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.