Politics & Policy

Liberal Tribalism

From the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.

Identity in Democracy, by Amy Gutmann (Princeton, 264 pp., $35)

Modern liberalism has a paradoxical tendency to promote both excessive individualism in the realm of private behavior and a stifling conformity of thought and action in the public sphere. This reflects its concern to harmonize its favored conceptions of liberty and equality. The liberal wants everyone to be as free as possible to pursue his own values and interests unimpeded by either law or social convention, but takes this to entail a regime of antidiscrimination measures that in many cases effectively prohibit even private organizations from favoring certain patterns of thought and behavior over others, lest some individual find himself disadvantaged by virtue of his adherence to an unpopular manner of thinking or acting.

Liberals are, accordingly, criticized both for promoting too much freedom and for allowing too little. In particular, they are accused of attempting to impose, in the name of equal freedom for all ways of life in modern democratic societies, a radical egalitarianism that effectively allows no one to disapprove of anyone else’s way of life. But since almost any way of thinking and acting with any substantial content involves disagreement with some other ways of thinking and acting, this requires that the only point of view that can be allowed to flourish in a polity informed by the liberal-egalitarian ethos is the liberal-egalitarian ethos itself. Modern liberalism thus seems to its critics to be an incoherent mess, and to entail in practice the negation of liberty and equality as those terms are understood by everyone but liberals themselves.

Amy Gutmann’s book is the latest attempt by a liberal political theorist to square this circle. It fails miserably. Gutmann wants to show that liberals are not the atomistic individualists they are accused of being, that liberalism is fully compatible with a recognition that individuals flourish best in the context of private associations, churches, and other “identity groups” defined by common aims and values. She wants to show also that liberals respect the rights of such groups to run their affairs as they please. Nor, in her view, are these mere ad hoc concessions to forestall some common objections; rather, they are entailed by the fundamental liberal commitment to freedom of association. But Gutmann, like all modern liberals, would add considerable qualifications to her endorsement of the right of free association, and also to her acknowledgement of the value of identity groups. Predictably, these qualifications completely undermine her claim to understand seriously the need for, and to respect the rights of, such groups.

The trouble begins as soon as Gutmann explains what she means by “identity groups” and why she thinks them valuable. Such groups can on her usage of the term be defined by “gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability . . . sexual orientation . . . age, and ideology.” The NAACP and KKK count as identity groups in her view, as do even those groups defined by such epithets as “geek, jock, bimbo, and hottie.” One begins to suspect that wherever two or three are gathered together, even if they’re just waiting for the bus, Gutmann is ready to classify them as an identity group. Part of the problem with this is its methodological sloppiness. A classification that lumps together Hasidic Jews, Stonewall rioters, and the cast of Saved by the Bell as instances of the same type of social category is hardly a model of analytical precision.

But the deeper problem with Gutmann’s conception of identity groups is how crassly and unreflectively it front-loads liberal individualism into her analysis. As some of the examples given illustrate, to a very great extent Gutmann sees membership in an identity group as a matter of personal preference, and as having value only to the extent that a member happens to regard it as having value and only so long as he can continue identification with the group on his own terms. Identity groups are means by which people “express themselves” and they provide a “context for individual freedom of choice.” The common criticism of liberalism to the effect that it refuses to recognize that an individual might have obligations–including obligations to his kin, country, and religious community–that he did not choose, cannot voluntarily escape from, and that partially constitute his identity, is simply ignored. A thin and individualistic conception of group identity is substituted for the richer conceptions defended by liberalism’s conservative and communitarian critics, so that the liberal can quietly change the subject while seeming not to.

In line with this, Gutmann holds that “group identities are best conceived as multiple and fluid,” that “free people have multiple and alterable identities.” However important group identity is, it must never be allowed to stifle individual freedom of choice, as the liberal conceives of it, and the individual must be allowed to mix and match his group affiliations as he sees fit. Here the liberal mania for antidiscrimination measures of all sorts enters the analysis. If feminists demand that women be allowed to participate in Orthodox Jewish life or Pueblo Indian cultural life in ways that conflict with the traditional Orthodox or Pueblo self-understanding, or if gays insist on membership in the Boy Scouts despite the Scouts’ long-standing ban on admitting homosexuals, then government has a right, indeed an obligation, to force these groups to comply. That some members of these groups might be “offended” by such forced compliance cannot trump the demands of “democratic justice,” “rights,” and “civic equality.”

It never seems to occur to Gutmann that there are conceptions of democracy, justice, rights, and civic equality other than her own liberal conception, and that this is precisely why the beliefs and practices of various religious and cultural groups are so often at odds with those preferred by liberals. For her there is only the liberal’s high-minded concern with such moral ideals on one hand and the grubby and unreasonable prejudices of certain religious and cultural traditionalists on the other. If the liberal is to allow those holding such prejudices to carry on unmolested, this can be only for prudential reasons or out of respect for the abstract principle that even the most odious views must be tolerated in a free society, so long as those holding them don’t violate the “rights” of others by refusing them membership in their groups. The possibility that the views and practices in question might not be mere prejudices at all, but rather reflect conceptions of justice and rights every bit as rationally defensible as the liberal’s own, is never considered. Here Gutmann is a loyal disciple of John Rawls, who held that liberalism is neutral between all the “reasonable comprehensive doctrines” existing within a pluralistic democratic society, where a doctrine counts as “reasonable” just when (surprise!) it incorporates a willingness to submit to the liberal conception of justice.

Thus does Gutmann argue that for government even to allow the Boy Scouts to meet on public property would be for it unjustifiably to promote a “symbol of [the] inferiority” of homosexuals, while neglecting to mention that for government to refuse to grant such a privilege to the Boy Scouts precisely because of their attitude toward homosexuality would also promote a “symbol of inferiority”–the inferiority of the Boy Scouts themselves–insofar as it effectively sends the message that the only reason one could possibly disapprove of homosexuality is irrational prejudice. All points of view are equal, in Gutmann’s view, but some are less equal than others.

Gutmann does not make clear how far she thinks the antidiscrimination measures she advocates ought to be extended to religious organizations. She does insist, though, that a group allow its members to be “educated” about alternatives to it, that “respect for culture cannot mean deference to whatever the established authorities of that culture deem right,” and that religious groups “should not . . . be treated with special consideration.” So should we conclude that the Catholic Church, say, ought to be forced to ordain women and that Catholic schools should be forced to teach children that there are alternative paths to salvation, regardless of what 2,000 years of popes have taught?

If we fear we know already how a frank and consistent liberal would have to respond, that is because liberals seem to have become exactly what they claim most to despise: a narrow-minded tribe of bigots, merely one “identity group” alongside others eager to impose their own idiosyncratic and highly contestable scruples on everyone else. Why the rest of us ought to regard such liberal tribalism as any better than the other kinds is a question to which Gutmann gives no answer.

Mr. Feser is the author of On Nozick and the forthcoming Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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