Author : Prithvi Iyer

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 03, 2020
My liberalism versus your liberalism: The struggle for positive consensus

The rise of right-wing authoritarianism around the world has been met with large-scale protests from proponents and supporters of liberal thought. It is important to note that liberalism as a philosophy and the reductive binary of “Left” and “Right” are subject to numerous interpretations. For the sake of clarity, in this paper, “liberalism” is operationalised as being a school of thought that considers the arbitrary use of power as destructive for individual liberty and the rule of law. Thus, divides within “liberalism” discussed hereafter pertain to individual level disagreements in how power must govern the state’s relationship with the individual.

In these polarising times, the opposition to “authoritarianism”, particularly in India, has been shaped by a seeming tendency for this liberal left—a group that emphasises safeguarding individual rights and freedoms—to mobilise against a common notion of the adversary rather than consensus over an alternative.  It is, therefore, useful to examine the theoretical foundations of liberalism in order to understand the impediments towards unification within this group.

 Liberalism is an ideology that has championed the ideas of freedom, autonomy and consent as foundational moral values that underpin the social contract. However, the core values of democracy and allegiance to safeguarding individual rights are subject to different interpretations. It is the individual-level differences in how these values are perceived that embody a core impediment to unity within the liberal left.

"Liberalism is an ideology that has championed the ideas of freedom, autonomy and consent as foundational moral values that underpin the social contract."

Historically, a major point of friction among the liberals has pertained to the tussle between liberty and equality. To what extent, therefore, could actions meant to fulfill a person’s right to liberty be justified when it simultaneously also impedes on another person’s rights and, in turn, leads to asymmetries in fair treatment?

A contemporary manifestation of this divide could be observed in the controversy surrounding comedian Kunal Kamra’s interaction with editor-in-chief of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami. While some sections of the left-leaning liberal community celebrated Kamra’s actions as being necessary to highlight the plight of the disenfranchised and to hold media tycoons accountable for alleged misdemeanors in reportage, other’s slammed Kamra’s behaviour for being aharsh measurethat infringed upon another person's right to privacy. Thus, it seems that those criticising Kamra’s actions understood their liberal values as being underscored by the primacy of individual rights that must be safeguarded at all costs. Since Kamra's actions put Goswami’s right to privacy in jeopardy, the critics find this reason enough to condemn the act and point out how Kamra’s actions defied another person's individual rights, thereby, going against the tenets of liberalism.

 On the other hand, the Rawlsian approach to liberalism, which emphasises the redistribution of wealth to restore egalitarianism may help in understanding an opposing perspective of liberal thought on how freedom of speech must be construed. Owen Fiss, author of “Liberalism Divided: Freedom of Speech and the many uses of state power”, has helped situate the Rawlsian approach to redistributive justice in context of the freedom of speech question. In his book, Fiss considers the Rawlsian “difference principle” that called for “redistribution in favour of the worst off social group” as being crucial to a contrasting understanding of freedom of speech than what has been discussed earlier. Thus, Owen Fiss and his contextualisation of the difference principle suggests that in some cases,  individual liberties may be sacrificed at certain times in order to fulfill the broader goal of combating subordination and upholding egalitarianism. This aforementioned understanding of liberalism understood an ideal society as being both interdependent and independent, wherein, self-fulfillment was not merely a product of one’s own happiness but also, through altruistic motivations of forging a just order. Thus, according to this perspective,  many supporters of Kamra may defend his actions due to its perceived implications for providing a voice to the ‘victim’ group, especially with respect to him confronting Mr. Goswami regarding his reportage on Rohit Vemulla, a Dalit student who committed suicide citing caste-based discrimination.

 Disagreements over whether freedom of expression should be justified at all costs also extends to how the group perceives those from the other end of the political spectrum. While some members believe that right-wing sympathisers who fundamentally disagree with the tenets of liberal thought must be allowed to express their contrary views, others find them to have ulterior agendas and advocate for censoring their views. Thus, the tradeoff between advocating absolutist ideals of freedom and autonomy and safeguarding the liberal ethos that may be endangered by contrarian views is a tricky predicament that further complicates the possibility of unification.

