Which Freedom? Whose Relativism?

The major camps in today’s debates merely disagree about whose relativism should be protected by the structures of political power.

Conservative discourse in America has set its sights on the extremes of a “woke” progressivism preached by the liberal establishment in politics, big business, and the media. Pages of conservative publications and think tanks are littered with censure of critical race theory, gender ideology, LGBTQ ideology, etc. This is as it should be.

Yet many of these criticisms fall into the same traps as the very thing they criticize. An ideological and moral relativism lies at the heart of both sides of this discourse: a shrill insistence on the freedom of the individual to think or be whatever he or she (or whatever other pronoun) wishes to think or be. The sides merely disagree about whose relativism should be protected by the structures of political power.

In contrast, we can remember a conservatism that would assert, simply and confidently, that “there exists an enduring moral order,” one that is not simply relative to the subjective whims and preferences of the individual; that the truth is not simply what you individually decide it to be; and that public authority should govern according to precisely this enduring and objective moral order. Ben Shapiro’s notorious quip that “facts don’t care about your feelings” might be considered a faint echo of this older moral realism that used to be the hallmark of conservatism.

Yet the capitulation of many conservatives (including Shapiro himself) to a libertarian individualism that renounces the role of government in publicly committing to a particular vision of the common good undermines this commitment to moral realism, in practice relativizing even the claim that moral truth is absolute: I choose to believe that moral truth is absolute, but you may choose to believe whatever you wish to believe. It is not uncommon to hear conservatives (on talk radio for instance) condemning the “indoctrination” of Americans by the left as a direct attack on their constitutional right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Why can’t they just leave us alone and let us think what we want to think? Conservatism, by this account, is about getting along with—or simply being left alone by—people who think differently from ourselves. Isn’t this the purpose of the First Amendment? Isn’t this the noble vision described in the founding documents?

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the liberal proponents of progressive ideology also view themselves as proponents of free thought and free expression. That is, after all, the core of progressivism’s main tenets. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion” are the doctrinal expression of the left’s brand of identity politics, which professes the individual’s right to make his own identity, to express himself authentically by a pure act of will. If I cannot simply choose my gender, and claim all the rights proper to my chosen identity, then am I really free? If the constraints of the patriarchal family structure, or Christian morality, or traditional gender norms, etc., prevent me from choosing my identity, then am I really free? The left’s agenda to enforce woke doctrine is really nothing other than its own attempt to preserve that most American of values: the freedom of the sovereign individual.

Both the libertarian conservative and the progressive liberal see themselves as victims of an oppressive and dogmatic ideological structure: the conservative sees himself as oppressed by the ideological structures of the left, its political parties, the media, university administrations, corporate leadership, etc.; the progressive sees himself as oppressed by the very structures and traditions which, allegedly, the conservative wishes to conserve. Both protest that they are entitled to think whatever they please, be whomever they please, express themselves however they please, and be left alone by those who would tell them otherwise.

For the conservative, freedom of thought is a right protected by the original American Constitution—though not by much more than that, as the Constitution alone proves to be increasingly insufficient against the ongoing capture of America’s institutions by progressive ideology. For the progressive, the freedom to choose one’s own identity must be protected by standards of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” that are incorporated into evolving constitutional structures, including the government, the media, the schools, the leadership of America’s corporations, and so forth, in order to protect the individual from oppressive structures (e.g., the traditional family, traditional religion, etc.) that would put limits on that freedom. Yet both sides are intent on holding the other accountable to their own version of relativism, and they see their opponents as authoritarian oppressors or dogmatic fundamentalists.

Libertarian conservatism overlooks the fact that moral realism has practical consequences in the public sphere. Moral realism requires a strong political commitment, not simply to freedom of thought or freedom of identity, but to the public recognition and enforcement of moral truth and the common good. It is not consistent to be a realist in theory but a relativist in practice. If the truth really is absolute, then it follows that you may not simply choose to believe whatever you wish to believe, or be whomever you wish to be. If the truth is truly independent of an individual’s feelings or choices, then it requires a public authority to defend it as such. Without such a public authority to defend and enforce the truth—yes, even to legislate morality—then in practice, no matter how much one might assert the contrary, the truth has been relativized. This is what both the libertarian and the liberal desire: a world where each person may choose “his truth,” where no morality is publicly enforced except the right to choose one’s own truth.

The impulse to criticize woke or progressive ideology on the basis of an imaginary right to freedom of expression undermines the more venerable conservative commitment to moral realism and tradition. Conservatism thus becomes no more than a mask for an alternate form of liberal relativism. It is notable that this mask drops when the same reasoning about free speech is deployed by some self-styled conservatives, such as David French, in defense of woke ideology, or at least in defense of the freedom of its proponents to propagate it. It should be clear that this essentially libertarian approach, even if it goes by the name of “constitutional conservatism,” is a misguided response for conservatives to adopt towards progressive liberalism, not simply because it is powerless to ward off progressivism’s assaults, but more importantly because it is essentially the same thing on an ideological level.

Jonathan Culbreath is an independent writer and researcher living in Southern California.

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