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Intolerant liberals?

Liberalism needs to recover the noble lie that ideas are not politics by other means.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: June 14, 2016 12:02:38 am
Intolerant liberals, Intolerant debate, Intolerance debate in India, liberalism, Nicholas Kristof, Indian constitution, india news The contemporary credo that everything is political is a real source of tension; for it cannot grant any sphere of inquiry its autonomy to the calculus of politics.

Robert Frost once famously defined a liberal as someone who could not take his own side in an argument. But contemporary constructions paint an opposite picture: Liberals are seen as self-satisfied ideologues with no stomach for a diversity of ideas. Exposing the political hypocrisy of liberals has become a rhetorical gambit to delegitimise the idea of liberalism itself. Alas, it has to be said that those who use this gambit have much ammunition to deploy. But there are also other sources of concern. Nicholas Kristof in a widely discussed New York Times column, argued that the hiring practices of American universities were biased against conservatives. Liberal institutions, rather than becoming shelters for diverse ideas and genuine contestation, were turning into monoliths of political correctness. Liberals were supposed to be able to think out of their skins; now they imprison themselves in boxes. Similar charges have been voiced in India, most recently by Gurcharan Das.

These charges are often political gambits. The charge that liberals exclude and ostracise conservatives comes in many forms. There is one version of this charge that liberals do not have to be defensive about. A conservative presumption in favour of an old order is quite often associated with hierarchy; this usually has the odour of sexism, racism, homophobia, casteism, and hostility to minorities. Sometimes liberals can promote a kind of faux sanitisation of the intellectual environment in ways that close off debate. But the idea that institutional spaces should not legitimise sexism, racism, casteism, and xenophobia is one that every decent society ought to promote.

There are conservative articulations that can, subtly or unsubtly, target specific groups. They make people uncomfortable in ways that have nothing to do with intellectual argument. Liberals are entirely right to be suspicious of these positions. To not be suspicious would be to abdicate a commitment to human dignity itself. Many ideological attacks on liberals from the right don the mantle of being victimised by liberals; whereas in fact, their attack on liberalism is to render invisible the real victims and uncomfortable subjects.

But outside of these moral baselines, matters get more complicated. Kristof’s own analysis suggested that in the US, conservatives were more likely to be represented in economics departments than other social science disciplines. This is not because economics does not have an ideological component. But it is likely that in economics the question of method can in principle be detached from substantive ideological positions.

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But outside of economics, the conceptual dissociation between defence of prima facie illegitimate hierarchies and intellectual inquiry gets trickier. In disciplines where the political and the methodological or the political and the normative are more distinctly braided, the question of intellectual diversity becomes harder. In historical writing, when does writing in the US sympathetic to the Confederacy shade into racism? When does the historiography of medieval India get “communal”? The real shift may not be that liberals have become more intolerant. It is, more, a shift in a general sensibility in our culture that ideas are political all the way down, as it were: Everything from history to art to culture will have implications for forms of social solidarity in the present. This general presumption will make the encounter with diverse ideas become more difficult. Because the paradox of diversity is that it is easier to deal with it if you do not think it has immediate political implications.

Take history, for example. This is one place where the charges against so-called Left-Liberals (to use a term I think is an oxymoron) are more than justified. The use of institutional power many universities, including JNU, exercised to close off legitimate areas of inquiry and scholarship should be a scandal (though it does not follow that replacing it with another state ideology is the solution). But the real challenge is deeper. It can be argued that the crisis of the historical profession in India is that history is actually not possible, because it is colonised by politics all the way down. The conservative charge that medieval historiography was monopolised by particular methods and ideology is not ill-founded. But so long as all parties in the debate continue to believe that the status of Indian Muslims turns on getting facts and interpretations of medieval India right, will a genuine historiography be possible? If all history is a history of the present, as it were, all culture a ruse of power, is there any autonomy possible to different modes of inquiry? The contemporary credo that everything is political is a real source of tension; for it cannot grant any sphere of inquiry its autonomy to the calculus of politics. I suspect the issue is not whether liberals are intolerant; it is whether anyone believes that academic inquiry can be anything other than politics in disguise. It is not an accident that cultural/literary studies and history are the sites where this concern is expressed the most.

In fact, in universities, ideological exclusion is less of a threat than standard pathologies of power. Universities are prone to fads and patronage: The biggest concern with them is not political capture by liberals. It is that different schools at different points, from Marxists in India to rational choice theorists to randomised control trials to behaviourism, jostled for institutional power. Paradigms of inquiry have always been imperialising. The real challenge for liberals is to recover the noble lie that it is not politics all the way down, so ideas can be encountered in their identity as ideas, not politics by other means. And how do you ensure that institutions do not get captured by coteries who forget that even if they have the truth, it is at best partial.


There are other social charges against liberals that do have resonance in society. The charge that liberals are elitist has some merit to it; the fact is that in its mode of articulation, contemporary liberalism comes across as dripping with a kind of condescension for a complex set of cultural articulations. Liberals also come across as less imaginative: So colonised are they by politics that the kind of imaginative ardour and complicated understanding of moral psychology that liberals were good at (think of Milton on Satan, or Isaiah Berlin almost making Joseph de Maistre attractive) is becoming rarer indeed. Liberals need to stick to their convictions of treating individuals as free and equal beings; but they could benefit a bit from Robert Frost’s reminder, that a generous imagination, not the certainty of platitudes, especially in history and culture, has been liberalism’s biggest ally.

The writer is president, CPR, Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’

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First published on: 14-06-2016 at 12:02:35 am
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