"Disagreements over whether freedom of expression should be justified at all costs also extends to how the group perceives those from the other end of the political spectrum."

Another major impediment to the unification of liberals stems from the moral and ethical framework guiding an individual's understanding of what ‘is’ and ‘is not’ permissible. Sharjeel Imam’s sedition case exposed many of these divides within liberals and showed the individualistic nature of the group affiliation characterising this group. Sharjeel was charged with sedition for his anti-CAA remarks made at Aligarh Muslim University wherein he advocated for a chakka jam—a road blockade—on the “chicken neck” (the colloquial term for a narrow land corridor in West Bengal connecting Northeast India to the rest of India) that would temporarily cut Assam from the rest of the country. Thus, even though, Imam may not have insinuated at a separatist movement, indirect connotations of secessionism were evident in his speech. Much like the Kamra case, a feeling among a section of the liberals was that Sharjeel had crossed the line.

However, this disapproval of Sharjeel’s actions does not seem to be a product of its legality or a lack thereof. Several decrees by the Supreme Court noted that mere speech cannot be the subject of sedition unless it has led to violence, and in the case of Imam’s speech, direct retaliatory violence based on his words was not observed. Furthermore, “inflammatory speech is also protected by the Freedom of Speech guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution – unless it incites or produces imminent lawless action”. Since Imam’s words did not incite or produce imminent lawless action”, the legal basis for the sedition charge remained unclear.

The fissures within those identifying as politically liberal may, therefore, be explained by the multiple individual ethical frameworks working at cross-purposes to arbitrate on the permissibility of certain actions as being justified under the liberal ethos. The individualistic nature of moral categorisations made by liberals was echoed in the findings of Haidt who noted that the liberal left’s moral framework seems to be shaped by ensuring fairness and reciprocity, while conservatives understood it in relation to collective identity and in-group loyalty.

Haidt’s findings reveal an important feature of the political right and its ability to mobilise  positive consensus. The primacy of in-group loyalty—often at the expense of the ideals of fairness—can be an important determinant of unity during adversity and the ability for right-wing dispensations to garner unwavering support, even in times of socio-political turmoil. Whether the emphasis on ideals of fairness, autonomy and individual rights can still leave space for positive consensus and unity among liberals remains to be seen.  Not everyone identifying as liberal would be willing to compromise on their individual values in a quest for group consensus. Some would argue that it is these values that often impede formal group cohesion but also give liberal thought its unique appeal. Moreover, prior efforts at establishing a social order based on common ownership and underpinned by state sanctioned equitable distribution of resources has also created concerns over rights to expression and dissent.

Thus, there is no consensus among the liberal left on an appropriate form of governance. This lack of consensus could be understood as a tussle between self-expression and egalitarianism. The classical strand of liberal thinkers advocated minimal state intervention and as John Stuart Mill noted, “an individual is the best judge of their own interests and no authority can claim superior knowledge”.  On the other hand, the strand of liberalism emphasising social justice may not espouse minimal state intervention due to the existence of gross inequalities in society that calls for restorative reform that redistributes justice, often at the cost of an individual’s rights.

"The classical strand of liberal thinkers advocated minimal state intervention and as John Stuart Mill noted, “an individual is the best judge of their own interests and no authority can claim superior knowledge”.

There exist many fissures within liberal thought regarding a vision of an ideal society and the role the individual and state must play in it. It is imperative that these opposing strands of liberalism do not make the group lose sight of what unites them. While opposing authoritarianism may seem like the overarching unifier, it is crucial that this be accompanied by positive consensus of a viable alternative rather than a mere common notion of the adversary. However, a desire for positive consensus must also not be realised at the expense of the ideals of a free and progressive society that characterises the group's ethos. This tricky balance may explain the difficulties in posing a united front, but it is a balance that the group ought to strive for. Thus, unity among the liberal left is desired but not at the cost of the ideals that make the group what they are.

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Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer was a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. His research interests include understanding the mental health implications of political conflict the role ...

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