Saturday, July 31, 2021

What If We Treated "Liberty" Like "Intersectionality"?

My second lesson of being on the internet is:

2. No matter your ideology, there will always be someone profoundly idiotic who largely agrees with you, and someone profoundly idiotic who largely disagrees with you. Neither fact should be unduly weighted.

I was thinking about this today in relation to an argument I sometimes hear made by critics of "intersectionality" (or "critical race theory" or "microaggressions" or other like terms). Persons, such as myself, will often chide them for "criticizing" a strawman, caricatured version of the term. What they call "intersectionality" bears little resemblance to what one would find if one read the actual, primary source scholarly literature on the subject. In response, these critics might (with varying degrees of begrudging) concede the point -- but, they'll rejoin, these academic sources bear little resemblance to how the terms are being used "in the wild". Their criticism isn't of an academic text, it's of a political practice, and so it is entirely fair game to attack "popular" (if unsophisticated or sophomoric) iterations that holds themselves out to be "critical race theory" from social media influencers, overzealous college students, faddish activists, and so on.

Sometimes, even these examples will betray a lack of context or interpretive charity. But it is not difficult, no doubt, to find genuine cases where someone flies the banner of intersectionality in order to say something profoundly stupid or genuinely offensive. That, after all, is the thesis of my Rule #2. There will be idiots who call themselves "intersectionalists", and (this is a corollary to the rule) they will not be that hard to find.

But here's the rub: we could do this for any political ideology or concept. "Individualism," "freedom", "democracy" -- pick your favorite. 

Take "liberty". As a concept, "liberty" carries a robust philosophical pedigree -- there is much worth reading and contemplating regarding what liberty means, what its contours are, what its political utility is, and what it conceptually can and cannot do. At the same time, right now there are a host of people who, flying the banner of "liberty", are promoting outright crankish and idiotic politics -- claiming "liberty" means the right to hold massive unvaccinated public gatherings without any meaningful health safety measures during a pandemic, or "liberty" means one shouldn't even be exposed to others wearing a cloth mask.

These people are morons. And indeed, in terms of raw numbers, there are far more of these morons than there are morons endorsing "intersectionality". Yet how weird would it be for someone to point to such morons in order to dismiss the idea of "liberty" as a concept? Imagine how it would go: 

Sure, Mill or Hayek or Berlin may be interesting thinkers, but I'm talking about what 'liberty' means 'in the wild.' In practice, 'liberty' means MAGA nutjobs spreading conspiracy theories about how vaccine passports are akin to the Holocaust. That's the 'real' public meaning of freedom today. Therefore we must recognize 'liberty' as a toxic ideology, ensure that the dangerous idea of 'liberty' is one we mustn't ever teach to our children, and whenever anyone in the U.S. or around the world appears to be mobilizing for 'liberty', we must do whatever we can to stem the dangerous tide that threatens our very way of life.

It wouldn't fly, and it shouldn't fly -- not because the identified nutjobs aren't nutjobs, but because the existence of said nutjobs most certainly does not warrant the conclusion that "liberty" is itself inherently dangerous, much less support a campaign to extirpate "liberty" theorists from our educational domains.

When it comes to "liberty", we fully understand that we can indict and dismiss the inevitable idiots who will adopt it as their ideological cloth without suggesting that said idiots' existence means the whole concept of "liberty" is corrupt. The same should hold true for other theories. I do not doubt there are genuinely foolish people who fly the flag of intersectionality or critical race theory or microaggressions. That makes it entirely non-distinct from literally any other prominent ideology or political concept, and it is not cause to sacrifice our own commitment to intellectual fairness and rigorous inquiry.

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