1. Freedom of Speech
Of all the components of modern-day liberalism, there are few that are more important, and more hotly debated, than the right to freedom of speech. In the liberal manifesto of our age, it is the closest thing we have to a sacred proclamation. Without it, liberalism collapses, imploding into its own ideological echo chamber, impervious to new ideas and utterly resistant to all change.
The freedom to speak one’s mind, freely and without fear of prosecution or violence, is essential to the continued development of political and social ideas. When speech is limited, so too is the natural flow of thought and healthy debate that shapes our society.
Free speech is universal. It applies to all. From those with whom you most agree to those against whom you passionately rail, all voices are equal and have the right to be heard. The only time when speech can justly be suppressed is in the event that it actively incites crime. Words have power, and when they are used to manifest violence and criminal acts, then, and only then, should they be silenced by the law.
At all other times and in all other contexts, it is your right and the right of everyone around you to speak their mind freely and without hindrance. No matter the topic, no matter their opinions, the right to free speech is theirs to wield, just as it is yours. Homophobes, racists, sexists, bigots, fanatics, and hate-peddlers are entitled to their speech in the same way that you and I are entitled to rebut their hateful ways with equal fervour.
To be clear, if any of these practices stray beyond the law, as they often do, their claim to free speech is lost. However, there is a big difference between stating publicly your hatred for a person or group and attempting to prompt violent or criminal action against that group. The former is, without a doubt, heinous and unwelcome in civilised society, but it is protected by free speech. The latter most certainly is not.
Though free speech can be used for ill, it also protects our right to be vocally dissident, to stand up to even the most well-established tropes and norms, and to hold power to account. For freedom of speech to truly benefit a society, the right to speech that may irritate, offend, anger, insult, slander, depress, or frighten must also be protected. Revolutions anger those in power, civil movements offend the closed-minded, and cultural growth often insults the gatekeepers of old. Change, regardless of whether it is good or bad, will not be accepted by all. Dissent is uncomfortable, but it can also be earth-shatteringly powerful.
There is no universal right to not be offended. Hurtful and upsetting rhetoric is not, and should never be, punishable by law. It should be punishable by society. Those who use their right to free speech for reprehensible purposes should be debated, argued with, verbally annihilated, and publicly ostracised. They should not be legally oppressed, arrested and made martyrs of. That will only entrench the poison of their beliefs and compound the problem.
Universal free speech allows for ideas to spread and dance freely in the public sphere, while also unmasking all those who would hold indefensible views on the world. Far from giving bigots and hate-mongers power, at its best, free speech provides the liberal masses with a direct road map to where the bad apples of our communities are.
With free speech the world moves forward on the endless current of new ideas, while the deplorable minorities are identified and left behind. Without free speech, new ideas die in the minds of their thinkers and the darker minds of our time remain hidden and shrouded in secrecy, poising society as it sleeps.
2. Equality of Opportunity
Meritocracy is foundational to a functioning liberal society. The application of all people in roles and professions according to their competence, and their competence alone, is the only sensible way in which a society can be organised.
To discount people from any professional position or public service on the basis of immaterial and irrelevant attributes is manifestly ludicrous and a crying waste of potential. Race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, creed, politics, and other personal and character traits should all go without consideration in the process of determining someone’s position in society.
People should be given equal opportunities — equal access to education, healthcare, state aid, and public services. Society must be organised so that individuals from all walks of life can achieve equal success, but it should not be organised so that all people are guaranteed that success.
Skill, actions, and work ethic are the primary currencies in a liberal meritocracy. On the foundations of equal opportunity, the only differences that arise, aside from misfortune, will be down to talent, interest, and effort. In this way, individuals will be chosen for jobs based solely on the merit of their work, and not on any other irrelevant circumstances of birth or background.
There are, of course, those who through misfortune of various kinds may be hindered from participating completely and equally in such a system. It is the responsibility of a liberal government, and a liberal society, to support and assist these people in any and all necessary ways. It is evil and devoid of compassion to punish people for circumstances over which they have no control. Equality of opportunity must include provisions for those whose opportunities will never be truly equal by virtue of misfortune or circumstance, and the powers in such societies must do all that they can to provide opportunities and support that resemble as closely as possible the winder standards of the system.
Equality of opportunity means making all able people the beneficiaries of the same chances and building blocks in life and providing support for those who cannot act on those chances. In short, the state will not allow anyone to starve, live without a home, go without medical treatment, or grow without education. Beyond that, the state will ensure that discrimination of any kind is punished and eradicated. From that point on, the meritocracy will determine the positions of individuals in society.
3. Tolerance of Others
Liberalism holds that all people are equal and are the beneficiaries of equal rights. While disagreement and dissent are cornerstones of a liberal system, so too is tolerance and mutual understanding.
Societies are enriched by their kaleidoscopic nature, encompassing people from every race, culture, and creed. Through diversity we can learn more about the world around us and the people who live in it, allowing us to more accurately form our opinions so that they take into account the widest possible range of circumstances.
