Paris per Maher and Affleck: Two Kinds of Liberals

The recent attacks in Paris illuminate the tension between two schools of Western liberalism, most amusingly brought to light by the Bill Maher vs Ben Affleck incident: Enlightenment rationalism vs multiculturalism.

The Enlightenment rationalist strand (Maher) gave us the secular Western societies of today, based the idea that reason can give us universal standards that liberate us from Church dogma and other prejudice. When it comes to cultural differences, this reason-based model emphasizes a shared humanness that transcends gender, race, religion, or national origin, and its great 18th-century proponents include Mary Wollstonecraft (gender) and Olaudah Equiano (race). I embrace the Enlightenment rationalism strand pretty much all the time (although Maher sometimes inflates the content or deflates the tone of debate in ways I don’t like).

The multicultural strand (Affleck), which achieved critical mass in 1980s academia, emphasizes tolerance for all the various “cultural others.” I have mixed feelings about this strand. Basically, I embrace multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls. Chaotic pluralism and cultural cross-pollination are great social assets, but circling the wagons around this or that demographic group to protect it from any offense, real or imagined, not so great.

I think the difference comes down to this: Enlightenment rationalism says that the universal human capacity to reason levels all prejudices; multiculturalism says that all cultural value sets should be equally validated. Thus multiculturalism, especially when it defends certain religious groups or practices, runs the risk of saying that all prejudices are equally valid, a statement sure to be rejected by the more atheist-leaning Enlightenment liberals.

Enlightenment rationalism and multiculturalism are not finally exclusive political positions. As loosely represented by Maher and Affleck, they are two strands of liberals, all of whom probably vote the same way because of shared views on economic policy, foreign affairs, and on the government’s role in the common good. The differences that emerge are matters of scope. For one thing, Enlightenment rationalism is not limited in scope to liberalism, as some subset of the conservative populace might also be informed by that historical philosophy. But my focus is on the Enlightenment rationalist strand of today’s liberalism, and its adherents are generally allied with multiculturalists, except where the narrower scope of multiculturalism per se becomes operative – i.e., on issues of race, gender, and “cultural others.”  And even there, there is much agreement on government policies regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But the difference is largely one of sensibility, one of how to look at cultural differences. Do we apply universal standards of reason to obliterate parochial prejudice or do we give every cultural value set an equal seat at the table and avoid being judgmental? I’ve had my say, so now my readers can pick or complain or attack as they see fit.

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22 thoughts on “Paris per Maher and Affleck: Two Kinds of Liberals

  1. I think this was written by William Henry in his book “In Defense of Elitism” (memories fade) but I am reminded of it when I read your missive and it goes something like this (which is a nod against the multiculturalism you mention): “There is a difference between putting a man on the moon and putting a bone through your nose.” (I thought it was clever when I read it and that must be why I remember it when I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday).

    Equality, whether of so called cultures or of human beings, is a fiction that we use from time to time for various (often lofty or spiritual purposes). Nietzsche would have said to hold down the Uberman (sp). Cultures (which are something of an amorphous construct as well) are no more equal than human beings. But it is just a fiction. I suspect that the enlightenment rationalist reject it as to culture (on an as needed basis since I am sure they embrace it on occasion) while the multiculturalists accept it dogmatically as non-fiction or working hypothesis. MTT

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    • Spoken like a true Enlightenment rationalist, Michael. Henry might go too far for me, confusing technological superiority with cultural superiority (although, yes, the cleverness makes it memorable). You might recall D. H. Lawrence’s non-fiction Apocalypse, which makes a good case for how much moderns can learn from so-called “primitive” cultures. I can see Lawrence’s (proto-multiculturalist) point, but, I think like you, I can only follow it so far. At some point, the human capacity to reason through to universal principles and dismantle prejudice takes priority.

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  2. “Basically, I embrace multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls. Chaotic pluralism and cultural cross-pollination are great social assets, but circling the wagons around this or that demographic group to protect it from any offense, real or imagined, not so great.”
    I love this synopsis.

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    • I too find Lennon’s vision compelling, although I can’t say my own spiritual identity hasn’t benefitted from various Buddhist, pagan, Christian, etc., inputs, as well as various atheist philosophies. So I guess I’m still navigating those waters.

