Liberal values are starting to self-destruct

William Saunderson-Meyer says liberal beliefs retreating in SA due to a loss of moral courage


Liberal political values – let’s not speak of “liberalism”, which is an expletive to both the left and the right – are under threat. 

The ideologically macho, whether be they Stalinists or Thatcherites, have always rejected traditional liberal markers such as tolerance, inclusiveness and fair play as being the indulgent refuge of the naïve. 

Theirs is the politics of righteous wrath. Theirs is the politics of stigmatising, delegitimising, and intimidating opponents.  They are the ones disinclined to hear out their critics. Who won’t engage, contend, and then concede, if defeated.

On the nominal left, in South Africa, this is the modus operandi of the Economic Freedom Front. On the right, in the United States, it is that of Donald Trump’s incarnation of the Republican Party.

This is the politics of Julius Malema’s teeter-totter toying with violence, saying that the EFF is “not yet” going to call for the extermination of whites. It’s the politics of Republicans, at the milder level that exists in a mature democracy, jeering and jostling journalists, and of Trump stoking the fears of Latinos and Muslims.

This is unsurprising behaviour. Populism is not an ideology based on a belief system, but rather simply a path to power. It’s a strategy to ignite resentment, fan it with fear and then incinerate your opponents in its flame.

There is only one way to counter populism without resorting to equally destructive counter-tides of political hysteria, like those that swept to and fro in parts of Latin America in this generation. It is through rational suasion, based on a modicum of civility, no matter how much you loathe your opponents and their beliefs.   

Such an approach, one based on liberal concepts, is unfortunately being eroded from within, by those who once most vocally championed it. 

In the US, a tipping point has been the Democratic Party’s thrashing at the hands of a man whom the smug chattering classes – who wore their political tolerance on the their sleeves as a badge of pride – abhor Trump as a déclassé thug.  Now it transpires that their own political tolerance is superficial.

Traumatised at losing a presidential election they thought was in the bag, they are proving to be no less vicious in defeat than Trump had assured them that he would be, should he lose. 

Controversial former SA newspaper columnist Jani Allan, now living in the US, has experienced first-hand, what she calls the “political bullying” of self-proclaimed liberals. Writing on BizNews, she recounts venomous public attacks, Facebook defriendings, and “character assassination” by former friends with “an unearned sense of moral superiority”.

They cannot see, she writes, that “there is no difference between [their] brand of bigotry and the pro-Trump bigotry [they] find so repulsive”. She cites lefty columnist Maureen O Dowd’s clear-eyed assessment in The New York Times: “Preaching – and pandering – with a message of inclusion, the Democrats have instead become a party where … rudeness is routine and there is absolutely no respect for a differing opinion.”

A similar vein of intolerance runs through the Remain camp, in its reaction to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. There, 52% of voters ignored the liberal elite’s advice and voted to exit the European Union. Subsequently, they have been castigated by their betters as inherently racist, nationalist-verging-on-fascist idiots, misled by evil forces.

In SA, liberal values have never been particularly valued. That said, liberal precepts underpinned the thinking of the tiny Liberal and Progressive parties that eventually birthed the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. And, for all its revolutionary rhetoric and populist posturing, so too the African National Congress.

The retreat of liberal beliefs to the degree that they were part of the discourse of our own chattering class, was not triggered by a loss of political power, as in the US and UK, but through a loss of moral courage. 

Witwatersrand University Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib, a Struggle-era stalwart, this week bemoaned the intellectual dishonesty of some liberal and left-leaning academics, in a Daily Maverick analysis of how the legitimate goals of the #FeesMustFall movement have been subsumed in violence, arson and intimidation. 

“The [academics] claimed they were not partial to the violence, but their complicity was evident both in their failure to publicly condemn [it] and in their deliberate misrepresentations of events.” He slates also his former allies, the “non-governmental organisations and groups of progressive lawyers all of whom seemed to have suspended their moral or even strategic political judgements” in their pandering to abusive violent students.

Tolerance, respect, empathy and willingness to compromise, are not just political nice-to-haves, to be jettisoned when they don’t suit us. These values are essential to a vibrant constitutional democracy. Those who have endured, sometimes with pride, being excoriated as liberals, have a particular responsibility not to betray them.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye