1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

In a previous blog, I mentioned how 1930s liberals and 1960s liberals were strange bedfellows, despite some shared principles. The same could be said of post-1960s liberals and post-1980s liberals. The continuity comes with shared progressive goals on social, economic, and environmental fronts, as well as in foreign policy. The fault line runs along the general concept of political correctness and the specific idea of policing offensive speech. (And even in this area, we share a long-term vision of a society less hamstrung by hate and prejudice, although we differ on how best to get there.)

The 1960s hippie liberalism was more wide open in what forms of expression were to be tolerated. The conservative “Establishment” culture of war, money, and machines was held in place by conventional restraints on what to say, what to think, what to wear, how to live and with whom. The hippie idea was to break down all conventional restraints and open up free expression, whether in clothing, thought, speech, or lifestyle and communal forms of organization. Let everyone express themselves freely at the communal table, without fear of reprisal, and even offensive speech will be recontextualized and find its natural level.

1980s liberalism in some ways took a 180-degree turn. The 1980s paradigm shift in liberalism was largely academia-driven, as opposed to the grass-roots, street-level, lifestyle-based paradigm of the hippies. 1980s liberalism introduced the idea of speech codes and of standing ready with a stifling challenge should anyone say anything offensive, especially on topics of race and gender.

Although I share the progressive goals of my 1980s liberal colleagues, and I sympathize with the idea of foreclosing particularly hateful speech before it becomes toxic, I think a cost-benefit analysis favors the 60s approach. The risk of the 60s approach is that hateful speech, if tolerated, can become toxic. The benefit of the 60s approach is that everything is aired unfiltered, ideological fault lines on issues like race and gender are exposed, not hidden, and are more likely to be dealt with in a swift and communal manner. The benefit of the 80s approach is that there is less toleration of prejudicial ideas and therefore a lesser risk of those ideas going toxic. I see two risks to the 80s approach. The first is that the prejudicial attitudes go underground, where they might coagulate and do more harm. Were this the only risk, I’d say the benefit of the 80s approach outweighs the risk. Better to marginalize hate groups than to tolerate them too easily in the mainstream.

The second risk, more problematic in my mind, involves a kind of self-censorship that affects the whole community and not just the hateful minority. With very smart people parsing every speech act for implications that might be hurtful to this or that demographic group, regardless of intent, discourse in general becomes a little icier, less open.

Consider two periods of my own life. In my days as a blues-joint bartender in Austin, I had a motley circle of friends who would go out frequently in random combinations of black, white, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight, working class rowdies, and scholarly grad students. This involved many late nights of deep conversation and frequent banter of a wildly “politically incorrect” stamp. Then, in the very late 80s, as a graduate student and then faculty member, my circle was composed largely of academic (English and related departments) liberals. Although I benefited greatly from the intellectual milieu, the halls of academia fostered a tendency to pause and filter before every utterance, lest someone catch you in an utterance that inadvertently validated the dreaded dominant paradigm. Although I share to this day the political goals of “academic liberalism,” the “lifestyle liberalism” of my unfiltered, anarchistic days in Austin produced warmer, deeper, heart-to-heart connections across demographic lines, albeit with some topsy-turvy moments along the way. As a capsule community, the Austin group was probably closer to the long-term progressive ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.

Still, the differences between post-60s and post-80s liberalism are not absolute. Although my center of gravity is post-60s, I don’t say that anything goes. Harassment (e.g., writing hateful speech on someone’s dorm door) or using racial or gender slurs in the presence of one’s employees should be codified violations subject to swift and severe punishment. I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that some speech warrants only limited protection and some none at all. But in the vast mess of rough-and-tumble discourse that is not subject to legal scrutiny, the lines of what is tolerable get blurry, and must be negotiated not only by 60s and 80s liberals but by and with our conservative friends as well.

