Who Is A ‘Liberal’?
(V. Anantha Nageswaran)
V. Anantha Nageswaran is an independent financial markets consultant based in Singapore
An ideal Liberal is open to new ideas, and yet has a few immutable core principles and values. He has convictions but is aware of the imperfections of his knowledge and the limitations imposed by his ignorance. But is it possible that human beings with all these qualities exist?
Indira Parthasarathi is a veteran Tamil writer. He is in his late Seventies or perhaps in his early Eighties. He lives in Chennai. In the 1970s, he wrote a serialised Tamil novel titled ‘Maaya Maan Vettai’ (hunting the imaginary deer). The story was about how the system swallowed the idealism of a well-meaning non-resident Indian returning to India to serve his country. A line from the story is still fresh in my memory: “Too many ideals have been mindlessly frequently spouted and have lost their meanings.”
I recalled that line as I surveyed the Indian public political and intellectual discourse over the last several weeks in the run-up to the Bihar elections. Charges of intolerance made by several individuals – some well-meaning and some not – against the Indian government met with responses from many individuals sympathetic to the government in social media. The government, for the most part, presented the image of a hapless spectator. The timing and the intensity of these ‘liberal’ outrages before elections rob them of much of their credibility and legitimacy. Now that the next election is sometime away, we have an opportunity to assess what ‘being Liberal’ and ‘Liberalism’ are truly about.
We examine the ideal liberal stance and the reality at three levels next.
Universal principles and values
At one level, liberals stand for values and principles that transcend narrow national, group or sectarian considerations. If it were true, then liberals would uphold principles without taking sides. Typically, within countries, liberals would switch sides between different groups depending on the issue at hand but not switch principles depending on calculations of political and personal interests. If their values and principles were not confined to national boundaries or borders, then their support for liberal causes and concerns over and criticisms of illiberalism would transcend borders too. Illiberal thoughts and practices would meet with their opprobrium and condemnation regardless of their source. Even a casual and cursory overview of the situation tells us that this seldom prevails in practice, either in India or outside. Liberals search for social roots of heinous crimes perpetrated by some groups while, in the case of some other groups, they are plaintiffs, prosecutors, jury, judge and executioners. The selection of causes that liberals take up for espousal and the causes that they ignore betray considerations other than liberal principles at work. Selective liberalism is, then, bigotry in an intellectual sheath.
In theory, a liberal is at the opposite end of bigots. A bigot is one who is intolerant towards those who hold different opinions from oneself. However, selective intolerance is yet another form of intolerance. In the Indian context, as many were hyperventilating after the dastardly murder of a Muslim in a village in Uttar Pradesh, I wrote the following in an article in this magazine:
Selective outrage at bigotry is bigotry. It incenses the bigot who is being selectively targeted because he is being selectively targeted and because it emboldens the bigot who is spared. So, one bigot is incensed and another bigot is encouraged. This is the seminal contribution of India’s self-styled liberals to the cause of good governance. In other words, they are guilty of growing the national stock of intolerance, hatred and bigotry.
Subsequent non-reactions from liberals to murders of Hindus in other parts of the country only reinforce the perception that what passes off for liberalism in India is not to be confused with the literal meaning of being a liberal or what constitutes liberalism. Latent and manifest contradictions of the Indian liberal have not been more thoroughly exposed than in this brilliant piece by historian and Indologist, Michel Danino.
Support For The Underdogs
At the second level, liberals are champions of the less privileged, in contrast to conservatives who prefer the status quo or the established order. In this framework, liberals hold themselves above notions of fairness, democracy and freedom of expression simply because they identify with causes that are widely perceived to be in the service of the underdog – the materially poor, religious and racial minorities, in the main. That places them above rules – consistency, evidence, facts, fairness and symmetry – that are meant to regulate the conduct of ordinary mortals in their pursuit of causes that are less noble than these. The presumption that they know what is best for the world underpins most of their arguments and methods. There is no place for other views or other persons holding different views. The illiberalism or the intolerance that characterise the methods of who consider themselves liberal has been both an eternal and universal paradox.
The most recent manifestation of this is playing itself out in American university campuses. In recent weeks, there has been plenty of debate over incidents of political correctness in American campuses from Yale to Claremont McKenna College to University of Missouri. The issues are varied and yet, those championing the causes of the excluded, underprivileged and racial minorities have forced administrators to resign for daring to suggest that there could be other ways of looking at the issues. This prompted a following tweet by Patrick Chovanec, a well-known China analyst and a former academic in China:
“An increasing number of people in the US seem to believe they are so self-evidently right that they shouldn’t need to persuade anyone.”
Another academic, reacting to these incidents, wrote that “inroads to authoritarian behaviour, even in the service of a noble cause, always lead to the use of authoritarian behaviour against the people who first look to it as a line of defence.”
