3 February 2017
1 February 2017
6 December 2016
“Angela Merkel has said she will seek a fourth term as German chancellor after Donald Trump’s election left her as the west’s pre-eminent defender of liberal values.”
Financial Times, 20 November 2016
In the above extract from a news alert, Angela Merkel is explicitly, and Barack Obama implicitly, identified with “liberal” values; while Donald Trump is presumed to be relatively non-liberal.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective liberal when used in a political context means “favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform”.
In terms of the second of these criteria (free trade) it appears that Mr Trump may be less aligned with liberal values than either Chancellor Merkel or President Obama. In terms of the first and third criteria, the basis for the FT’s assertion seems unclear. Both Mr Obama and Mr Trump were elected on agendas that could more readily be described as reformist than that of Mrs Merkel. None of the three has been notably associated with policies either favouring, or disfavouring, liberty.
The word liberal is derived from Latin liberalis = relating to freedom. The concept of reform began to be associated with the word during the nineteenth century, but this largely referred to reforms in the direction of fewer restrictions on behaviour, and less taxation.
The Left, which was originally identified with increases in liberty in at least in some areas, is now predominantly associated with a desire for more state intervention. Despite this, supporters of left-wing politics seem unwilling to lose the “liberal” label, presumably because it has acquired a largely positive image. This provides the motive for a gradual redefinition of the concept, to the point where it verges on becoming an inversion.
The term liberal is now often simply employed to refer to relatively leftist voters and policies; for example in the distinction “liberal versus conservative” used in the US, roughly corresponding to “Democrat versus Republican”.
Given the confusions and distortions present, it seems best to avoid use of the word altogether.
3 November 2016
“Many students claim that formally ‘free’ debate sidelines the voices of oppressed people, as prejudice leads more privileged folk to subtly ignore their points of view.”
editor of student magazine No Offence
A year ago a few dissident students tried to support free speech by publishing a magazine with articles that flouted the current ideological bias. The result? The magazine was banned by their student union. The police were called and copies of the magazine were confiscated. The authorities investigated whether the content was offensive, while the editor sat in fear that he would be arrested. Eventually the copies were returned on the basis that no crime had been committed.
It seems current anti-speech legislation still permits a limited form of dissidence. It is not yet illegal to publicise the suggestion that the time limit on abortion be reduced, or that colonialism may have had a positive side. But the cultural establishment may prefer such views to be suppressed, and there are means available for doing so other than legal prohibition. The magazine was not handed out at the freshers’ fair as intended, and the editor was given a good scare. A second issue has (so far) not been produced.
Judging by the web, there was little condemnation by fellow students of this act of censorship, a more common reaction being horror and disgust at the positions taken by the magazine contributors. It seems the average undergraduate is quite willing to sacrifice free speech, if it means people will be protected from remarks that might upset them.
The claim cited in the above quote – “what looks like free debate may be highly biased” – is used by some as an argument against free speech. However, it does not by itself undermine the principle. It merely means that when we appear to have free expression, we may not actually have it.
The claim may have some validity. We might take “oppressed people” to mean those who fall foul of the dominant ideology, while “privileged folk” could refer to those able to earn a living in the cultural sectors. Many discussions at universities and elsewhere may look as if they are debating alternative perspectives, yet rigorously exclude a wide range of viewpoints considered taboo.