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More on complaints about liberal tyranny

A liberal might object that my complaints about liberal intolerance and tyranny are really only complaints that liberalism is the political outlook on which Western institutions are now based. As such, it does what any dominant outlook does: it defines itself as truth and other outlooks as deceit, malice or ignorance, and then acts accordingly. What’s unusual about liberalism, he might continue, is not that it finds ways of suppressing other views but that the methods it uses are so gentle.

I suppose I’d respond to such an objection in two ways. My first point would be that there’s nothing unusually good about the ways in which liberalism maintains its dominance. The Spanish Inquisition is not the universal form of all other possibilities. For example, traditional understandings about sex and gender were on the whole maintained by a network of habits and understandings that controlled what people did without much direct reliance on physical force. It was possible to go to jail for sodomy, but in Europe it’s possible to go to jail for downplaying the importance of the Holocaust.

Besides, gentle means have disadvantages like everything else. Controls not enforced from outside must be internalized. Perfect freedom can exist only through the abolition of thought. The Anglo-Saxon countries have always been famous on the Continent for political freedom, and also for stupidity, hypocrisy and philistinism. The two have been related. One of the things that’s made the development of liberalism possible has been the development of better means of suppressing independent thought—the extension and centralization of formal education., the mass media, the bureaucratization of knowledge and cultural life generally. Those developments have made it much easier to define those who reject liberalism as not only wrong, but as ignorant, socially marginal, and somehow weird.

My second major point would be that the objection defends liberalism against the charge of tyranny at the cost of giving up its claim to automatic superiority. If its claim to superiority is that it lets 100 flowers bloom its defense cannot be that when it treats everything but liberalism as a weed to be grubbed out it’s only doing what all dominant views do. So to the extent liberalism relies on the claim that it’s no different from other views it must defend itself on grounds that make it directly comparable to other views. It must claim, for example, that its own substantive understanding of the human good—that it consists in maximum equal satisfaction of desire—is superior to others that have been advanced.