Good liberal policy cannot be made in singular, un-diverse societies. For equality and freedom to function, they must function for everyone, and so knowledge and experience of cultures and lifestyles other than our own can only serve to better equip us for liberal governance.
In such societies, as discussed, debate and the free exchange of ideas is vital. It would be unreasonable to expect all groups and subgroups of people to agree on all matters at all times, so provisions must be made for civilised disagreement and strong, but well-reasoned, debate.
Tolerance of others does not mean that all thoughts, ideas, and beliefs must be allowed to go unchallenged. That would be a recipe for disaster. Tolerance of a person or people does not translate to tolerance of bad or damaging ideals. It means only that people should not be disregarded simply because of their characteristics, before they have even made their opinions known.
In short, it makes no sense to disregard someone out of hand because they are, for example, black, female, gay, or Muslim. Should individual members of these groups hold views with which you disagree, then by all means challenge them, but it is the ideas that should be attacked, not the people themselves. Disagreements must be handled with respect and civility above all else. Open discourse and discussion is the only reasonable way for societal issues to be truly solved.
Short-term, aggressive oppression of people because of characteristics or beliefs serves only to alienate those people from society, often making them feel unjustly attacked and ostracised, which can lead to martyrdom and dangerous retaliation. By being tolerant of people, and tackling their ideas, however heinous they may be, in a civilised and measured manner, much of that hardship can be avoided.
4. The Democratic Process
The right to vote and make your voice heard at a national level is an integral part of a liberal society. All free people of voting age, without exception, should have the right to partake in the democratic process. Without that assurance, there can be no true equality, nor freedom of expression in any civilisation.
Ideally, all decisions that affect the nation and its citizens would be decided by those citizens themselves. This, however, is unreasonable in this day and age. Smaller organisations should still endeavour to operate on the basis of true, direct democracy, but as the number of voters scales up it becomes impossible to expect such pure democracy to remain viable. Thus, the concept of representative democracy was born.
All power held by any government officials must be derived from the people. No decision that would affect the lives and livelihoods of the general populous should be taken by unelected individuals. To be clear, unelected positions play a vital part in the process of governments, from advisors all the way up to unelected houses. However, the final word must always fall to officials endowed by the public with the power of the people.
Representative voting systems are therefore required for a true liberal society to function appropriately. The makeup of elected chambers should reflect, as closely as is mathematically possible, the votes cast by the electorate. The importance of forming homogenous governments is totally and completely eclipsed by the importance of accurate and true representation of the will of the people. Governance by any other means is fundamentally illiberal and should not be tolerated.
The importance of the democratic process is encompassed in its direct effect on other parts of society. The moods of nations are measured by elections and, if those moods are misrepresented, then dissatisfaction and distrust will fester in the minds and hearts of free people. Such feelings often lead to unwelcome scapegoating and tribalism, as underrepresented groups begin to resent the illegitimate governments under which they live.
Without true democracy, or at least as close an approximation as we can manage, tolerance and equality collapse as hate and misrepresentation spread like wildfire in the laws and minds of a nation. Tolerance fails in the face of jealously and injustice fuelled anger, while equality is eroded by unrepresentative governance, which will naturally favour some groups over others.
Without democracy, liberalism cannot even begin, let alone thrive.
5. The Value of Discourse
In order to maintain a liberal society, the value of open discussion and productive discourse must remain central to the system. The free expression and exchange of ideas, however conflicting they may be, allows participants in liberal spheres to hear all available viewpoints, asses for themselves what they believe, and then act according to their own moral and intellectual impulses.
A silent, disengaged society is the undoing of liberalism. However, much you may try to espouse the benefits of freedom of speech or democracy, the former is unachievable if no one will speak up and the latter impossible if voters fail to exercise their democratic right. After all, even the finest representative democracy cannot be truly representative if large sections of the electorate fail to vote.
An appreciation for the value of discourse is vital in a society with free speech. One without the other is impotent. Either people talk freely but without ever receiving a reply, or they spend their lives ready to debate, but no stimulus ever comes as all opinions are kept under wraps.
The provisions in freedom of speech that allow for dissent and uncomfortable opinions to be voiced have the potential to be misused and cause widespread damage and offense to many, of this there is no doubt. But where freedom of speech allows for such beliefs to be uttered, healthy societal discourse serves to temper the poison of these acts.
A society built on discourse is well placed to regularly come to the best collective decisions, which benefit the largest possible number of people. By allowing thorough and civil debate on topics, the most complete and effective compromises can be found, appeasing most, even if very few get precisely what they wanted.
Liberalism is an ideology of few steadfast rules. Anything outside the core values of a liberal society must fall to the democratic process and then effective compromise, decided through intense and multi-faceted discourse.
Originally published at https://www.thepoliticalabyss.com on November 24, 2020.