The Meliorist – It takes you…











{June 26, 2007}   Is Liberal a four-letter word?

After working at a Christian university for the last three years, I have definitely wondered if what my parents would have called “liberal activists” have been on the decrease or if it was just the context I was living in.  This essay, by Matt Tabaii, a contibuting editor for Rolling Stone magazine, published by Adbusters offers a pretty scathing criticism of the current liberal movement in today’s society.  Although I often own up to my being a liberal in public, it is not always easy to do so.  So much baggage comes along with the term that it makes it almost easier to deny the affiliation.  I do not feel as strongly about it as Tabaii does, but there are some things I can definitely agree with and feel somewhat guilty about doing (or not doing as the case may be).  Towards the end of the article, he says he has changed his self-identification from liberal to progressive because he is fighting against things not fighting against people.  In response, and because I’m curious, I am going to take a closer look at the differences between liberal and progressive, and perhaps at the end of this post, you can make a more educated choice as to how to self-identify.

Liberal, from the Free Dictionary means:

1.  a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.

b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.

 Progressive, from the same source, means:

1. Moving forward; advancing.

2. Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments: progressive change.

3. Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods: a progressive politician; progressive business leadership.

Let’s take a look at each of these within the context of self-identification.

First, not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.  I think this first one is the most difficult one.  The first question we have to be able to answer is what are “established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas”?  I believe that some of what passes itself off as “anti-traditional” or “anti-authoritarian” is pretty dogmatic and authoritarian itself.  And when does something become “traditional”?  I think part of the argument being made by Tabaii is that the anti-establishment views of the sixties have now become the establishment of the new century.  So, I think this is difficult for me to answer.  I’m pretty mainstream.  I would not identify myself as anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment.  So, on this level, I guess I would not be considered to meet a strict definition of liberal.  I have not really thought about it that way, so this seems to make an important distinction.  In addition, it might explain why the people in Cat in the Hat hats with puppets keep showing up at the anti-war rallies Tabaii describes.

The second part of the definition, “free from bigotry,” is also pretty broad-based.  I am sure that most people would knee-jerk respond, “of course I’m free from bigotry.”  But, I know enough to know that most of us are not free from bigotry.  We may be better at covering up our bigotry or our bigotry may be aimed at a population not typically considered when examining bigotry, but we are bigots all the same.  I work at being open-minded and not pre-judging individuals or their ideas, but I can not claim to be 100% free from bigotry.  In addition, there is plenty of bigotry that takes place in our more liberal communities.  So, I’m not sure if this just represents a utopian view of liberalism, something for which to strive or if it means there are no liberals in the world.

Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.  This one is a bit easier for me to deal with.  I am most often in favor of proposals for reform and open to new ideas for progress.  Although I can see the value of upholding some consistency in our actions and taking less dramatic reform actions than others would advocate, I certainly think that if we do not adapt and improve, we will not be around for long.  I also consider myself to be tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others.  But, I would make an argument that this is less a conservative/liberal difference than a difference created by the individuals themselves.  I know plenty of people who would self-identify as politically conservative who are very tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others.  On the other hand, I also know a large number of self-identified liberals who are not at all tolerant of ideas and behaviors that go against their own ideologies.  So, I’m not sure I buy this as representative of liberal, but if I accept it as such, I certainly would qualify as a liberal on this point.

Liberal score:  I guess I would say I am 50% liberal.  I certainly do not think I fit the first definition in most of my actions.  But, I do feel like I fit pretty well in the second definition.  I’m not sure if I should lower the percentage due to the fact that I fail to meet what the dictionary identifies as the first definition of liberal and I do meet what it identifies as the second definition.  Perhaps the secondary status makes my meeting that definition less important. Maybe I should give myself a 40% score on the liberal scale.

Okay, now to examine my status as a progressive.

Moving forward; advancing.  I certainly hope I meet this definition.  I consider myself to be constantly searching for ways to improve myself and others.  It is one of the reasons I love teaching.  I feel like I get to see students move forward and advance in their understanding of the world and the subject matter each semester.  And each semester, I get to learn something from them that allows me to move forward as well.  So, this one I feel pretty comfortable in affirming.

Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments.  Yes, yes, yes.  I am a strong believer in incremental reform.  I think attempting dramatic changes usually leads to disaster.  As humans, I think we deal better with small changes.  We are more apt to work with them, accept them, and then move on from there to make more changes on down the line.  There are many out there who think that revolution is the only possible way to change the world.  I tend to disagree.  I think revolutions usually include or are followed by violent and bloody reactions.  Small changes sneak up on people.  They don’t realize what is happening as much, so they tend to adopt new views without realizing its happening.  This definitely is the reason I DO NOT meet the first definition of liberal and do meet the defintion of progressive.  This is a very clear delineation between the two with which I can identify.

Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods.  This, to me, is much the same as the second definition of liberal, which I felt like I met pretty well.  I will not rehash those points, but just say that the idea of a “meliorist” definitely fits in with this belief.

Progressive score:  I am 100% progressive, with confidence.  Interesting.  I can now provide a self-identification, made from a educated place that explains why I do not fit within the concept of liberal (and the anti-establishment focus was much of the “baggage” I referred to earlier), but can comfortably identify as a progressive. 

I am glad I did this.  I feel much more comfortable and focused in my ideology and efforts in the world.  I think that Tabaii may have oversimplified a bit in his article about the difference between progressive and liberal.  I also think there are many out there who identify themselves and/or others as one or the other without really knowing the differences in the definitions.  I feel more knowledgable for exploring this, and I thank Tabaii for giving me the impetus.  I hope that some of you are better able to define yourselves after reading this.

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