Role Of The State In The Society
At the third level, liberals have a particular view of the role of the State in societies and in economies. They prefer the State to stay away from legislating on matters that are for individuals to decide on. Group and societal norms and conventions cede ground to individual preferences. On the other hand, on economic matters, they want the heavy hand of the State to intervene and make decisions. Conservatives on the other hand assume that there are universal and eternal values and principles that are binding on all members of the society. On economic matters, they prefer the State to stay away, leaving it to individuals in the market place to sort things out between themselves and figure out the most appropriate way of engaging in economic transactions between themselves at the appropriate price.
Both sides are inconsistent in their own ways. Clearly, it is about some groups considering themselves to be eternal economic underdogs such that the State must come to their rescue, redistribute and alter the material and power balance while leaving them free to do what they want, with their personal lives. Other groups prefer the State to enforce social norms but not economic rules such that the existing power and material balance are preferred.
At all the three levels, the theoretical and the desirable qualities of a Liberal and what obtains in practice are worlds apart. It is unsurprising, therefore, that TCA Srinivasa Raghavan defined a Liberal as such:
“So who is a liberal, then? A liberal, by my reckoning, is a person designated as a liberal by other liberals, usually on a single communal sub-criterion. As a result, the most liberal person can be labelled illiberal by liberals and the most illiberal as liberal…. Most Indian liberals are wannabes. They are anxious to ‘belong’ and see selective liberal-certified illiberalism as the entry ticket to a certain type of social acceptability.”
Who Then Is A True Liberal?
In his description of the ideal economist, Keynes perhaps defines a liberal individual too:
“The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts…. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher — in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard.
He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.”
A Hindu philosopher explained the concept of Sthitha Prajna as described by Lord Krishna to Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita. Among other things, he/she is one who does what is necessary for the betterment of humanity with a completely tranquil mind, unperturbed. A person whose mind is tranquil will not react to situation in a way that causes harm to others because he sees everybody as his own self.
The discussion above gives us clarity on the ideal Liberal. He/she is open to new ideas and persuasion and yet has few core principles and values that are immutable. He considers facts and his assessment is fair, consistent and symmetric, unbiased by situations and personalities.
He is grounded and yet capable of reflection and contemplation of the particular, the general, the abstract and concrete. He understands that prescriptions for a stable and well-functioning society and economy are more a function of the context than they are of eternal theories. He serves humanity with humility and with a tranquil mind. He has convictions but is aware of the imperfections of his knowledge and the limitations imposed by his ignorance. Hence, he avoids hubris.
Is it possible that humans with all these qualities exist? It is not possible because humans are not cognitively wired to be Liberal. There are at least three reasons.
Can Humans Be Liberals At All?
One is loss aversion. Humans feel intense pain when they lose something. That is why, scores of psychological experiments have shown that humans experience pain disproportionately more when they lose something that they possess than when they forego a gain. That applies not just to possessions but also to opinions. Once formed, opinions are owned. That is why humans are loathe changing them or letting them go. Changing one’s views or opinions is akin to the experience of losing something. So, liberal or not, humans are prone to holding on to views much longer than desirable. Ideally, however, liberal attitudes imply a degree of detachment and lack of certitude that are necessary for mature debate.
Second, liberty and liberal attitudes are all about empowering humans with choices and the freedom to make those choices without any coercion by others – groups, communities and the State. ‘Choice’ and the absence of coercion figure prominently in the discussion of liberty and liberalism. But, that flies in the face of pervasive consumer marketing and advertising. They are all about persuading us to want things that we do not need, converting them into needs and then making us purchase them. Human cognitive limitations are not only well documented but well exploited by marketing companies. The most obvious human frailty is succumbing to framing. Framing the same issue in different ways elicits different responses from humans. Second, when presented with decisions that are less than straightforward, humans lean towards the choices that are chosen for us. In a provocative and insightful TED presentation, Professor Dan Ariely asks us to think about the question of the extent of control we have over our decisions. Professor Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ is all about how little we know of our how minds work and hence how little influence we have over it.
Third, there is the impossibility of constructing counterfactual scenarios. In real life and in real time, it is impossible to conduct counterfactual experiments. Controlled experiments are all about counterfactuals. The impossibility of being able to do so is an inherent feature of social sciences and economics. Ceteris paribus is impossible as other things never remain the same or stay constant. Closely related to this impossibility is the context-specific nature of most of the rules and norms of society. They evolve over time and with the contexts as they evolve. Very few are immutable. Indeed, that is what Raghuram Rajan alluded to when he told the graduating class at IIT Delhi recently that they should identify their core personalities with very few ideas, holding a vast majority of them open to challenge and revalidation at all times.
Recognising And Acting On Our Flaws
Awareness of our cognitive limitations is the first step towards taking ego out of the equation and taking a truly liberal stance in a given situation. But, it is only one of the necessary conditions and not sufficient at all to becoming a Liberal which is either a lifelong quest or a quest that is spread over many births, if you are a believer in reincarnation as I am.
