on liberalism

On Saturday evening, I was walking through Soho with a friend on our way to see Marcus Brigstocke‘s Edinburgh Preview. I was quite chirpy about this because I’ve been a big Brigstocke fan for some years now, and with his show clashing with ours in Edinburgh I had been worried I wouldn’t get to see it.

Anyway, to get to the show we had to navigate our way through Soho Square at about 7.30pm, where the Gay Pride festival was fully underway. It wasn’t just gays there to party – it seemed like every non-homophobe in London had turned up to get drunk, and dance, and snog in the street under brightly-coloured banners. It was a sunny evening, everyone was smiling, and the only people looking uncomfortable were the pair of policemen sent to patrol Greek Street. It was brilliant.

As we weaved through the crowd sharing a burrito, my friend turned to me and said how cool it all was, and then added something like, “Strange to use the word ‘pride’ about sexuality, though. I wouldn’t say I’m ‘proud to be heterosexual’. Though maybe that’s because being heterosexual’s dull.”

I smiled, but she’d made a good point (though she now says she wasn’t intending to make it) – it is odd to talk about being ‘proud’ of something you had no choice over. I’ve always been baffled when people say they are ‘proud’ to be from the family or ethnic group they were born into, even though these things are purely arbitrary and nobody has made any decision or action to be proud of.

I thought for a moment, and then – probably thinking of all the heterosexual couples I’d noticed around the place – I said, “perhaps it’s not pride in being gay, but pride in taking part in a tolerant society. I can be proud to be part of that.”

“No,” she said, “It’s not ‘tolerance’, because being gay doesn’t involve doing anything wrong which needs to be tolerated.”

“Ok,” I said, adopting her implied definition of ‘tolerance’ in order to accept another good point. “Not ‘tolerant’, then. How about ‘liberal’?”

“No,” she said, “I don’t really like that either.”

I tried to push her for an argument as to why she didn’t like the word ‘liberal’, but then we got separated by a big dancing crowd surrounding some almost-naked men with conga drums.

She didn’t need to explain it, anyway. The word ‘liberal’ has been dragged into confusion and disrepute, partly because of the horrible things that have happened to it in the US (despite the brilliant attempt by Bruno Gianelli in The West Wing to clear things up). When you use it, as she pointed out later, nobody knows what you mean; they put their own meaning on it, and assume something they either like or don’t like based on the way they’ve been socialised to respond to the term. It swings between meaning something like ‘we should allow individual freedom within certain parameters’ (which is both wussy and horribly vacuous), and meaning something like ‘moral decline that will send us all to hell’.

In short, it’s a problematic word.

But it’s a word that needs reclaiming. Firstly, because it’s classy: it’s the best, most elegant word that the Spanish ever gave us (the first people to call themselves ‘Liberales’ were the Spanish supporters of the 1791 French Constitution, which led to the signing of the first explicitly ‘liberal’ constitution – the 1812 Cadiz constitution, which is arguably Spain’s greatest contribution to practical political philosophy.

Secondly, because it’s the best word for the best combination of the other ideologies we have: Liberalism encompasses the wide-eyed utopianism of anarchism, the common decency of socialism, and the maturity and good sense of conservatism. It does what conservatism tries and fails to do in valuing us as we are and how we want ourselves to be, not as we ‘should be’ according to any unjustifiable position of moral superiority. It allows us to change when we become different, but allows it gradually (again, taking the most mature and rational element of conservatism, its gradualism, while actually allowing that gradual change to happen).

Good liberalism, of course, has anarchy as its ultimate goal, its telos, but it knows you can’t get straight there from here. It’s a gradualist ideology that chips away at irrational and corrupt authority slowly, carefully, delicately, reasonably, conservatively. In the meantime, its immensely pragmatic and reasonable myth of ‘human equality’ implores us to at least pretend we are equal for just long enough not to cause dangerous problems for ourselves. While all the time giving us the power to say what we want, to laugh at what we want, to dance and kiss in the streets if we want.

At bottom, liberalism isn’t built on any absolute truth, but it’s practical, it is brave, and it works. It’s a good ideology, and I am proud that I choose to live in a city that is proud of its liberalism.

Brigstocke’s new show is awesome, by the way. It’s about religion. On Saturday, though, his opening line was, “Good evening. Aren’t gays messy?” There was a short pause – nobody was quite sure if what he’s said was intolerant or not – then, as he shook his head and smiled and said, “so very messy!“, we realised there was something in the subtlety of his voice, something that the best of us humans are bright enough to understand, had told that it was all okay – that he’s just as proud to be a liberal as the rest of us.

And we laughed, because we bloody well can.