Progressivism, Reaction and Symmetry

  • This essay was first published on Scribd in September 2013

Reactionaries claim that the ideals of the culturally dominant section of modern Western society constitute a religion, albeit a godless one, and that this religion is as hostile to departures from its doctrine as other dominant religions have been. In other words, the ‘pluralism’ and ‘tolerance’ that liberalism claims for itself are a lie.

The liberals claim otherwise. They say they are tolerant of everything except intolerance (and obvious crimes, which are not what the central disagreement is about), and that conservatives who complain they are losing freedoms are in fact only losing the freedom to exclude or oppress others.

There is a good deal of truth in the liberals’ response. Most of the things that conservatives complain about not being allowed to do are things that involve excluding others, whether it’s having a scout groups that requires a profession of religious belief, or a company that doesn’t do business with gays.

That doesn’t prove that liberals’ position is superior — a libertarian can claim that the right to choose who to associate with is more important than a right to force others to associate with you, and a conservative can claim that some things just ought not to be tolerated — but it does answer the allegation of equivalence between the liberal ‘religion’ and the more exclusive dominant faiths of the past.

There is a catch, though. The claim to tolerate anything but intolerance breaks down in a few places, and these exceptions undermine the liberal defense.

The first weak spot is the pseudoscientific liberal dogma. If you suggest that the intelligence of Africans is not the same as that of Europeans, then, no matter how eminent you are or how much evidence there is on your side, you will be excluded from any position of influence, even if no accusation of actual intolerance is made.

The second is the concept of the ‘hostile environment’. If you were to put a calendar on your desk, of the sort that used to be widespread, in which the days of each month are accompanied by a photograph of a young adult woman in a state of partial undress, then in most workplaces you would be out of the door in about twenty minutes.

The exceptions are perfectly understandable in practice. Intolerance can be expressed by simply making your environment unpleasant for the people you don’t want; that works almost as well as directly keeping them out. If you permit hostile environments, you permit intolerance. If someone can maintain a false theory about a particular group, then they can similarly practice their intolerance implicitly simply by following their theory. The progressives got themselves in a bit of a knot over the science; when they started pushing the egalitarian science they believed it in good faith, but, having prohibited certain propositions on moral grounds, they are trapped by the need not to contradict themselves now that the evidence that those propositions are false is overwhelming.

So, leaving aside the scientific mess, these small intolerances of liberalism make a certain amount of sense. All the same, the exceptions do restore the symmetry between liberalism and religion. Any of the unacceptable intolerances of the traditionalists could, in principle, be equally well defended as providing false justification for other intolerances, or as creating a hostile environment towards some group. Open displays of deviant sexual orientation create a hostile environment for the chaste. Evolutionary theory justifies intolerance of orthodox Christians. The circle is complete.

It might seem that the liberals could clean up their act, and eliminate these little episodes of backsliding into intolerance, but they really can’t. The reason for the exceptions for justifications and hostile environments is that they are absolutely necessary. Without them, a strong group can still impose their cultural preferences while being strictly ‘tolerant’ in every respect. In other words, the theory that you can build a system on tolerance is false. There is such as thing as culture, and any society is going to have a single dominant culture, not a buffet of available cultural elements to pick and choose from. The progressive project is not one of opening up more choice, but of replacing the old dominant culture with a different one. That is why topless calendars create an illegal hostile environment for women, but Gay Pride accessories don’t create an illegal hostile environment for Christians.

The areas where ‘alternative’ cultures clash with each other are the strongest demonstrations of the incoherence of the liberal position. Feminists and Muslims make hostile environments for each other, or homosexuals and Africans, and observers are treated to the spectacle of ‘victimhood poker’ as liberals try to adjudicate which side is entitled to make an environment hostile to the other.

Is, then, the goal of liberalism to impose a particular new culture, or to acheive an impossible balance, where any culture is allowed until it looks like becoming too strong? The rhetoric of liberty tends towards the latter, but there is a strong thread of a particular subculture in there. Ultimately, it isn’t really a meaningful question. The progressive movement is big enough and old enough that it has become an agglomeration of different ideas, associated by history or by temporary strategic alliances.