how i became a liberal apologist and how i became a malayaist
December 1, 2016
Honest to god. After my years of writing about and exploring political and social philosophy, I honestly never thought I’d end up becoming a liberal apologist. Its especially amusing to me bc I know that my writing has helped ‘radicalize’ a few people. But I’ve always been a pluralist and, well, combined with my belief that freedom is ought to be the primary value of any ‘movement’ or ‘ideology’, that makes me a liberal according to current classification.
I just did a search of my blog archives and realized that the first post I made about accepting this reality, was published on January 10, 2016. Which is amusing to me because I’m writing this post on December 1, 2016. We’ve basically gone around full-circle. But yes. I am now become a liberal apologist. In a way, I’ve been one for a while but I just didn’t know it. I know that part of my… ‘ew gross’ feelings about this is a result of the company I keep, who (for good reason) have very little other than contempt for liberals. Indeed, I’ve more than once expressed my contempt for (usually white) liberals. Yet… here I am.
In a lot of ways, I think it was inevitable that I’d end up in this position. Throughout the years (and my blog archives can attest to this), I’ve remained committed to a few philosophical principles. First is pluralism. I am – and always have been – a pluralist. From all that I know and learned, pluralism is still the only, viable philosophy for how to deal with conflicting values from different communities in a way that isn’t about insisting that all groups must adhere to the same ideology. But, of course, my commitment to pluralism actually comes from a different place (I’ll discuss this in a moment). Second is freedom. I have a book named i just want freedom which in turn is a line from something I wrote a while back. I have consistently placed freedom as the primary value and goal of my philosophy. This is also the primary value of liberalism.
Now… having a philosophical commitment to both pluralism and freedom doesn’t necessarily mean I must identify myself as a liberal or align myself within liberalism as a whole. And certainly, this is something I’ve resisted for a long time. In general, as I’ve also said for many years, I don’t like to affiliate myself with any movement or ideology. I find not doing so helps keep me from becoming dogmatic in my beliefs. Not having a commitment to a particular group or movement means that I remain open to new ideas, since I don’t have to contend with any notion of loyalty. I can adjust and revise my position on things without it looking like I’m selling-out or what the fuck ever.
Except… in a way this is a cop-out. And, sure, I’ve definitely used it as such. But… given my writing and everything else. I really don’t see the day where freedom isn’t my primary value/goal and where I’m not a pluralist. Moreover, regardless of my distaste for labelling myself as anything, it doesn’t change the fact that other people will (and do) classify me based on my commitments. Which means, that yes, I have become a known and identified liberal. Utterly rejected by radical twoc tumblr and a few others, no doubt.
Its just that… ‘liberal’ has so much fucking baggage. Given that a lot of people aren’t really clear about the differences between philosophical liberalism and political liberalism (e.g., how liberalism manifests itself in real world politics and political parties), liberal becomes a word I choke on. I mean. Being a canadian resident. If I say that I’m a liberal here, many people will mean that I’m a supporter of the Liberal Party. And I’m really, really not. I’ve voted Liberal once in my life and that was a strategic vote. I usually vote NDP.
Worse yet, everyone I know dislikes liberals. Like literally everyone. I don’t think I know a single person who identifies themself in that way. And by ‘everyone I know’ I’m including the people on the ‘right’ who hate me. The Right hates liberals. And their hatred is perhaps only surpassed by the Left. And I really do get it, having been a very vocal critic myself. Being super critical isn’t likely to change even as I’ve accepted that some variety of ‘liberal’ is what I am and likely will always be.
But how did this happen? It feels like I ought to get to the point (I mean… the title of this post is ‘how i became a liberal apologist’ and I haven’t even touched on that yet).
It starts with pluralism. But not political pluralism. A long, long time ago I took a class called ‘non-classical logics’ (or something to that effect). The focus of that class was, you guessed it, non-classical logics. For those who don’t know, non-classical logics are any logics that deviate in some important respect from classical logic. Classic logic is understood as the mathematical/symbolic system of logic first articulated by Frege and developed by others. It is the logic of computer science1. This class is what got me to be a logical pluralist.
