For a growing number of people liberalism transformed from a venerable bastion of human rights and social justice into an archaic nuisance that is preoccupied with shoving these ideals to the public with little regard for non-liberal attitudes. Underneath this veil of political advocacy and correctness is the struggle to achieve monopoly over political morality, and behind liberalism’s universalist appeal to humanism is a polarizing tendency that can be traced back to its forefathers; a tendency that is now being turned against them by the very forces they both ignored and provoked.
Last year, in our country where liberal traditions have weak public roots, Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential elections on a campaign based on both the urban legend surrounding his iron-fisted rule as Mayor of Davao city tied to his promise of social change; the latter being highlighted by his war on drugs that is currently as fatal as it is ineffective.
Our case exemplifies the crippling inability of liberals to prevent the resurgence of old adversaries, and the sustained disgust being held against them by illiberal entities. Both the autocrat and the illiberal can be deemed as implications of the conflict between the liberal universalism and the inclusionary-exclusionary politics of other ideologies. However, for this piece I will focus on the accusation of arrogance and obsolescence leveled against liberals.
We can trace the hubris of liberals back to certain tendencies emanating from the elitism tucked underneath Rousseau’s advocacy for direct democratic politics. Simply, liberal pretention can be trailed back to one of its forefathers and his argument for the primordial alienation between the Lawgiver and the People.
In his attempt to tackle the issue of constituting the People and the Public Good, Rousseau resorted to an alien force or a wise outsider to call the People into existence and to lay down its primary laws without having authority himself. For Rousseau, establishing the rules of society requires someone who is both wise and alien to human society; a demi-god embodied in a supposedly objective lawgiver. It is apparent that this foundational office cannot be filled by any one man while its Herculean and Messianic duty of bringing enlightenment to humanity reeks of elitism.
It is an alluring dream for anyone who is presumptuous enough to claim this position of moral authority. Although Rousseau explicitly stated that this entity must remain alien to the society, political realities ranging from ambition to contestation allowed this notion to materialize while ignoring his disclaimer.
In replacing the throne and divine right, Rousseau laid the foundations for a moral pulpit that can be taken over by even the most autocratic actor who could place the People under strict supervision for their own sake. In addressing a paradox, he created a fantasy that appeals to righteous power and messianic ideals of any self-proclaimed liberal who adopts both his views on liberty and distrust towards the People.
This elitism is tied to an explicit distrust of the People’s capacity to recognize themselves and the Public Good as if the latter is by nature external to the former. This notion of the People’s primeval ignorance had served as a badge of legitimacy for all efforts throughout the history of liberalism, to limit public participation in government; a banner held by liberals who are willing to fight for the very people whose capacities they distrust. One cannot be a shepherd without sheep and if you cannot find any, you conjure it up and probably dress another animal with its wool.
But what about the principle of civic education that liberals hold close to their hearts? My response is that if it is founded upon the assumption of preliminary ignorance then one is not only insulting inherent human creativity but subjects a target audience to subtle indoctrination that blinds before providing enlightenment.
Education framed within Rousseau’s conceptual couplet – the lawgiver-popular ignorance – is nothing more but a patronizing smile that shrouds the process of thrusting knowledge and values down someone’s throat without giving them the capacity to either chew or digest it. Critical understanding is based on having the capability, not merely to negate and dissect but to see an object from different vantage points. In other words, the examination of truth and falsity, right and wrong, must be based on a person’s capacity to travel and take multiple viewpoints.
A presumption of ignorance narrows down the perspective of a person seeking enlightenment to that held by the “enlightened” lawgiver. Moreover, in this process the person must give up his access to other perspectives in exchange for an illusory form of critical thinking wherein one is not allowed to negate and dissect what the “enlightened” lawgiver prohibits.
The current expressions of disgust towards the preachy and delusional liberal, ranging from direct assaults, to indifference and even to the proliferation of conspiracy theories, are but acts of revolt emanating from the kernel of freedom tied to our inherent creativity.
Should this tendency be rectified? Is it even possible to reverse this heroic and elitist mentality? The difficulty lies, I surmise, with the messianic fantasy it evokes in all those who abide by such principles. Moreover, this is what separates democratic from liberal principles, the former being solely concerned with empowerment and complementary civic virtues and institutions, while the latter demands the establishment of universal values that are neither historical nor sensitive to endemic and incumbent moral systems.
The martyr, the hero, and the messianic demagogue are mere dimensions of the same object we know as elitism. There will always be a thin line between saving the people and empowering the people to save themselves, with the former being the core of all justification for all demands to trade freedom for salvation. Liberal arrogance runs deep because it weaved a fantasy that allows all who follows it to be knights in shining armor, off to save a people they perceive as damsels in distress in a manner akin to the antics of Don Quixote.