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    • The problem with Lennon’s suggestion—which I also admire—is that mass man cannot survive without religion as a vehicle of transcendence/meaning. It is a vehicle which I maintain is largely unexplored by mass man who prefers “cultivated ignorance” (Aquinas’ phrase) to any form of enlightened inquiry. And there are those—my religious friends— who think that without religion “all is permissible” as one of Dostoevsky’s characters say. I don’t buy that formulation either but think the loss of “meaning” and loss of a sense of community would be difficult for many to overcome. MTT

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      • Can we compromise and say that humans cannot survive without a locus of meaning/transcendence, but that we might evolve our sensibility enough to trade in religion (in its current near-obsolete form) for a newer vehicle?

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        • I think it was Voltaire who said that mankind could survive without religion if we all became philosophers. As the pessimist in the group I think that the enlightenment is a historical aberration. Man has historically been ruled by superstition and blind faith as part of his coping mechanism; his denial of death; his “subjective organizing web—to use one of your phrases. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

          Your question is rather like one that James Campbell contemplated and that is when the foundational myths are gone what replaces them? So far not much, unless you consider reality TV a substitute. I think that the religious instinct is an evolved trait and as such it will continue to exist unless and until something stronger replaces it. MTT

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  3. I think the two approaches can co-exist if we insist on tolerance of different cultures and religions, but say that they are open to criticism. In other words we simultaneously insist on freedom of religion and on freedom of speech.

    It seems that many Muslims living in Europe take freedom of religion for granted, but reject freedom of speech if it is used against them.

    What needs to be conveyed more clearly is that the freedom that permits Charlie Hebdo to publish its cartoons is the same freedom that permits Muslims to worship in a predominantly Christian country like France.

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  4. Steve, I like your formulation as well but it gets messier when the religion or the speech is intolerant. With speech in America we have set some legal limits on speech (other than Justice Black—“Congress shall make no law….”) So we prohibit speech that presents a “clear and present danger” (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). Where do you set the limits on intolerance in religion? The two “freedoms” will almost always overlap. The standard as to the limits of religious freedom are evolving, and not very fast as it is a political issue in the US. . Most organized religion finds those who believe differently to be apostates. (Count me as one according to all religions). Calling me an infidel is one thing but denying me rights, ostracizing me, putting me in a ghetto, etc is another. We have a long world history of religious intolerance (by all organized religions). So I guess I am saying that while your formulation sounds right even to me, its implementation will be and is a lot messier. MTT

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    • I lost your thesis here, Michael. Do we need less religious freedom? Less freedom of speech? Or are you just saying that civilized society requires some limits on both that are still being worked out. When you say, “Calling me an infidel is one thing but denying me rights, ostracizing me, putting me in a ghetto, etc is another,” it sounds like full agreement with Steve. Are we back to the U.S. Supreme Court decision (I forget which one) that held that the first amendment fully protects “political speech,” including “symbolic speech,” but not “behavior”? (Maybe it was a flag-burning on public property case.) That seems to get much right — e.g., it explains why, in our society, the offensive cartoons are to be tolerated but the violent response is not.

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  5. No. I agree with Steve’s sentiment but believe that while we have some “bright lines” regarding free speech the rules regarding religion are still evolving when it comes to religious intolerance. And there is an overlap as evidenced by the decision concerning the Westboro Baptist church and their so called protest against homosexuality at military funerals (you will note that they have not done so in the deep south!!) And it may get crazier. Justice Thomas has written at least one concurring opinion in which he suggests that the first amendment of the constitution may proscribe the establishment of a religion by the federal government but it does not stop states from proclaiming state religions (which historically they did in the early days of the country). With Mississippi debating whether to pass a constitutional amendment declaring it a Christian state and several others passing laws outlawing Sharia, it remains to be seen where we end up concerning freedom vs religious intolerance. MTT