As to where to go from here, I’d like to think we can back off a little on the gotcha readings of speech acts by others. Post-structural theory has taught us that we can always extract varied and contradictory meanings, including offensive ones, from every speech act. But that doesn’t mean we should do it. Especially where there is no offensive intent, where someone perhaps less politically or academically up-to-date than us implies something that current academic practice has deemed unfit, public attack or humiliation is probably not the best fix. Why alienate a potential ally over an unintended faux pas? Better to give a gentle nudge or a good-natured counterpoint. Even where the intent is malicious, or favors older paradigms that are clearly inequitable, all out attack or humiliation may not be warranted (although it may be, on a case-by-case basis).

Mandela and Gandhi are great examples of political activists who always stood up to bigotry but never wrote off the bigot. When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them, he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause” (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II passim). And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his enemies when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiography, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242). My concern is that perhaps too much of our current critical practice has veered into that ad hominem zone, making it more difficult to see that, like it or not, we are all on this journey into the future together.

So when it comes to sensitive subjects, we never need to countenance overt bigotry, but we can err in favor of behaving generously to each other rather than humiliating each other for wrong-headed ideas or statements. When it comes to our own behavior, I’d rather speak unfiltered, make my mistakes, and make my adjustments, than interact with others in a partially shut-down mode to avoid some unintentional offense.

And now I welcome any feedback from my post-80s liberal colleagues, whose point of view I value but to which I am not entirely privy, having formed my own political core values largely in the 1970s.

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50 thoughts on “1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

  1. Pingback: White Privilege and a Third Way on Race | shakemyheadhollow

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  3. Part of the motivation for my own blog (thank you for visiting recently) is my distaste for the illiberal environment in academia. By illiberal I mean an inability to express unpopular opinions. Ironically, that hoped-for freedom was part of the reason I became an academic in the first place. Now we have a world where Condi Rice – a former Secretary of State and provost of Stanford – can’t give a commencement address at Rutgers. I hope people like you will speak up for a more open dialogue on college campuses – it will have more effect coming from a leftist like you than from a Republican like me.

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    • I agree with you and add that when it comes to the dynamics of power, whichever party has dominance seems to favor clamping down on dissent while the underdog favors increased freedom of expression. Thus the 60s liberals wanted to break down Establishment restraints on expression. In the 80s, liberals became the controlling force in academia (arts and humanities at least) and thus starting locking in their own forms of domination with speech codes and the like. This may be why libertarians, who’ve always had mixed alliances with the major parties, had a center of gravity on the Democratic/liberal side of the fence in the 70s, largely because of this shared vision of busting wide open things like freedom of expression and lifestyle choices. But post-80s, libertarians, although still mixed, have a center of gravity on the Republican side of the fence. Thus the wheel turns and now we have Republicans like you facing efforts to silence your point of view, at least in zones of academia where liberals are emboldened by dominance. Although the ideological differences between left and right are real, and I remain solidly left ideologically, both sides unfortunately seem subject to the same dynamics of power. Maybe it’s human nature, but I prefer to think like John Lennon that it’s not inevitable, that we can “imagine” our way out and slowly change the cultural sensibility.

      (By the way, I’m not in academia any more so I can’t help you there. I’m working in Corporate America in the suburbs of a southern city, where I am in the political minority. But not to worry, we argue all morning and then laugh and go have lunch together.)

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      • By the way, NeuroProf, I found the “follow” button for your “Not Through Ignorance” blog, but could find a “follow” button for what I now believe is your other blog (RapSheet). Am I missing something? Rapsheet is more to my interest.

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  4. Pingback: Is “Where are you from” offensive | shakemyheadhollow

  5. Pingback: How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground | shakemyheadhollow

  6. Pingback: Next: Aquarian Anarchy | shakemyheadhollow

  7. Interesting post, as a 80s liberal I am in conflict with naught liberals. The big picture to me is economic discrimination is really ok, but we have to hardline all other forms of discrimination to make the economically considerably better off world look, well, you know, liberal. The removal of minorities in liberal hotbeds like San Francisco and Austin can’t be talked about, we are liberals. And its just economics, anyway, you know.
    I live in the formerly liberal Midtown in Atlanta, my naught neighbors are just as likely to vote for Romney to protect their privilege. But they love their minority facebook friends.
    I really see the problem as those that invest and those that don’t. You have to invest to make money, wages aren’t cutting it, and investments take away from wages, so its a really an absolutely darling catch 22, and game for the last of the white middle class only.

