Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Political Pietism


But for so many liberals, the words are everything. There is no bigger sin than using the wrong term, or revealing that you haven’t completely purified your inner life of unapproved sentiments. Of course, as Alwan points out, this is an absurd, impossible, and even dangerous expectation, but it is nonetheless the one that animates a significant swath of American social liberalism to the point that a few wrong words can undo a larger body of actions. You can do almost all the right things on the outside, but if the bloggers’ jury decides your inner life betrays the cause, you’ve got to go.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a devastating mentality for the left to embrace. I left behind the religious conservatism I grew up with partly because I saw, over the first 20 years or so of my life, the self-defeating absurdity of movement orthodoxies and the obsession with moral shibboleths. There is some basic part of humanity that resists imposed conformity, especially when it claims the authority to judge even one’s individual inner experience. I became a liberal because I believed in the fundamental sovereignty of the individual to determine their existence as they see fit, free from totalizing legal or religious regimes; I became a leftist when I understood that systemic economic conditions impose even greater constraints on that self-determination. If all liberalism is about is policing the state of one’s soul, entirely apart from what one does to tear down those restraints, we might as well give up politics and go back to church.

I’m sure most liberals would say they agree with the previous paragraph, but I think the record would show that, in practice, labeling and shaming play a larger role in their discourse than they would like to admit.