While this post is less explicitly feminist than others, it does deal with egalitarianism, a core theme of this blog. It also relates to the rationalist ideas from the last post.
Liberals sometimes use the
term “authoritarian” to describe both conservatives as well as non-liberal
leftists (including feminists) and to imply that all who oppose their
highly permissive ideology want total control over all aspects of peoples’
lives. They view all their opponents as part of the same totalitarian,
“sexually repressive” force.
I believe that it is possible
to reject liberalism without buying into an authoritarian world view. In fact,
this post will argue that the relativistic, liberal viewpoint, that anything
goes with regard to behaviour and that no action (or belief) is ever right or
wrong, is just another, highly individualistic, brand of authoritarianism. If
the idea that extreme permissiveness is authoritarian seems strange to you,
please read on. I encourage readers to consider my arguments and leave
thoughtful (though not necessarily uncritical) comments, instead of just
dismissing me as a dictatorial monster.
Authoritarianism is the
belief that one should rely on authorities to determine what is right or wrong,
with regard to claims about both reality and moral goodness. For now, I will
focus on the application of authoritarianism to moral claims (authoritarian
approaches to understanding material reality may be discussed in another post).
Authoritarians believe that
there is an entity out there whose moral claims should be believed blindly, due
to the entity’s supposed infallibility. Any action that the authority figure
disapproves of is assumed to be morally wrong, while those which are not
disapproved of are deemed morally acceptable and those which the entity
commands are deemed obligatory. When authoritarians encounter rational
arguments or experience inner intuitions that tell them not to obey a
certain order, they will often force themselves obey it anyway.
Liberals assume that all
moral claims (or at least, all that involve labelling behaviours as “immoral”,
“anti-feminist” or otherwise objectionable) are authoritarian and that the more
moral claims a person puts forward, the more authoritarian they are. However,
if one uses the more precise definition of authoritarianism that I provided
above, it becomes clear that not all moral statements are authoritarian. A moral
statement (whether it encourages or discourages controversial behaviours) is
only authoritarian if it is justified purely through references to
an authority (e.g. “you should not do this because the authority figure said
Those who attempt to support
their moral statements (or claims about the world) through
rational arguments, evidence and a concern for the welfare of humanity are not
practising authoritarianism. This does not mean their positions are always
right, but they cannot be accused of being unthinking sheep or dictators who
command blind obedience (unless, of course, they are arguing for such things.)
Nor should those who are perceived as making too many moral claims (or
labelling too many actions as “immoral) be labelled authoritarians. The
authoritarianism of a person or ideology is not determined by how many moral statements
are made, but by how those statements are justified.
It should also be stated that
the strictness of a moral claim does not determine how authoritarian it is. I
define a strict moral claim or rule as one that does not have many exceptions.
For example, the belief that violence should never be used by progressive
movements is a strict moral claim. The recognition that violence is generally
wrong, but may be morally justified in cases where its use is necessary to
achieve worthwhile aims (e.g. repelling a military invasion) is a less strict
While stern, difficult to
follow rules are associated with authoritarian institutions (e.g. conservative
churches) there may be valid reasons for making strict moral claims. I cannot
think of a realistic circumstance in which the use of pornography will have
significant benefits (either for individuals or society as a whole) thus I take
a strict stance against it. I also refuse to make exceptions for milder
versions of pornography (e.g. sexualised depictions of women in mainstream
media). Though I recognise that milder practices are, in general, less harmful
than the alternatives, their prevalence may encourage the more extreme practices. In either case, my strict positions are not justified through
references to authority figures and thus are not authoritarian.
Permissiveness always Anti-Authoritarian?
Being permissive means
refusing to lay down rules or moral principles and instead allowing people to
obey any whim that occurs to them. Liberals believe that permissiveness is the
opposite of authoritarianism. In reality, authoritarianism can be used to
justify both excessive permissiveness as well as excessive strictness.
example of this is the “just following orders” defence, famously invoked
by Nazi officers during the Nuremberg trials. Nazi Germany is often perceived
as a strict society and to an extent this claim is accurate. However, the Nazi
state also allowed and encouraged things that modern Western society often does
not (such as blatant racism in the mainstream culture and unregulated, physical
fighting among young males). In any case, the “just following orders” argument
attempts to use the commands of an authority figure (in this case, the state)
to excuse actions, rather than condemn them. It is thus an example of
authoritarianism in the service of permissiveness.
Fascists are not the only
ones who believe that the state determines right from wrong. Anyone who argues
that an action is morally acceptable, because it is legal, is guilty of
applying authoritarianism. A non-authoritarian understanding of ethics leads
one to realise that laws should be determined by moral principles, not the
other way around. Liberals rage against the state when it condemns or outlaws
behaviours or institutions which they like (such as the sex industry), but in
cases where the state approves of or allows a practice, such approval is
perceived as proof that the behaviour is ethical. Since liberals have more
political influence than their “sex-negative” feminist opponents, liberals who
appeal to the law are to some extent appealing to their own power. Thus
equating power with moral rightness is a feature of liberal, as well as reactionary,
Another example of
permissiveness coexisting with authoritarianism is liberal Christianity. The
term “liberal Christian” is often applied to any Christian who is not
conservative. I use it specifically to refer to Christians who believe that gay
relationships, pornography consumption, promiscuous sex and other behaviours
(wrongly or rightly) condemned by traditional Christianity are in fact morally
acceptable, because their supposed god permits them. They say things like “God
does not judge” and “God has forgiven me”. Whatever annoying cliché they decide
to invoke, their argument can be summed up as “this behaviour is okay, because
God thinks it is okay or, at least, will not punish people for it.” Many
argue that liberal Christians are less authoritarian than conservative
Christians. I disagree. The belief that an action is permissible, because an
authority said so, is no less authoritarian than the belief that it is wrong,
because an authority said so. In either case, the words of an authority are
viewed as the standard of moral goodness.
