A Liberal Society: An Absolute Anomaly

The murder of a senior Indian journalist and activist, Gauri Lankesh, brought to the fore the fragility of a liberal society. Although the motive behind the murder and the identity of the assailants haven’t been confirmed, it should be borne in mind that Ms. Lankesh’s activism wasn’t tepid or cordial. Her political ensemble consisted of excoriating censure of Hindu nationalism; support for civil rights for minorities, including the ‘scheduled castes’; and a deep concern for free speech and expression.

As would be expected, she received a steady supply of hate mail and death threats over her political positions and activism.

What wasn’t expected was private citizens on social media celebrating and rationalizing the death of Ms. Lankesh.

Prior inroads in to the liberal conscience of Indian society metamorphosed in the form of a controversial and highly indefensible legislation against cattle slaughter, reeking of ulterior motives to bring dietary practices in line with religious sentiments, supposedly ascribed to a resurgent Hindu nationalist movement. This was followed by the installation of de-facto cow-vigilantes, whose sole purpose has been to crack down on the trade, transport, and storage of beef and cattle by absolutely ‘any means necessary’ in juxtaposition with the prime minister’s bromides in response to the atrocities committed by self-professed ‘cow protectors.’

Even more worrisome is the cheerleading for a nationwide beef ban as is illustrated here. The article’s author, Sunil Rajguru, employs the Hindu makeup of Indian demographic as the first argument, among an untenable and light-weight salvo of ten, in favor of banning beef. The Huffington Post went irretrievably off the deep end as it hustled to rally gullible, virtue-signaling liberals in supporting the beef ban by drawing false equivalencies between civil rights for humans and painful slaughter practices, under the auspices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (The HuffPo article is a must-read for its ability to leave the reader in sheer amazement.)

It is staggering to see the devolution of what has been touted as a liberal society, the world’s largest secular democracy, serving as the homestead for a myriad of ethno-linguistic groups.

Turkey, the secular poster child of the Middle-East, experienced a ‘cultural cleanup’ and curtailment of Internet freedom when President Erdogan banned Wikipedia and TV dating shows. This is an about-face from the Ataturk’s objective of establishing a secular and liberal Turkey.

Despite his intolerance of dissent and criticism and his tenuous resolve to maintain separation of religion and state, President Erdogan remains popular with his followers, who make at least a half of the Turkish demographic. This was reflected in the 2017 constitutional referendum, where a majority of the Turkish citizenry voted in favor of an administrative switch - from parliamentary to presidential governance. This would not only concentrate disproportionate power in the hands of the President, but with a poor system of checks and balances, the head of state will virtually have a free pass to unlimited authority and control.

European nations have also been steadily washed in to an illiberal tide of placing burden on freedom of expression. Their peers across the Atlantic haven’t been faring well either, with the Canadian parliament welcoming a motion to use government power to curb religious discrimination – a protection afforded only to Islam. Critics fear that some of the text of the motion, cleverly hidden behind a veil of ambiguity, can be metamorphosed into limitations on freedom of expression.

US college campuses, the last battleground in the fight to preserve classical liberal values, have seen rescindment of speaking invitations, bullying of persons echoing unsavory views, and appropriation of administrative apparatus to shut down unpopular opinions.

Certainly, western societies are scoring better grades at preserving liberal values than are eastern societies.

Regardless, it raises doubts about the proposition that human beings have a natural preponderance for liberal values; that if left to their own devices and not interfered by nefarious elements, most societies will gravitate towards classical liberalism.

Contemporary events put the lie to this myth.

I would submit that classical liberalism is a contrived framework that attempts to stymie human excesses, not a system that facilitates the natural yearnings of human beings. It understands the fallibility of the human condition and acknowledges that even the noblest of the species are capable of imposing unprecedented burden upon their brethren, if it were to serve the interests of the former.

Interestingly, democracy doesn’t make the list of imperatives for classical liberals, but a constitutional republic does. Democracy is but a rule of the majority, which can readily descend into tyranny, if the majority collude to subjugate the minority.

Constitutional republics, on the other hand, are designed with the express purpose of protecting the rights of minorities – the most vulnerable of the demographic. This runs counter to the human trait of acquiring power, which makes constitutional republic an unlikeable premise.

In the minds of classical liberals, the state is a suspect agent, and cannot be trusted to carry out its duties scrupulously. Hence, their deeply-felt need to limit its size and scope and to remain watchful of its malignant growth. This reflects in a strong support for free markets, minimum government regulation, and maximum individual liberty.

Liberals also believe in a strong system of checks and balances and separation of powers to prevent the different branches of government to go out of bounds. While this may lead to gridlocks, it seems that is the very intention of such a system, in which rigorous and protracted debate occurs over every piece of legislation and policy-making.

A vigorous protection of freedom of expression and free press is paramount for a liberal society, but they clash with the machinations of power-hogs and protectors of the status quo.

A rigid separation of religion and state, to create a secular government, is galling to scores of people, for whom religion is the crux around which life and society is arranged and whose principles might clash with those of some other religion.

Secular policy-making and regulations upset religious folks who believe that their private, often impractical, principles should be worked into a legislation.

A liberal society, thus, is by no means a comfortable place to dwell. Views will be challenged, request for favors will be turned down, highly revered values will be discarded, and success will follow merit, not traditional hegemony. All in all, the residents will be irked from time to time.

No wonder, liberal societies are relatively easy to establish, but hard to sustain, as people grapple with the bleak reality that they will have to work with a system that is rational, moves through dialogue and persuasion, and favors no single group.

To keep this unnatural, loathsome, yet efficient, system viable through the means of a flawed human psyche requires an aware citizenry, vigorous debate, law-abidance, a deep understanding of history, and a persistent fight to limit government.

Saurabh Malkar

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more.

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