Logical pluralism is essentially the notion that there are many valid systems of logic, rather than a singular Logic applicable in all contexts. What this essentially means, in a practical sense, is the belief that what is ‘true’ can change depending on context. For anyone versed in post-modernism, this shouldn’t be a terribly shocking belief. In logic, however, this tends to be a Big Deal since many like to think that the so-called laws of logic are just that: laws. Laws that express some fundamental truth about the universe (esp. true bc of the mathematical understanding of logic). Non-classical logics can (and frequently do) violate some logical law. Some going so far as to assert that there are contradictions that are true when, by definition, contradictions are always false. It gets messy, ok?
Now. Part of what I researched at the time was comparative logic (cross-culturally). If you believe that there is one True Logic, you quickly get into trouble once you start comparing Greek logic (and its development throughout Europe) to other traditions of logic. Like the South Asian one. Or the Buddhist one. Or the Arabic one. Or, what I studied, the Chinese one. In the ‘western’/greek tradition of logic, what is ‘logical’ is intimately related to what is ‘rational’. These go hand in hand. At some point scientific racism popped up (around 1795, if you’re curious). And one of the measures of race was the innate potential for rational thought. Accidentally, I’m sure, it turned out that white people were the most rational and, thus, also the most logical. And we can see that other traditions of logic clearly fail to be as mathematical and as ‘rigourous’ or whatever as the white/greek tradition.
This quickly becomes even worse for other traditions because many of the non-white traditions (particularly during this time period) had principles that violated some white notion of a logical law. I mean. The Buddhist tetrelemma essentially states that it is possible (to some extent) that propositions which break the laws of non-contradiction and the exluded middle can be true. Clearly fucking ridiculous right? And also clearly a sign that South Asians aren’t as capable of rational thought as white people. Except… The problem with this is that the differences in the logics depend heavily on different ontologies and worldviews. Nagarjuna when employing the tetralemma was arguing within an ontology where everything was empty/false. That means that he used the tetralemma to demonstrate that all propositions are false/empty. This was a key point in his soteriology.
And this holds true for all the non-classical logics as well. They exist because of different ontological commitments, different notions of truth, different notions of what is ‘logical’, or some other basis. And perhaps one could articulate that non-classical logics are just philosophical sophistry… except that many of them have turned out to have real-world applications and they work. I think fuzzy logic is the easiest example of this. Fuzzy logic was motivated by issues presented by the sorites paradox: if you add a grain of sand one at a time, how many grains does it take until you have a pile? Pure philosophical nonsense and yet… fuzzy logic is utilized in all kinds of electronics. It actually became an important technological breakthrough.
In any case, I was convinced that logical pluralism was the way to go. It was inevitable given my field of study. Without logical pluralism, I could not have argued that some system of logic developed in Warring States China. Fuck, given the state of that particular field, I could not have argued that Chinese people were logical (and thus rational) at all. And if you know the history of sinology, then you know that many white scholars have articulated such a view many, many times. Part of the Orientalist vision of China is that they are inscrutable, poetic, and mystical.
Given this course of study it was also inevitable that I’d be committed to some form of cultural relativism or another. I’m only committed to a weak form of cultural relativism since I absolutely do not believe that different cultures are incommeasurable. Part of this, again, is due to ontological commitments, since I’m also a metaphysical realist. This means, to me, that we all share the same, knowable reality. We all, as humans, have the same physiology and, most importantly, our brains work the same. To me, this suggests that regardless of cultural differences, we always have something in common. Basically a commitment to the idea of our shared humanity. And that this gives us a basis to understand and related to one another.
You see how suddenly I’m thrust into also supporting political pluralism? Being any kind of cultural relativist almost ensures that you’re a pluralist to some extent. Moreover, if you’re a cultural relativist to any degree, you essentially are committed to the notion that values and ideals must be evaluated within their cultural context, rather than thinking that their either exists some kind of universal ethics or that your particular ethics should determine the goodness of another culture’s practices or beliefs. Classic example: cultural relativists will think that veiling in Muslim cultures is best interpreted and understood based on the context in which it happpens. People who aren’t cultural relativists will assert that viels are wrong and oppressive regardless of the context.
The thing with pluralism is that it is, as far as I’ve been able to determine thus far, the only philosophical position which attempts a reconciliation between mutually exclusive value systems. Pluralism basically states that within a muslim society, if they decide veiling is the way to go, then that’s up to them. But if a different society thinks its awful, then that’s also up to them. However, and this is the key part, neither society has the right to impose their values on the other. In other words, the non-veiling group has no right to attempt by force to the other to stop vieling. And vice-versa. Pluralism is about figuring out ways for both societies to peacefully co-exist without either being forced to adhere to the other’s value system.
