Liberalism does not only fail to satisfy the new conservatives who are storming to power across the west. It fails to satisfy many who call themselves “liberal”. It is simultaneously too hard and too soft an ideology to bear. It demands tolerance. But we do not want to be tolerated as if we were poor relations. We want respect, approval and freedom from criticism and insult. In our wilder moments, we want, in our vanity, to be loved.
To paraphrase the paraphrase of Voltaire, the liberal view of sexual tolerance used to be: “I may disapprove of who you take to bed, but I will defend to my death your right to bed them.” Just as liberals used to tolerate free speech, except when the speaker was inciting violence, so they allowed free love between consenting adults. Few now care about defending rights to the death. Many turn authoritarian and maintain you have no right to disapprove.
To recap, the great mid-20th century movement for homosexual rights culminated in the recommendation of the Wolfenden report of 1957 that sexual acts between consenting adults in private should be decriminalised. It did not say that fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslims or ordinary secular homophobes must stop believing that homosexuality was a sin. Indeed, their freedom of speech guaranteed their freedom to disapprove. They simply lost the power to call for the police to raid bedrooms.
Equally, the old liberal insistence that free speech must be tolerated, except when it incited violence, did not mean that an audience must approve of a speaker. It remained free to argue back, denounce or satirise in the most robust manner. It just could not call on the authorities to ban speakers or the police to arrest them for “hate speech” when the speech was not so hateful it provoked attacks on its targets.
Farron was being a true liberal. He disapproved of homosexuality but was prepared to defend gay rights
The strange controversy the leader of the Liberal Democrats began when he equivocated on whether he believes homosexuality is a sin shows how dead the old liberalism is. On the record, Tim Farron supports “equal rights for LGBT people and LGBT rights in this country and overseas”. But he also believes Christianity is “the most important thing in the universe bar nothing”.
The contortions he put himself through as he dodged questions about homosexuality’s “sinfulness” suggested he took his Bible literally and had dwelt on the murderous condemnations of homosexuality in Leviticus, echoed by St Paul, for longer than is healthy.
If he once did and has now changed his mind, so what? Farron was being a true liberal. He disapproved of homosexuality but was prepared to defend gay rights, just as I disapprove of religious fundamentalists but am prepared to defend their freedom to worship. Even by the low standards of 21st-century culture wars, the Farron “controversy” was absurd.
To give the absurdity a sinister twist, there is a genuine story about religion and equal rights that no one covers because it does not fit into the stereotypes of news coverage, where reactionaries are always conservative or Christian and the convergence of the far left and far right is always ignored.
Jeremy Corbyn worked for Iranian state television and spoke at Khomeinist rallies in London. Everywhere he went, he looked a willing collaborator with a regime that flogs and executes gay men, treats women as second-class citizens and imprisons trade unionists.
If Corbyn was questioned on this, which he never is, he might say he does not approve of every aspect of Shia theocracy. But he worked for it, and was paid by it, and never found the courage to speak out on Iranian television for the victims of its oppression. A liberal society that condemns one politician who bothers God, but gives a free pass to another who works for a queer-bashing, queer-killing regime is so lost that it may never find its way home again.
A liberal society that condemns a politician who bothers god, but not one who works for a queer-killing regime, is lost
At second glance, however, perhaps liberal society isn’t making a complete fool of itself. For why shouldn’t a gay man or lesbian be repelled by Farron’s contortions? At some level, they may suspect that although he will defend them he does not approve of them. Why should they accept that as good enough?
To broaden it out, why must a feminist fed up with seeing women portrayed as lumps of meat accept that she must struggle for years to find a link between pornography and rape? Why should a Muslim incensed by the anti-Muslim bigotry of the worst of the right, or a Jew incensed by the antisemitism of the worst of the left, wait until their enemies incite violence? Why not no-platform or call for dangerously fuzzy laws against hate speech before the tipping point?
For those who practise it, toleration is a hard principle to live with. It forces you to engage with enemies you abhor in argument when you don’t believe they have an argument worth hearing.
Concealed within the hardness is a soft centre, one that is too insipid for many to digest. Emotionally, it feels vapid to say that you must win arguments rather than call for the police. It can feel like an act of treason to dignify misogynists, racists or homophobes by agreeing to argue with them in the first place.
But however much the dismissal of tolerance, and the flight to a politically correct authoritarianism, makes emotional sense, practically it has been a disaster. Trump won in part because tens of millions of Americans had had it with being told what to think. Some were genuine bigots. Others could be won over if only “liberals” stopped upholding an illiberal policing of thought.
Unless they understand how they drive so many into the welcoming embrace of the right, Trump’s four-year presidency could stretch to eight. In Britain, we will have at least five more years of Conservative rule. Basic self-interest ought to persuade liberals not to provide justifications for censorship and control when the right – and the right alone – has the power to deliver both.
The politically correct movement is not only an intellectual and practical failure, it fails on the more basic level of human psychology.
You cannot demand respect from others. You can only earn it. You cannot force others to admire you, endorse your lifestyle and drop even private doubts about you. You can only persuade them to see what good there is in you. And if you don’t know by now you that cannot compel others to love you, you never will. All you can do – and all you should want to do – is take the deal when a politician says: don’t ask if I respect you, ask if I respect your rights.