One of Facebook’s real voyeuristic thrills is when people fill in the political views section. It adds an extra facet to the image of the person we sketch in our minds. It’s seldom, though, because most people seem to adhere to the deeply inculcated rules of politeness that you should avoid open statements of political allegiance. Still, you do get some outliers who don’t seem to mind pigeon-holing themselves with an online declaration.
Among my Facebook friends, the section is invariably filled with the designation “liberal”, or in one case in particular, “very liberal”. It’s hardly a shock, in the Western Europe “liberalism” is the prevailing mood; the Coca-Cola of political views, if you will. To be liberal has come to represent a certain lifestyle. You could argue that has become the Western lifestyle. For many people, it particularly means the eschewing of social conservatism (a conservative ideal like losing your virginity on your wedding night has become a total anachronism). There are also the fairly stock standard principles: women’s rights, multi-culturalism etc.
But I had been feeling uncomfortable with this very diffuse idea of liberalism for a while now. Firstly, the prevailing idea among many young people in the West that liberalism has “won”. It hasn’t: the resurgence of extreme right wing politics in Europe(a continent where extreme right politics killed over a seventy-million people just seven decades ago) strongly begs to differ.
My biggest worry, though, is how liberalism has become associated primarily with individual and private freedom. My misgivings were synthesised beautifully by Tim Stanley and Alexander Lee in a recent article for the The Atlantic: “While each of us may wish to be free as an individual, it shows that individual freedom is dependent on us all being free; and that means that we all have to cling to our shared humanity, our shared dignity.”
Liberalism is in crisis in the West, despite being more widespread than ever, because we have become intellectually and spiritually lazy and selfish. Liberty has become a deeply private endeavour, the free market mentality has us constantly asking, “What’s in it for me?” The rise of irony, nihilism, and sarcasm in popular culture has dulled our natures to such a point that to care and be sincere is seen as a weakness.
It’s been forgotten that to be liberal is not just the pursuit of personal happiness, but also a revolutionary act; the triumph of human kindness. It not only dictates personal behaviour, but also how we should serve one another.
We’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. As Alexander and Lee go on to write in their article, “Liberalism will not work if too much emphasis is placed on total human autonomy at the expense of all others, nor if it is obsessed with materialism and consumerism.” To be liberal is not just a freedom, it’s a duty. It’s a struggle to ensure that everyone has the same freedom you enjoy. And something tells me that that point is not taken into consideration these days when people say they are “liberal”.
John Locke, the grand daddy of liberalism, argued that each person had the right to life and liberty. Think about the vastness of that sentiment and then ask yourself, “am I a liberal? Or am I just posing as one?”.