Liberalism Under Attack! …Just Kidding

Majo James, Staff Writer

On Thursday, professors from several neighboring universities led a webinar called, “When did ‘liberal’ become an insult?” Going into it, I had high expectations, but found myself incredibly disappointed with the content. 

The majority of the talk followed the history of the word “liberal” and how people who identify as such have been historically under attack, dating back from the French Revolution. Liberalism has faced accusations of blasphemy and being anti-institution for centuries, as the professors pointed out. 

More recent historical events continued the “attack on liberalism,” especially during the Red Scare in the 1950s. Many liberals were accused of being Communist sympathizers and faced persecution. And today, liberals are condescendingly referred to as “snowflakes” and “blue-haired,” insults that imply that they are overly sensitive and out of touch with reality. 

However, speaking frankly as a leftist myself: who cares? Who cares if there are people who treat “liberal” as a dirty word? Slandering people who disagree with your opinions is something that has existed from the dawn of every human disagreement. It is simply not worth the time and effort to complain about this happening when there are so many other more important issues to pour time and energy into. Indeed, there are issues within the liberal community itself that must be considered.

Going into the webinar, my expectation was that the primary focus would be the reasons why the word “liberal” has become associated with certain negative qualities. For example, liberals have a tendency to engage in performative activism, which frankly can cause more damage than good. 

Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the number of people who posted black squares on Instagram for the sake of appearing to be an activist was staggering, simply because it was easier to engage in such superficial activities to ward off accusations of racism than to engage in difficult conversations and genuinely support the movement. 

Sadly, liberals struggle with finding good role models due to our insistence on them being perfect individuals. When we inevitably find some flaw or mistake, we dismiss that person entirely. A perfect example of this that has been widespread on TikTok has been from liberals talking about the darker aspects of Mahatma Gandhi’s life. Gandhi is a controversial figure for many reasons. His comments on the Holocaust, the caste system and his horribly disturbing abstinence tests are all examples of why he is controversial. 

The issue is not that these topics are being talked about. In fact, I believe that we should weigh the good and bad. However, the issue is that those negative aspects are listed as if to dismiss everything Gandhi has ever done. 

It is important to recognize that, yes, Gandhi has done and said some horrible things, but that does not make his anti-imperialist activism and secular vision of India any less valid. Fixating only the negatives of someone like Gandhi is especially problematic, considering that it is a political issue in India. Gandhi represents secularism, something that the BJP (a Hindu nationalist party) pushes back against. 

Liberals making strong arguments without considering other perspectives, with this as just one example, is part of a much bigger issue. 

For instance, there have been widespread calls from figures like Greta Thunberg for countries to reduce their carbon footprint. And for good reason, because if carbon emissions are not dealt with properly, humanity will cross a point of no return resulting in disastrous environmental consequences. If we do not act, we will witness (and some argue we are currently in) the sixth mass extinction. 

However, what many activists do not take into account is that poorer countries do not have the luxury of drastically cutting their emissions without jeopardizing their economy and citizens in fatal ways. There needs to be more emphasis on supporting sustainable development, instead of criticizing certain countries for not being able to reach certain climate goals. More nuanced consideration is necessary in this and other issues.

When one feels with an unshakable conviction that they are right, it’s hard to see other perspectives. Liberals pride themselves on being tolerant individuals, yet we often find ourselves being the opposite when presented with people who have different opinions. We are hasty to judge, to dismiss and to condemn without even hearing them out. The existence of diverse opinions is the strength of a democracy. If nothing else, having our beliefs be challenged forces us to do more research and be more knowledgeable.