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The Carletonian

The hypocrisy of “social liberalism”

<ir="ltr">We all like to believe that we stand for principals greater than ourselves, that we strive to uphold certain beliefs and value systems that give our existence greater purpose and meaning. Without these fundamental pillars to guide us in our thinking, our opinions and passions may seem like nothing more than arbitrary whims driven more by emotion than by reason.

For those of us in college and university, supposed open-mindedness to various ideas serves as a cornerstone for our academic identities. After all, learning is a consequence of engaging others in conversation and being active buyers and sellers in the marketplace of ideas. Close-mindedness is therefore seen, perhaps rightly so, as an illness that threatens to undermine our cherished pursuit of intellectual enrichment and mental flowering, a pursuit that gives each of us the opportunity to determine the realities of our world and how we may best change them.

This perceived acceptance of difference leads many of us to adopt the label of “socially liberal.” Complementary to this idea of social liberalism is the purportedly broad acceptance of self-expression, that individuals should have the right to voice what they want in the way that they please. Free self-expression may include anything from sexually suggestive plays to music aimed at critiquing the political status quo. I have no issue with these notions whatsoever, but I do have issues with many of those who claim to fall under the banner of being socially liberal. Unfortunately, it seems that a significant portion of those claiming to be permissive of individuality and expression are only so when such permissiveness fits into their ideological comfort zones. Social liberalism has increasingly morphed into a form of social leftism, with its own disturbing tint of authoritarianism that is becoming the new normal in schools across the country.

Luckily for me, this campus hasn’t gone too far in the direction of debilitating stifling of expression and individuality (although the future implementation of BIRT threatens to change this). Yet, observations of past events in other institutions of higher learning do have a chilling effect. An example that quickly comes to mind is the controversy last year surrounding the showing of the movie “American Sniper” at the University of Michigan. After much protest and objection from students, the school decided to cancel the screening, before thankfully reversing their decision days later.

Don’t mistake my approval for the university’s final decision as praise for the film; I’ve seen the movie and felt it was an overly simplistic portrayal of both Chris Kyle’s life and of the war in Iraq. I am pleased with the decision because it represents a principled defense of free expression and of true social liberalism. The students who originally opposed the screening did so on the grounds that they believed “American Sniper” reinforced bigotry and hatred against Muslims. I’m not quite sure if I would agree with their premise, but even if that were to be the case my support for the administration’s ultimate decision still stands. It is up to individual students to decide for themselves whether something is hateful or vile, and it is each student’s choice to decide how best they want to spend their time. How is it socially liberal to deprive students of the chance to think for themselves, to form their own opinions of a form of artistic expression that the film represents, simply because the message contained within that medium makes certain people uncomfortable? The fact that I place value on more family-oriented values does not mean that I will ever try to prevent my peers from screening the most sexually charged and provocative movie imaginable. What justification would I have for doing so? What brings me pleasure may not have the same effect for others, and vice-versa. That’s okay.

If we begin to use comfort as the standard via which we determine what is “permissible” and what isn’t, then we’ve never really taken the principle of social openness seriously. The most important notion of social liberalism should be that behavior and expression should not be contingent upon anyone’s approval.    There are more egregious instances that I could reference that show the fixation that many on the left have with dictating behavior, from professors tearing down pro-life posters on free speech walls to support for outrageous and paternalistic soda and food taxes in places like New York City. Of course, this is not simply a left-wing phenomenon, but those who claim to stand for social liberalism need to remember what that actually means.

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