Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Libertarian Limits

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Libertarian Limits

Article excerpt

Libertarian Limits On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence BY FRANK FUREDl CONTINUUM, 224 PAGES, $22.95

The independent-minded British sociologist Frank Furedi has variously been a self-proclaimed revolutionary communist and a libertarian public intellectual. The last has led him to write On Tolerance, a critical analysis of a therapeutic and custodial liberalism he believes has collapsed into nannystate tyranny, and a plea for the restoration of classical liberalism.

Tolerance, he argues, was originally at home in classical liberalism. Following Kant and John Stuart Mill, classical liberalism emphasized autonomy, understood as choice of a scheme of life based on the individual exercise of reason. Its goal was moral independence, which required freedom of discussion, and this freedom in turn required the exercise of tolerance, a willingness to hold or express radically different and even repugnant ideas.

As time passed, many people began to reject classical liberalism, largely because they began to see freedom as too risky and threatening to social order and to doubt that free discussion would lead to the necessary agreement about moral and political matters. Human life is full of uncertainties, and a consensus developed that only experts could be trusted to limit and manage them. Many also began to argue that, given differences in wealth and status, liberties like the formal right to free speech were less a safeguard of public debate than a way for the strong to get what they wanted. Our current campaign contribution restrictions reflect such concerns.

For these and other reasons, twentieth-century liberals dropped liberalism's former emphasis on the free, self-guided individual. They became ever more protective of the weak and eventually came to identify autonomy and tolerance with "empowerment," which means providing material resources and a supportive cultural environment that enable everyone to live safely in accordance with his own self-understanding.

Tolerance, which was once thought to require an open forum for strong judgments about ideas and conduct, thus became the opposite. It is now thought to require the protection of fragile personal identities rather than open debate. To say that homosexuality is immoral or that women are most fulfilled in their roles as mothers is censured as an intolerance that creates a "hostile environment." The critical habit of mind, once a virtue, has become a vice. Tolerance has been "redeployed to deal with group conflicts."

The new liberal tolerance, which the author rejects as confused or fraudulent, demands constant government intervention into private life. The state must regulate our speech and behavior to keep us from oppressing each other. We are required to tiptoe around the reactions of others, and this non-judgmental approach severely limits discussion and therefore informed and rational choice.

This paradoxical situation - suppression in the name of tolerance - is largely invisible to the people who now run things. They understand beliefs and ways of life as given by race, class, sex, sexual preference, and so on rather than as rationally chosen by individuals. It is not Frank Furedi the libertarian or former communist whose identity and sensibilities must be protected, but Frank Furedi the immigrant.

The separation of belief, culture, and way of life from rational choice causes pervasive problems. One is what the author calls the fossilization of identity: People are what they are, defined in terms of group identity. Black, gay, and Muslim identities become absolutes that others must celebrate, or at least accommodate. The alternative, we are told, would be conceptual, and perhaps physical, violence by the majority against helpless minorities. Therefore free discussion and debate becomes antithetical to modern liberal regimes of tolerance.

A further problem arises because the modern liberal consensus finds itself increasingly inarticulate about substantive moral and cultural convictions. …

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