Pluralism alone is enough to motivate me to become a liberal apologist since it is the only political philosophy which has it as a fundamental principle. Literally everything else I’ve seen, from conservatism to marxism, insists that everyone must conform to the same ideology in order to achieve its goal. Yes… liberalism isn’t any different since it holds that everyone should adhere to some kind of pluralism. Something which is a problem, say, for a lot of Christians. I mean. They sent out missionaries all over the world because they feel they have an ethical commitment to convert everyone. This is one of their values (esp. particular demoninations like the Church of Latter-day Saints). Pluralism kind of frowns on this behaviour, at least in the way that missionaries went about it (by using force and violence to convert people).
In this way, pluralism is sort of a consequence of liberalism’s fundamental value, liberty. If the goal of your philosophy or political work is to ensure that everyone has the most freedom possible, then it quickly becomes impossible to get everyone to adhere to the same ideology. Since everyone ought to be free to believe in whatever ideology they think is best. Much like freedom of religion. People should be free to be religious in how they want. Except that if everyone is free to practice whatever religion they want, how do you deal with one religion that says converting people by force is okay and another religion which thinks all violence is immoral?
To some extent, this problem really only became a Major Problem because of colonialization and the beginnings of globalization. In our day and age, everyone in the entire world has (to some extent) access and the ability to interact with everyone else in the world. While all the empires weren’t concerned with ensuring their subjects had maximal freedom, we are now in an era where a lot of those places have self-governance. Which means we are left with the real issue of how to maintain some level of global peace when some groups/cultures have mutually incompatible values. This becomes especially important given that we have weapons capable of destroying huge groups of people (or everyone) very quickly and with little effort.
The issue I have with most alternative ideologies is that, in order for them to work and for it to be able to have some kind of viable global peace, is that everyone must share the same ideology. I could never be a communist because in order for communism to really work, everyone must be a communist. The requirement that everyone be a communist in order for it to work is, to me, an unnacceptable restriction on our freedom. But I also have the same problem with capitalism. And so on.
This isn’t necessarily a problem. But communism, because of its commitments, doesn’t have liberty as its core value. I’m not trying to say that all ideologies must have liberty as their fundamental value (I wouldn’t be a pluralist if I did think such a thing). The thing is, though, only one of these ideologies has the conceptual space for the other to determine its own values and priorities: liberalism. And this is how I became a liberal apologist.
One last thought: the other reason I prefer to be movement/ideology agnostic is because I’m also very much a pragmatist. I don’t care which path we take to freedom as long as we get there. The thing is, based on my current information, liberalism seems like the best bet. But the problem with liberalism and all other ideologies is that, as things have gone so far, they are all failed ideologies. None of them have worked so far. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The fact that we aren’t all enjoying maximal freedom means all the social and political movements past and present have failed. All of them. The only reason why liberalism (via enlightenment values) holds the global sway it does today is because of the violence of colonization. This too, in my opinion, makes it a failed ideology.
This is why I’ve always resisted labelling myself or locating myself within the political spectrum. I’ve swallowed the distaste and accepted the liberal label for now. But, more than anything and beyond any label, I think my commitment to freedom and pluralism are the only things that won’t change for me. Based on the current ideological landscape, this places me firmly within the liberal camp regardless of how much I like it. However, I don’t think that liberalism, as a whole, is necessary to believe in these two things. In fact, based on my writing before about how liberalism is the political philosophy of the englightenment, I think that it’ll never actually work. Something with these values but that sheds the rest of the enlightenment baggage is what I want.
Hmm… I totally have been thinking about this for a while now. In another post, I suggest ‘post-colonial liberalism’ or whatever, but I really want to abandon ‘liberalism’ itself. I mean. It’s only called that because the root of it is liberty. And I, just now, had a thought… Given that this is my philosophical work and something I’ve been developing, I’m calling this ‘malayaism’. ‘Malaya’ is the Tagalog word for ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’. It also, as it happens, is my middle name (which I picked bc I like the sound of the word and because it means freedom). So fuck liberalism. I’m a malayaist. Core tenets of malayaism: freedom, pluralism, and decolonization.
For most of its history logic has been primarily philosophy. In modern history it became math and nowadays its become subsumed under computer science. But the more than two thousand years of ‘western’ logic (i.e., the Greek tradition), it still remains a fundamentally philosophical venture. ↩