Monday, May 29, 2006

Nagel on Cultural Liberalism

[Political correctness] is the subject of endless fulminations by unsavory characters, but that doesn't make it illegitimate as an object of concern. It shouldn't be just a right-wing issue. The demand for public lip-service to certain pieties and vigilance against tell-tale signs in speech of unacceptable attitudes or beliefs is due to an insistence that deep cultural conflicts should not simply be tolerated, but must be turned into battles for control of the common social space...

The attempt to control public space is importantly an attempt to control the cultural and ideological environment in which young people are formed. Forty years ago the public pieties were patriotic and anticommunist; now they are multicultural and feminist. What concerns me is not the content but the character of this kind of control: Its effect is to make it difficult to breathe, because the atmosphere is so thick with significance and falsity. And the atmosphere of falsity is independent of the truth or falsity of the orthodoxy being imposed. It may be entirely true, but if it is presented as what one is supposed to believe and publicly affirm if one is on the right side, it becomes a form of mental suffocation.

The reason this is part of the same topic as our main theme of reticence and concealment is that it involves one of the most effective forms of invasion of privacy -- the demand that everyone stand up and be counted.... The avoidance of what is offensive is one thing; the requirement to include visible signals of respect and correct opinion is another. It is like pasting an American flag on your rear windshield. We used to have a genuinely neutral way of talking, but the current system forces everyone to decide, one way or the other, whether to conform to the pattern that is contending for orthodoxy -- so everyone is forced to express more, in one direction or another, than should be necessary for the purposes of communication, education, or whatever. One has to either go along with it, or resist, and there is no good reason to force that choice on people just in virtue of their being speakers of the language -- no reason to demand external signs of inner conformity. In the abyss at the far end of the same road one finds anticommunist loyalty oaths for teachers or civil servants, and declarations of solidarity with the workers and peasants in the antifascist and anti-imperialist struggle...

Liberalism should favor the avoidance of forced choices and tests of purity, and the substitution of a certain reticence behind which potentially disruptive disagreements can persist without breaking into the open, and without requiring anyone to lie. The disagreements needn't be a secret -- they can just remain quiescent. In my version, the liberal ideal is not content with the legal protection of free speech for fascists, but also includes a social environment in which fascists can keep their counsel if they choose.

I suspect that this refusal to force the issue unless it becomes necessary is what many people hate about liberalism.

Read the whole thing.



  1. I can't quite understand if Nagel is trying to criticize liberalism here. But isn't conservative Christianity also bad about this? Trying to police the content of the airwaves to ensure that they're "family friendly" and "safe for children" and such.

  2. Nagel is advocating a certain kind of liberalism, and criticizing anti-liberal leftists along the way.

    "But isn't conservative Christianity also bad about this?"

    Certainly. (But why the "but"?)

  3. This is one of the weapons that may be considered distasteful but might work. The sort of thing that Pat and I SHOULD have ended up debating.

    Ie - do liberals give up a distasteful tool (particularly anti-liberal ones) even if it helps them to win various battles.

  4. It seems like if we see the phenomenon not only in liberalism, then its origins might be explained by some common feature of the two ideologies, but he doesn't attempt to do that in what you quoted (I haven't read the whole paper). If he's objecting to there being "battles for the control of the common social space", which seems to be the center of his criticism, I think it would be more interesting, and not less useful, to consider it without reference to liberalism in particular.

  5. It seems an all too common fact of humankind that we seek to impose "what's good for them" upon people.

    The difficulty is that in practice this has to be a balancing act. For instance I suspect most people would favor trying to quash racist structures and teachings in the public sphere. So clearly an "anything goes" public sphere isn't desired. But at the same time people get various nervous when groups (be they conservative or liberal) start imposing their views as a kind of indoctrination.

    But logically there's not a huge difference between the two. So it ends up being what society as a whole is comfortable with. During periods where there isn't agreement (say the changes in the 60's) this leads to quite a bit of conflict.

  6. I think it's largely possible to separate discrimination regulation from the "public sphere" concerns. They seem like separate issues.

    I tend to think that it would be better for the public sphere to not be subject to any regulation-by-whining, i.e. people complaining loudly when they see something they don't like. It would be better for people to simply move their attentions (and subscriptions) elsewhere. Otherwise you get things like letter writing campaigns organized by these family values coalitions having an undue influence over the FCC. I think the same sort of argument should apply somehow to "political correctness" concerns, though I'm not clear on the details.

    I guess it would be nice, in other words, for people to just have thicker skins. If they want to try to change the cultural atmosphere to not be friendly to certain language, they should contribute to culture using correct language, and hope that their numbers are great enough to drown out the others, instead of trying to silence the others.

    Eh. That position needs a lot of work to be tenable.


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