Monday, June 15, 2015

Narrow Visions of Autonomy, They Wanted Me to Surrender My Identity

Jeff Guhin:

When we’re forced to choose, we’d usually rather be autonomous individuals than rooted in communities. We are all liberals now. The nature of that choice itself shows the degree to which liberalism has won. The sort of gemeinschaft for which communitarians yearn was marked by the absence of choice. People grew up amidst practices and boundaries that helped them habituate certain implicit understandings of what is good and true. We just don’t have that anymore, except to the degree that liberalism itself is what Charles Taylor calls a moral imaginary, a way of perceiving the world that comes to feel obviously and necessarily true. Even intentional submission to another’s power—described by anti-liberal leftists like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood—is ultimately rooted in a mature adult’s autonomous decision to do so. You might choose a more serious community—as Dreher himself has done—but you do so as a liberal who could also leave that community (even if you couldn’t leave liberalism).

...The problem with gemeinschaft is that it was very often quite oppressive and also very hard to escape. We thought we had solved that problem by developing this thing called liberalism. Of course, liberalism didn’t show up just because it was a better idea than what preexisted it. There were all sorts of material and economic conditions that made liberalism seem easier and more obvious, one being an increasing awareness of diversity and difference (spurned in no small part by Europe’s religious wars). Liberals recognized that difference will continue to exist, subverting their deepest desires for a perfect society to remain alive in an adequate one.

Liberalism accommodates dissent. Whatever faults we may find with it, that, to me, is its greatest virtue. If you were to present me with a detailed blueprint of your ideal post-liberal, utopian society, my only question for you would be, "How will you deal with dissent?" How will you treat the people who don't agree with you and can't seem to be convinced? Will you tolerate them and allow them free speech and equal treatment under the law, or will you rationalize the need to throw them in the dungeon or the piranha pool to stop them from holding up progress? Liberalism is pessimistically resigned to the fact that people will always, always, always disagree over important, fundamental issues, and that this impasse cannot be resolved without doing violence to other values we hold dear. Many people find that unacceptable and think we have a moral duty to strive for more. I find them dangerously deluded.