Thus I do not believe that
permissiveness is the opposite of authoritarianism, rather it is the opposite
of strictness (as defined above). To reject authoritarianism, is to base all
moral claims (including claims about the acceptability of a behaviour) on
something other than an appeal to the statements of authority figures, such as concerns
about the harms caused by allowing or disallowing particular actions. I do not
know of an English word that properly conveys the opposite of authoritarianism
(if you think of one, tell me in the comments), but I am pretty sure that
“liberalism” and “permissiveness” are not it.
Not all liberals worship a
god and few would admit to worshipping the government. Does this mean they are
not authoritarian? No, they still can be. Conservative Christians accuse less religious people of making
themselves into gods. I do not believe that this accusation applies to all non-religious people, but it does accurately describe liberals. While most liberals do not literally believe that they have god-like powers, they do view themselves as perfect
authorities with regard to “their truth”. They also believe that any action
they practice or permit another to practice upon them is acceptable, because
they chose it. Thus liberals perceive themselves as infallible
authorities (or metaphorical “gods”) with regard to their choices and their personal, so-called "reality".
One problem with this relativistic approach is that it cannot account for changed minds
or regret. If everyone were a perfect authority on what was good for them
(practically or morally), no one would ever willingly do something and decide
afterwards that what they did was unwise. To change one's views or regret
an action is to contradict one’s previous beliefs. If infallible
beings actually existed, they would never contradict themselves.
Liberals respond to this problem by claiming that remorse is always (emphasis on “always”) a
product of "hateful", "moralistic", "sex-negative" social norms
that infect the mind with “shame”. Of course, when other movements claim that
“brainwashing” (or rather indoctrination) occurs in our society, they are accused of “denying agency”. Well, the liberal notion that all regret (or “shame”) is caused directly by social forces and never by a
rational assessment of one’s actions (in accordance with common values, like
equality and kindness) sounds like an appeal to “brainwashing” to me. That said, I do not belief that all "brainwashing" claims are false. In fact the view that society indoctrinates people into rejecting liberalism or feeling shame might make sense were our culture not dominated with pro-sex and
generally individualistic messages.
Furthermore the belief that every individual is an infallible authority with regard to their
own actions, forces people to accept contradictory moral propositions. Two
people, in the same exact situation, might make conflicting
assessments of an action (one might label it as morally acceptable,
while the other labels it as unacceptable.) If everyone were an infallible moral
authority, both views would be accurate. Such contradictions can be
solved only by employing relativism. Liberals claim that behaviours which may not be right “for
you”, are nonetheless right "for him" or "for her" and thus we should not attempt to
prevent actions undertaken by others (even if such attempt consists of
nothing more than publicly expressing your objections to an act).
Those who make this argument
do not truly understand the nature of a moral impulse. Such impulses usually apply to the actions of humans in general. If a person genuinely believes that
an action is severely immoral, they will not want others to carry it out. There
is nothing virtuous about passively allowing actions which you recognise as
wrong and thus refrain from. While liberals blindly praise “tolerance” and
“acceptance” (their new buzzword), the reality is that such traits are only as
virtuous as that which is being tolerated or accepted. To tolerate (or
“accept”) genuine wrongdoing is to compromise one’s own moral character. Of
course, one should tolerate behaviours which are not harmful or immoral (or at
least, in the case of gay relationships or marriages, not more harmful than the
alternative), but tolerating behaviours, while knowing that they are wrong, is
nothing more than cowardice.
Liberals and conservatives
who read this may wonder, “If I cannot trust the government or the god of
Christianity (or any religion) or even myself to make perfect moral
judgements, then who can I trust?” If so, they have missed my point entirely.
There is no being whose moral judgements are infallible. The better question to
ask is not “who”, but “how”. How do we determine right from wrong? This is the
part that many liberals and conservatives fear, the part where you have to use
your own brain, by which I mean the ability to reason and reflect upon what is
in the interests of humanity.
In spite of the “you view yourself
as god” accusation (discussed above), I believe it is possible to reason
about morality, collectively and independently, without viewing either
ourselves or others as infallible. It is important that we critically examine
our own thoughts, intuitions and desires along with those of others and devoid
dismissing other people’s criticisms of our views and actions as “personal,
subjective truths” which are relevant only to them and not to us. As
individualistic as relativism and liberalism are, they are no less
authoritarian than conservatism. The only true alternative is genuine critical
(including self-critical) thought.
While I will continue to
write about feminism on this blog, I am considering expanding the focus of this
blog to cover topics like rationalism, morality, revolutionary socialism and
history. Let me know what you think of this idea.