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    • Good distinction on bright lines for freedom of speech but blurry ones on freedom of religion. I do think the U.S. Supreme Court gives us some valuable pointers. E.g., (1) the “speech is covered, behavior is not” point in my previous comment; and (2) this from Justice Ginsberg’s Hobby Lobby dissent: “Accommodations to religious beliefs or observances, the Court has clarified, must not significantly impinge on the interests of third parties.” I.e., freedom of religion is to be tolerated up to the point where it impinges on the rights/interests of third parties. Per your examples, establishing a “Christian state” would presumably impinge upon the interests of non-Christians and would thus be illegal (from Ginsberg’s vantage); likewise, one could not outlaw Islam, and outlawing Sharia is superfluous (since it is already unlawful, to Ginsberg at least, for Sharia or any other religious code to impose its practice on anyone involuntarily). We may not have reached a “bright line” on religious freedom, but these points are a rational starting point. Unfortunately, as you point out, politics and religious interests will continually destabilize the rational trajectory toward such a “bright line.”

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      • Yes, real life is messy of course. I am inclined to think that writing “this religion is stupid” in a newspaper is valid self-expression, but going to a funeral and saying “this dead person is going to burn in Hell” is an aggressive act. I don’t know what the law says, this is just my feeling. I reserve the right to change my mind later 😉

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        • I’m inclined to think that any critique of any religion in print seems within scope of free expression. The funeral case may require a public/private distinction. If it’s a private affair and you are a legitimate guest and say the deceased will burn in hell, this should be perfectly legal, although the other guests can and probably will check your speech. My Uncle Vito’s wildly inappropriate comment at a family ritual is not a criminal offence. On the other hand, if you trespass into a private affair to disrupt, there should be legal recourse, or if you go into a publically attended opera or religious service and disrupt the event by screaming obscenities, there should be recourse there too. You should be able to say and print whatever you want, but not to go into perfectly legitimate gatherings and disrupt at will. This may go to the Court’s “behavior” vs “speech” distinction – disrupting an event is “behavior.”

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  6. I thought the Pope showed the dilemma (free speech v protection of religion) well with his comment in favor of free speech but that there must be limits as it relates to religion and using his “punch in the nose” remark concerning any comments about his mother.

    It will be very difficult to come up with any bright line tests as each religion is itself splintered into different “legitimate” factions. If I run into the theater and falsely yell “fire” during the movie I think we can all agree that this cannot be protected and serves no purpose to which protection should be offered by a government. But if I go to a funeral and say “According to my faith your son is going to hell because America supports gay rights”—and here I am thinking of Westboro Baptist Church—-there will be some in “religion” who believe this is true, is required by their religion, and therefore serves a protected purpose. The Supreme court thought so when it upheld Westboro’s rights to picket funerals. Likewise when Playboy or Penthouse—I can’t remember which— had a cartoon of Jerry Falwell supposedly having sex with his mother in an outhouse (who thinks of these things), the court held that was protected speech as well.

    Likewise the douchebags that murdered folks in France have their supporters among those who allegedly believe that their religion requires this type of action. So if you are the government how do you determine which action/words uttered/taken by someone, who presumably believes that religion requires those action/words, are protected? Clearly murder (whether by Islamists or Evangelicals killing abortion doctors) is not protected speech/action. But short of murder where do you draw the line?

    The problem France is facing is a problem of liberalism. They have chosen for some time to take the tact that multiculturalism is fine because “we are all French in the end.” But that is not working. Assimilation has got to be achieved at some level or there will be more attempts to “close the borders.”

    What we see now in Islam is similar to what occurred in the early days of Christianity before Constantine co-opted Christianity. Arian and Athanius’ followers were killing each other as were other sects of Christianity. I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this. Sorry for the rambling. MTT

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    • I’ll go back to my comment to Steve and draw your line of “which actions/words” are protected this way: All words are protected; actions are not. You have a right to stand somewhere nearby and say that “your son is going to hell,” but you don’t have a right to march in and disrupt the service. So I don’t care what religion you are, you can say what you like, and others can ridicule you in speech or print as they like. Speech is protected; actions are not. (The only limits I’d recognize are those that are already in place for non-religious speech; e.g., pornographic images can limited by time, place, and manner restrictions, etc.)

      And with respect to the new pope, a religion is not your mother and slaughtering people, including innocent bystanders, is not a punch in the nose.

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