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  8. Oh, so much this. You’ve put words to something that’s been trying to find form in my own head for weeks now. Bookmarking and sharing. I really do wonder, if this isn’t too huge a topic to open up in a comment: what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation (especially in context with what you’ve said about breaking down constraints for free expression)?

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  9. Pingback: 1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals [Reblog] | The Chibi Nest

  10. This is thoughtful, but my big question is – IN WHAT COUNTRY? I’m guessing the U.S. as this is the country where people posting on the internet are most likely to assume those reading their posts are fellow-citizens, or that things are much the same elsewhere.

    Liberalism – like Socialism, Conservatism or Nationalism – means rather different things in different countries. In the UK “political correctness” exists but has never been as strong or thorough as in the US and now if anything the boot is on the other foot: object to grossly offensive words and you may well get, “Oh, yeah, political correctness…”. Some ways of talking about other people were always challenged, even if the challenge was couched in more traditional terms.

    In the UK “political correctness” is mainly associated with the left, which may include, but does not end at, Liberals; and there is no great divide between those who called themselves Liberals in the 1960s and those from the 1980s. Rather, the divide is between the majority who see UK Liberalism as evolving from the mid-19th century small-state-and-peace-with-legal freedoms-and-political-reform creed towards more concern with economic inequality and a wish to democratise and devolve but not reduce the state, and those who stick with “Gladstonian Liberalism”. Plus there are commentators and academics who use the term with a blithe disregard for the actual views and behaviour of people who call themselves Liberals.

    We had the hippy culture too, but it was marginal for most people. Perhaps what has changed most is the realisation that resources aren’t unlimited, that hard choices often have to be made and that freedom doesn’t work without acceptance (not necessarily forced acceptance) of responsibilities.

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    • Thanks, Simon – yes, the U.S. Since “Liberal” here is not an actual political party, I suspect we use it more interchangeably with “the left” that you do in the UK. The “politically correct” forces at work sound similar in kind but different in degree. A sizeable subset of our current “left” seems never to tire of policing offensive speech, and the response from the “right” is to clobber them with charges of “political correctness.” I suspect you are correct that these clashing voices are more exaggerated (more politicized? more theatrical?) in the U.S. We too have had a continuous evolution of what “liberal” stands for, including continuities from the 1960s to present, but the discontinuities (which I think are insufficiently acknowledged) happened to be the focus of this blog entry. I’ve learned from your comments about UK history, but I’d have to learn more before I can comment on how it compares to ours – other than that our liberals also are increasingly focused on income inequality at present – and our hippyish post-60s liberals will readily join forces with current liberals on that, although the hippie movement in the actual 60s was perhaps more was more focused on cultural liberation and on a more expansive re-envisioning of society that went beyond just who gets what share of the pie [in a lovely, idealistic, naïve way, which I hope to document in my next novel :)]

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  11. I appreciate your thoughts and reasons. I want to add that in my own life I have found the prohibitions against certain words/phrases in certain venues challenging and enriching. I find having to search for the words to say a thing in a clear, non-offensive (not to say some won’t disagree) manner often leads to my learning more about the thing and my perspective. Sometimes it may even lead to my significantly changing my views/opinion.

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    • Thanks for an alternate perspective, Ken. We’re not that far apart. I never really try not to offend and also find I learn by navigating tricky waters. But I find that it’s become so de rigueur to be offended that fewer people are willing to venture into those “tricky waters” and engage openly with other groups. And that would be a shame. [My views evolve all the time too; who knows I may post my own rebuttal some time in the future 🙂 ]

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    • I sometimes wonder what society would be like if we humans were suddenly to become unfiltered telepaths with no on-off switches. What coping mechanisms and survival skills would we need if we each knew what we were all thinking, all the time?

