The “Reluctant” in Reluctant Liberal   Leave a comment

So, as far as I can tell, there are three reasons I am reluctant to call myself a liberal.

First, the conservative influences of my youth did their job really well. I was propagandized enough into thinking a certain way about “liberals” that it still seems bizarre to me that I might be in that camp. Even though you could go down a list of issues and I would answer in a “liberal” way about each one, I still find it difficult to put myself into that category. The ideas that I formed when I was younger have mostly been discredited (if not many of the ways in which I came to place my trust in those ideas), but their influence remains potent.

Second, while categories like “liberal” and “conservative” can be useful tools, I tend to think that these days they are mostly used to stop intelligent thought. Having the category “NSAID” for Ibuprofen and Aspirin is useful up to a point. Telling people never to mix NSAIDs has probably prevented people from coming to harm. But in a discussion about whether Aspirin or Ibuprofen would be more useful in preventing a particular type of inflammation, the information that both are NSAID’s isn’t really helpful anymore. Essentially, categories are useful and even necessary in that they allow people to absorb, relate, and remember blocks of information more easily. But categories are also shortcuts less useful than knowing all the unique features of each member of a category.

So, for example, I could be generally considered a “liberal,” a “progressive,” or even a “far left liberal.” But putting me into those categories would mislead you about whether or not I ate chicken tonight (I did). My theological stances have swung me so far to the “left” that I no longer felt comfortable in the Catholic Church, but that information would be useless if you wanted to know my opinions of Pope Benedict’s writings (I thought, and still think that Pope Benedict is a fantastic theologian, even if I have a less favorable view of his papacy than I used to). Or, to approach this question from the other end, when I was a “conservative” and “Pro-Life” high school student, one of my clearest memories is being enthusiastic about a partnership between a Pro-Life group and a gay rights group (they were trying to get legislation that would make it illegal to get an abortion on account of the presence of a “gay gene”). In all these cases, categories serve to confuse rather than clarify. The shortcut has taken a wrong turning.

“Liberal” and “Conservative” are terms that, in my opinion, serve almost no useful end. When something is labelled under one of these titles, it sends the message to one set of people “good” and to a different set of people “bad.” Unless we’re talking about people’s perceptions of things, these terms serve almost no useful analytic purpose. I can call a policy regressive, efficient, wasteful, opportunistic, corrupt, naive, brave, or short sighted, and each of these terms would convey something meaningful and relevant to the content of the policy. Calling something “liberal” or “conservative” does not.

The final reason I am reluctant to call myself liberal has to do with my own self image. I don’t want to be “liberal.” I want to be me. But as I have finished the transition away from all the things I used to believe, I have noticed my thinking ever more hampered by worthless associations. I read about “republican lawmakers” I and unconsciously prepare myself to read about something I won’t like. It isn’t fair. It isn’t useful. It actually prevents me from understanding each new issue on its own merits. It prevents me from thinking about greed within unions and altruism amongst business leaders. I don’t want my brain to calcify. I don’t want to be any more less harsh in my criticism of democrats than I am with republicans (though, if I ever write about my feelings towards President Obama I don’t think I’ll be subject to that charge). I don’t want to be JUST a liberal.

However much all that might be the case though, I must admit the basic utility of the title “liberal.” I read liberal blogs, care about liberal issues, and I drink herbal tea. If we were bring more precise, I would call myself a silly, thoughtful, abstracted, middle-class, mostly privileged, bookish, nerdy, Joss Whedon loving, fantasy reading, German-Irish, feminist, Tolkien liking, Arabic studying, relaxed, tall, historically minded, philosophically inclined, anti-partisan, friendly, occasionally morbid, oddly romantic, unconventially prosaic, mushy, nit-picking, Mid-Western, cheap, unimpulsive, supportive, happy, intellectually active liberal.

But since that’s too long to work as a blog title, and since categories exist for just this reason (to make more convenient blog titles, of course), we’ll simply go with calling me the Reluctant Liberal.


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