution was to mark that out as a space beyond government action.

The second form is as an alternative when your point of view does not gain the majority position, or as a compromise where no majority position can be found.  In other words, if I can't convince the majority that my ideas are good ones for everyone to implement, I can check down to the idea that I should be allowed to implement this idea in my own context.  After all, if everyone or most people agree with my ideas or think it is good for me to do the thing I want to do, then I don't need classical liberalism to give me the space to do what I want.  It's only where there is conflict and/or where I am in the minority that I want or need some sort of check down that allows me to get at least part of what I want or creates space for me to say what I want to say.

The fundamentally tactical nature of classical liberalism can be seen from the fact that no one actually believes in or practices discourse liberalism in its essential form--no one is actually indifferent to what other people say or what their ideas are.  If you hear someone say something that you believe is abhorrent, you might decide not to do anything about it for one of a number of tactical reasons, such as maintaining social harmony or as part of a Prisoner's Dilemma-type analysis ("his ideas are abhorrent, but some people probably think my ideas are abhorrent, so if I don't do anything about him, no one will do anything about me").  Actually believing and embodying true neutrality toward the ideas and speech of others would be pretty close to a personality disorder.  That's just not how things work.

The second thing about classical liberalism is that, despite it's apparent neutrality, it isn't actually neutral.  While it is true that classical liberalism always involves getting only part of the loaf (i.e., what you really want), how much of the loaf you are getting depends on what you are trying to get.  The clearest example of this can be seen in thinking about the classical liberal political economy.  We might imagine that some massive company like Amazon (or Apple, or whatever) would, in perfect world for them, be part of a society that affirmatively believes that the success of Amazon is a good that we should all get behind and support with policies.  But the formal neutrality of more-or-less laissez faire capitalism allows so much room for Amazon to do its thing that the difference between this ideal outcome and the "compromise" outcome is basically de minimus.  On the flip side, having the formal neutrality of "anyone who wants to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a lifesaving cancer treatment may do so," is such a thin "compromise" as to be basically worthless for most people.  In both cases, there is a formal neutrality between players, but the neutrality is only formal.

Before turning to the examples, let's also talk for a moment about the so-called Sexual Revolution, which backstops both of the examples.  The Sexual Revolution, at its heart, is not a classically liberal project.  At its heart, the claim here is that the sexual norms and values of pre-Sexual Revolution culture were dictated by straight males in a hegemonic position, and as a result benefited only straight males at the expense of everyone else (and, perhaps, not even to the benefit of all straight males).  We should get rid of these norms and values and replace them with different norms that do not disadvantage women and LGBT folks, says the Sexual Revolution.  There are significant disagreements over what those new norms and values should be, but that's the core project.  To the extent the project talked in terms of classical liberalism, it did so in a tactical sense--if I can't convince everyone to abandon the Old Ways, at least I want space to not have to be bound by those ways myself.

Which brings us to the backlash to the backlash to Claiborne.  The Jonathan Merritt-style disdain for LGBT and other progressive Christians angry at Clairborne is premised on the idea that the ask by LGBT people is some sort of formal equality couched in terms of political and discourse liberalism--everyone should be allowed to think whatever they want about LGBT relationships, and there should be no legal sanction.  But that's not the ask; the ask is that everyone should affirm the dignity and worth of those relationships in a positive sense.  The formal equality of "tolerance" is better for LGBT folks than intolerance, but there is no reason why LGBT folks are obligated to stop at tolerance.  Retreating to the protected grounds of discourse liberalism for the non-affirming position is a way to protect what has become a minority position in progressive spaces.  That's tactically valid for folks like Claiborne and his defenders.  But people like Claiborne, if they want to be part of a progressive Christian sphere, need to make an affirmative case as to why their minority position should be tolerated on, again, tactical grounds.  Acting as if he is entitled to that protective space on the grounds of the universal validity of discourse liberalism is nonsense.  No one is obligated to give him that space.

This lack of obligation is particularly acute because the asymmetry between what tolerance means in this space is so large.  For someone like Claiborne, an "agree to disagree" position about LGBT sexuality is the best of all possible worlds.  He gets to do his full throated advocacy for various political and economic dimensions of the Christian message, while still having a place in the evangelical world which, as we have seen with total clarity in the Age of Trump, really only cares about preserving the Old Ways on sex.  He can be both a radical progressive on his terms and a conservative in the only way that many conservatives care about.  He's all things to all people.  Meanwhile, he provides cover for those same conservative evangelicals to pressure LGBT folks in their own congregations, limited only by fig leaves like "the need to stay in dialogue."  He gives up basically nothing through the adoption of discourse liberalism, while LGBT people get to continue to be run out of their congregations on a rail.

Turning to the Douthat example and pornography, we see here a perfect example of classical liberalism as the compromise resulting from a deadlock.  We, as a society, are divided between the Old Ways of conservative, straight male dominated, hierarchically-formed sexual norms and the affirmative project of the Sexual Revolution (and, to a lesser but important extent, different visions of what the new norms and values are that should replace the Old Ways).  Because we can't resolve this deadlock, we have defaulted to a laissez faire approach to sexuality and things like pornography.  While there are probably some folks on the pro-Sexual Revolution side that think that modern commercial pornography is swell, most of them propose a radically different model of sexual expression that what we see in general on the screen.  The problem is that the Douthat project is transparently about returning to the Old Ways, and many of the folks on the pro-Sexual Revolution side would rather leave open the space for their preferred forms of expression that are unambiguously counter to the Old Ways, even if it means allowing expressions that they would prefer not to have exist.

This can be seen best in thinking about the part of Douthat's piece dealing with how kids are learning about sexuality.  I don't think anyone thinks that it is ideal for young people to learn about sexuality through pornography.  But (and I can't believe I am saying this) Amanda Marcotte is right to point out that a big part of the reason this is so is because conservatives like Douthat freak-out about comprehensive sex education.  We end up not telling kids anything about sex other than don't do it until you are married as a result of catering to Old Ways fundamentalists like Douthat, leaving pornography the only available vehicle for learning about sex.  Imagine you are an LGBT young person in some conservative area.  Where are you going to go other than pornography to figure out even the basic mechanics of your sexuality?  No one in your community is going to give you anything other than "don't do it."

[As an aside, it's worth pointing out that the original Old Ways objection to the Sexual Revolution was that it resulted in people having too much sex, and now the claim is that it results in people not having enough sex.  This patent medicine, "good for whatever ails you," approach should at a minimum arouse suspicions of a bait-and-switch, ideologically-driven narrative.  Particularly as all of the research shows that the sexual behavior of young people is far more restrained, even from a conservative perspective, than a generation ago.  See here for an excellent thread on this topic.]

The point is Douthat's purported desire to forge some consensus against pornography is either naive or disingenuous, because the classical liberal approach to pornography is itself the compromise resulting from the lack of consensus.  It is a compromise between two mutually opposed visions of sexuality.  If the end result of Douthat's plan is that the Old Ways return triumphant and unopposed, then no one from the "other side," least of all "feminists," is going to go along with that.

The broader point here, and this is something that has cropped up in many different forms of late, is that it is helpful to everyone if we are all focused on, and clear about, what it is we want.  This endless desire to shunt every discussion into a debate about process is not doing anyone any favors.  And, in a way, classical liberalism is the ultimate form of this process-as-substitute-for-substance discussion.  We don't go to seemingly neutral classical liberalism because it is good in itself, but because we can't agree on the merits.  That's OK, but let's acknowledge what we are doing, and acknowledge that it is better if we actually agree on what we should do and believe.


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