Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Liberal Dilemma

Johann Hari has a good book review in Dissent. It's an interesting read and notable for the well-deserved kicking it gives to Bat Ye’or.

On a slightly different note, when I read it, this little snippet started me thinking.

Bawer had belly-flopped into the continent’s paradox: Europe’s warm and capacious tolerance was being extended to some of the most fanatically intolerant people on earth.

While I would quibble with some of Hari's review, I think this quote gets to the heart of something that I call the liberal dilemma*. That is: how does a world-view that has tolerance (and an element of cultural pluralism) at its centre deal with those who are fundamentally intolerant.

The standard answer to this is often the somewhat platitudinous "tolerant of everything but intolerance." A reasonable principle in a static sort of way, but it doesn't help so much when it actually comes to policy etc.

At a policy level, as I see it, there are several choices, none of them - I think - perfect.

(1) First, there's the answer favoured by the right-blogosphere, and pandered to too often by politicians: that is to become less tolerant ourselves. On its own and at a large scale, this seems like a terrible idea to me for two reasons. Firstly, fighting intolerance with intolerance guarantees only one thing - less tolerance. Which is a pity if tolerance is what you were concerned about in the first place. Secondly, the tools associated with this approach usually alienate the people whose hearts and minds you are trying to win over and pushes potential recruits to the ideal you are opposed to further in that direction.

(2) Second, there is the do nothing approach/dismiss the threat approach. This is what 'muscular liberals' often accuse the rest of the left of. I don't think that this is really a fair characterisation of what the 'rest of the left' really think; however, at the same time, I'm a lefty and I have to admit that I have a tiny slither of sympathy for this approach after all. This is because, given the potential counter-productivity of 1 above, and given that the threat may be overstated, you can make a plausible case that it is better to do nothing and let the attractions of our system, and time, win the race for us.

Not totally floored in my mind but not a good idea either. This is because if you try and follow this path, the abhorrent acts that will occur will, while being not truly civilisation-threatening, will still harm numerous innocent people. Many of these people will be the sort of people that liberal most want to protect (immigrant women for example). On top of this, the backlash at these crimes may well lead to 1 occurring anyhow.

(3) Finally, there is the option (which I think is a truer representation of what most of the left wants) which is to, if I can mangle some terms from political philosophy, go beyond negative integration** (simply opening the gates and letting people get on with things) and make sure that positive integration occurs as well. This involves providing higher-education, job opportunities, support, support against racism etc.

This last approach, to me, seems like the best one (with a pinch of 1 and bearing 2 in mind). But it is much easier said than done...more (hopefully) in a future lunch break.

*I'm borrowing this term from Amartya Sen - his Liberal Dilemma is a variant of Kenneth Arrow's Impossibility Theorem.
** The terms I'm mangling are Negative and Positive liberty.

No comments: