John Gray has a characteristic piece in the Guardian rehearsing the familiar old saws about how naïve and delusional atheists and liberals are, how it’s all just Christianity turned inside out, yadda yadda…but despite the staleness it’s not all wrong.
The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future.
That bit isn’t wrong. Many liberal values are at war with some aspects of what human beings are like. We’re hierarchical, so egalitarianism is always at war with many of our impulses and urges. I think Gray is right that there’s no reason to think that’s going to change in the future.
We like hierarchies for one thing because we think there’s a chance we’ll scramble our way to somewhere high or highish up on them. We like them for another thing because we like bullying people and putting them down.
We also have impulses and urges that push us the other way, fortunately. We can discourage the first and foster the second. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Kumbaya is more natural or innate than Islamic State.
An older generation of liberal thinkers accepted this fact. As the late Stuart Hampshire put it:
“It is not only possible, but, on present evidence, probable that most conceptions of the good, and most ways of life, which are typical of commercial, liberal, industrialised societies will often seem altogether hateful to substantial minorities within these societies and even more hateful to most of the populations within traditional societies … As a liberal by philosophical conviction, I think I ought to expect to be hated, and to be found superficial and contemptible, by a large part of mankind.”
Today this a forbidden thought. How could all of humankind not want to be as we imagine ourselves to be? To suggest that large numbers hate and despise values such as toleration and personal autonomy is, for many people nowadays, an intolerable slur on the species. This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning. But there is no hidden liberal struggling to escape from within the killers of the Islamic State and Boko Haram, any more than there was in the torturers who served the Pol Pot regime. To be sure, these are extreme cases. But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported. It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.
Yes. And as climate change bites harder and harder, peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration are likely to become every more exceptional until they disappear altogether.
But hey, maybe there will be a miracle.