On Liberty, Liberalism, and Freedom

by Nov 18, 2021Uncategorized

We often take for granted that everyone understands the meaning of the word “liberal” and the values that it represents. However, we use a confusing lexicon that misleads people regarding the meaning of the word “liberal.”

Hanging out at kiddush after shul a friend stopped me and said that he really enjoyed my latest opinion essay published in Newsweek. Well, what he actually said was more like: “I’m glad you stuck it to those woke idiots trying to ruin America.”

While I had hoped that the tone of my recent opinion piece wouldn’t be taken as aggressive, it was certainly critical of people who claim to be “Woke.” His statement started a conversation between us about the dangers of Woke ideology to Jewish American life, and I mentioned that I had connected with an organization, “The Jewish Institute for Liberal Values,” that is fighting that exact battle. 

My friend, a conservative who voted for Trump, twice, responded swiftly.  

“The Liberals?! They are the ones trying to ruin America and cancel everyone who disagrees with them.”

We often take for granted that everyone understands the meaning of the word “liberal” and the values that it represents. However, we use a confusing lexicon that misleads people regarding the meaning of the word “liberal.”

The word “liberal” (lowercase l) is not the same as “Liberal” (uppercase L). As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a Liberal (capitalized) is “a member or supporter of a liberal political party.”

With a two-party political system in the United States, the word “Liberal” has become synonymous with the word “Democrat” since the Democratic party claims to be the liberal party. It is crucial to capitalize “Democrat” in this context, not confused with “democrat.” By definition, a democrat is an adherent of democracy, making all Americans who believe in democracy “democrats” even if they consider themselves Republicans. 

When we encounter these terms, this nuance is confusing since we often do not pay close attention to which letter is capitalized and how it changes its meaning. Listening presents a more significant challenge as there is no difference between the pronunciation of capital and lowercase letters. 

Liberalism (lowercase l, but here capitalized because it begins a sentence) is a philosophy that belongs neither to the left nor the right. Just as you can be a democrat and be Left or Right, Conservative or Liberal, Republican or Democrat, you can also be a liberal and hold any of these views. 

The reciprocal to this statement is that you can also be illiberal and hold any of these views. 

So what makes one a liberal? A liberal is “an advocate or adherent of liberalism especially in individual rights.” And liberalism is “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.”

The term “liberal” comes to us originally from the Latin “liber,” meaning free—as does the term “liberty,” which is similar to the word “freedom.” 

Liberal values are derived from the ideals of liberty. Unfortunately, many people today have confused liberty with freedom. According to John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, they are not the same. He sees freedom as the ability to do as one wants and what one has the power to do, while liberty is the absence of arbitrary restraints, taking into account the rights of all involved.

Here we find an important note for our modern discourse. Freedom is about doing what you want based on your power. Liberty is about not being restrained so long as you don’t infringe on someone else’s rights. 

Wokeness is about freedom: the freedom of one set of ideals to dominate thought and action. When freedom is your core value, the next logical step is to amass the power to do what you want and cancel the competition.

Liberalism is about liberty. The liberty to hold your set of ideas, as long as you respect the rights of others. When liberty is your core value, you must allow others their opinion as well. 

Liberalism is about liberty. The liberty to hold your set of ideas, as long as you respect the rights of others. When liberty is your core value, you must allow others their opinion as well. 

Liberty is more difficult to incorporate internally as a value because it contains in itself a contradiction. However, this contradiction does not disprove it; instead, history has shown that this contradiction is the source of its strength. 

This contradiction shows itself when your beliefs directly contradict someone else’s beliefs. You have to allow space for what you know is incorrect. You are permitted to engage with the opposing views, intellectual and empirically, but you cannot forcibly remove them.

However, a funny thing often happens during this process. None of us has the complete truth. Through this engagement, you will often find that your beliefs evolve. Sometimes your opinions will be strengthened; other times, they will be weakened. Sometimes you will teach, other times you will learn. 

More importantly, everyone moves closer to the truth. Occasionally this means someone completely changes their beliefs. But more often, both parties modify their ideas, and the process begins again. Everyone grows through the process. 

While the primary value of liberalism is liberty, from Mill’s model of liberty, we can derive other core values. Two of those values are individualism and universalism. 

Individualism states that everyone is different. And that person should not be constrained by characteristics that they share with a group. For example, the color of your skin should not limit your opportunities in life.

Universalism states that we all have the same rights and responsibilities. According to the Declaration of Independence, these include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We can see these ideals in Mill’s model of liberty. The absence of arbitrary restraints allows everyone to be their own person, unconstrained by the stereotypes of the groups to which they belong or characteristics they possess. And taking into account the rights of everyone who makes up a society means that we must all share fundamental rights and responsibilities. 

Finally, to allow a society to flourish in this manner, we need one more value: pluralism. Pluralism is the notion that people can have different ideas and still live together and consider each other brothers and sisters despite their core disagreements. 

These are the liberal values. Liberty encompasses them all. Liberty gives us both individualism and universalism, and finally, pluralism halts the conflicts that can tear apart a liberal society from the inside out. 

And like democracy, liberalism is a core American value. Best summed up in the well-known phrase “majority rules (democracy) minority rights (liberalism).”

Article originally published in the Jewish Journal

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