Absence of certitude and the willingness to hold very few immutable and non-negotiable ideas and principles suggests an attitude of humility that avoids the dangers of hubris. Hubris is an affliction shared by intellectuals with leaders in positions of power. Lord David Owen, former Foreign Secretary in the British Government, had started a trust called Daedalus Trust, to examine symptoms and afflictions of hubris among corporate and national leaders. He practised psychiatry medicine before he joined the British government. Among the various symptoms of hubris, listed in the site are:
- Display of messianic tendencies;
- Excessive confidence in one’s own judgements and contempt for others’ opinions
- Unshakable belief that they would be vindicated
- Accountable only to history
Most leaders – the autocratic and authoritarian ones included – would be tickled to know that they share these four symptoms (among others) with today’s Liberals.
How should Liberals avoid becoming bigots, assuming it is not already too late for some of them? The following can help:
- Having a sense of humour;
- Willingness to indulge in self-deprecation;
- Ability to laugh at oneself;
- Awareness of one’s insignificance in the context of the history of Evolution and of the Universe itself; Willingness not to take oneself too seriously beyond a point and
- Surrounding oneself with critics who would keep one’s feet to the ground.
Gillian Tett wrote in FT that Roman Generals, returning victorious from war, used to have slaves running along with their chariots repeatedly reminding them that they were not Gods.
In India, the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar had dedicated one chapter (ten couplets from 441 to 450) to the idea of surrounding oneself with wise men who would keep Kings grounded and ensure that they rule the kingdom well, in the interests of all the subjects. It is not hard to extend the logic to all human beings and particularly to those who are in positions of intellectual leadership too. Here are two samples:
தம்மிற் பெரியார் தமரா ஒழுகுதல்
வன்மையு ளெல்லாந் தலை (Thirukkural No. 444)
Its meaning is as follows: A King wise enough to have men of greater wisdom than he to advise him shall be a powerful ruler.
For Liberals and Intellectuals, we can state that a Liberal wise enough to befriend those with greater wisdom than he would go on to become a true Liberal.
பிழைத்துணர்ந்தும் பேதைமை சொல்லா ரிழைத்துணர்ந்
தீண்டிய கேள்வி யவர். (Thirukkural No. 417)
Its meaning: Persons who have acquired their knowledge by deep study, marked by deep enquiries and by listening to other learned men, will definitely have an intuitive diffidence about their knowledge (and awareness of their ignorance), will be aware of where they could possibly be wrong or uncertain and hence will avoid making a fool of themselves.
Indirectly, the great sage counsels lack of certitude. Humility will follow naturally from that. How does one achieve this? Like everything else: by practice.
Men At Work On Becoming Liberal
Two men, who are still with us today, adopt a unique practice that shows their heightened state of evolution. One is Professor Daniel Kahneman. He simply seeks out those who disagrees with his views and collaborates with them. His collaboration with Gary Klein whose ideas on intuition differed profoundly with that of Daniel Kahneman resulted in several papers being published together. In the process, he and Klein had ironed out most of their differences managing to advance the field in the process.
Daniel Kahneman is not the only example. There is another. He is Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University. He is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. Republican Presidential candidates consult him regularly. Yet, his best friend is Professor Cornel West, who is to the extreme Left. Robert George arrives at his answers by befriending Cornel West and others who disagree with him. This is what he says:
“The best thing that’s happened in my academic life the past decade is that I regularly teach with Cornel West, who is as far to the left as I am to the right, but we love each other, and he’s got exactly the same attitude I have” about the inherent value of discussion, “and the same fears I have, that he’ll fall in love with his own opinions. It’s the best thing in the world, because you have these two cats who want to get at the truth.”
The advice he has for students is this: “Cultivate friends you disagree with,” as well as those with whom you agree, because together you’ll locate the soft spots in your own thinking and find common ground to build on.
Can Indian journalists and academics on the so-called Right and the so-called Left collaborate? Well, they can as long as they are not in ‘it’ for ego but for national interest. A big ‘ask’, perhaps.
Among journalists who questioned his own Liberal instincts, in recent times, was Rafael Behr who writes for ‘The Guardian’. In his piece published on September 8 2015, he conceded that death penalty by drone strike was a challenge for all liberal minds. It was about the killing of an ISIS terrorist – Reyaad Khan, a young British citizen – by a drone strike. He concluded that all his liberal scruples made him crave a better way if only he could find a better way. That was an intellectually open and honest piece. It would have been easy for him to denounce his government and its methods as inhuman, taking an unrealistically loftier, moral high ground. He resisted that temptation in that piece. Intellectual laziness is harder to resist than the laziness that instigates us to avoid physical labour.
So, where do we start? The best way to start is to remember what Aristotle said:
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
This article was carried in the December issue of the (‘Swarajya’) magazine.