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      • There is some evidence which shows that people who have experienced severe trauma are more psychically aware than others. Some years ago I knew a fellow who had been severely traumatized both physically and emotionally due to experiences in and related to the Viet Nam war. He said he experienced just what you’re talking about and he showed me enough that I believe him. He was tormented by it and wished the voices/reception would stop.

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      • Thank you, rixlibris, for defining the opposite extreme. We need to be more open than the speech police would have it, and accept the risks that go along with that, but totally unfiltered is a bridge too far. One thinks of Jim Carrey in “Liar, Liar,” or, more seriously, of Freud’s argument that some amount of repression is a prerequisite of civilization (and hence neuroses when those repressed energies go awry).

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  12. Fabulous post! I think you’d find Austin much the same as you left it, in attitude anyway. Its liberal and progressive attitude and follow-through is why I continue to live here…
    Michele at Angels Bark

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    • Thanks, Michele. I was in Austin last summer and found gentrification encroaching a bit on the old earthiness, with friends priced out to Round Rock or Buda, but was still quite able to appreciate that core Austin spirit.

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      • Yes, change is definitely happening and big business is taking over some of the prized mom & pops but, like you say, that “core Austin spirit” is still alive and well. I hope it never dies!

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  13. Pingback: 1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals | wwwpalfitness

  14. Yeah, I’m of a mind with you that the leftism of the sixties was a better expression of the idea than the leftism of the eighties. In fact, in general principle, the whole move from “compassion” to “compassion for the compassionate” was a wrong step on two levels- first because it opened the doors to legalism and the overwhelming, self righteous narcissism we all know too well, and second because it removed compassion’s claws. If you can’t show compassion to anyone who isn’t already compassionate, it can’t spread except by forceful conquest, which being contrary to its nature weakens it beyond the point of usefulness. And if your definition of tolerance requires that you endorse what someone else is saying or else implies so little that you can still hate them, you might as well not use a tolerance model at all. The left seems to have moved right since the hippies, a sort of general disillusionment.

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    • Yes, it seems at least a subset of the left has moved “right” in the broad sense that they’ve become what the 60s hippies were fighting against — a group dedicated to enforcement of restrictions rather than to freedom from restrictions. And yes to a wider berth for compassion, even for those we disagree with.

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  15. Pingback: Diversity and Dissent | shakemyheadhollow

  16. “When it comes to our own behaviour, I’d rather speak unfiltered, make my mistakes, and make my adjustments, than interact with others in a partially shut-down mode to avoid some unintentional offense” people are not always happy when you correct them and they are even less likely to be pleased once you tell them they’ve made a mistake … Interesting read nonetheless.

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    • True, Hopeful Wanderer. My thoughts in that passage were that everyone has different lines of what’s offensive. Best to keep the public space of free speech as open and chaotic as possible, but where my line and your line of what’s offensive don’t match up, one party “correcting” the other’s “mistakes” from a space of superiority will probably not work as well as a friendly nudge or negotiation over how far we want to take the terms of conversation. I’m of the mind that it’s better to speak openly, knowing we will hit those bumps, than to self-censor, speak more guardedly, and narrow the range of acceptable speech and thus of human contact. That’s what I mean by I’d rather make my mistakes, apologize for any unintentional offense, and move on, rather than only engaging people by saying what I know in advance is “safe.” I suspect a little bit of the anarchist in me comes out here 🙂 (I look forward to exploring your blog!)

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  20. Pingback: Liberals today vs 1960s | shakemyheadhollow

  21. I lived through the sixties movement and dealt with people who wanted us to shut up and fit in but it was nothing like today – your opposition has been fueled by internet lies and hatred and personality assassinations. The internet did not exist nor was there such a thing as talking heads on tv in the 60s.

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