Liberal intolerance

24 November 2016
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There is an echo of the post Brexit rebellion in the street protests that have occurred throughout the United States following the election of Donald Trump. In both cases there has been a refusal to accept the unexpected result. In both cases, particularly in the latter, there was widespread anticipation, prompted by inaccurate polling and biased media coverage, that the result would favour the outcome confidently predicted by the media frenzy.

The media are, of course, on the side of what is frequently described as “the establishment” and are largely to blame for having fostered, what turned out to be, unrealistic expectations. That is only a part of the problem. More significant is the apparent inability of the anti-Brexit and pro-Clinton encampments to graciously accept the outcome of a democratic process.

The source of the problem runs much deeper than the aberrant behaviour of the malcontents. It derives from a world view and a philosophical assurance that brooks no dissent.

This is manifested also, and for the same reasons, in the doctrine of political correctness which, to any impartial observer, has all the hallmarks of a tyranny. For those who propagate the ideas from the security of their elite campuses, the tyranny on this occasion is justified because they believe with absolute certainty in the legitimacy of their cause.

The fact that various campuses have arranged therapy sessions that include collective “cry ins” for staff and students in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, illustrates that the result is seen, not as the outcome of the democratic process, but as a personal tragedy. This has also manifested in various attempts (both in the case of Brexit and the Clinton defeat) to overturn the result and to substitute the one deemed so obviously right.

The philosophical condition that assumes the infallibility of a position, also known as an ideology, is responsible for more misery during the course of the past century than have all the failings that they were instigated to correct.

In the post-communist era, this condition had been, incorrectly, described as liberal intolerance. In his book, titled Illiberal Education, Dinesh D’Souza, more accurately captures the meaning of the term, as originally described by John Locke and John Stuart Mill.

Published in 1991, D’Souza examines the process whereby the universities in the US have abandoned the liberal philosophy, which requires that each should have the right to say what is to be said – however unpopular. This is the principle underlying the idea of academic freedom that has been the path of progress through the ages. As a result of the process that D’Souza describes, university campuses in the West have morphed from places of free and open enquiry into establishments of indoctrination and coercion.

This is how D’Souza sees it: “(The) universities have taught them that…standards and values are arbitrary, and the ideal of the educated person is simply a figment of bourgeois white male ideology, which should be cast aside; that individual rights are a red flag signalling social privilege, and should be subordinated to the claims of group interest; that all knowledge can be reduced to politics and should be pursued not for its own sake but for the political end of power; that convenient myths and benign lies can substitute for truth; that double standards are acceptable as long as they are enforced to the benefit of minority victims; that debates are best conducted not by rational and civil exchange of ideas, but by accusation, intimidation, and official prosecution; that the university stands for nothing in particular and has no claim to be exempt from outside pressures…”

These observations, which must have appeared radical to the uninitiated reader of 1991, have since been verified by actual experience; by the reaction of the anti-Brexit camp as well as the pro-Clinton brigade, and also, in the case of South Africa, by the recent upheavals on the university campuses.

All of this reflects one obvious social pathology: an inability and refusal to conduct oneself according to an established and time-honoured set of rules. The rules are fine so long as the result is the one that is desired, but not so when the opposite occurs. Part of this condition is a perversion frequently encountered in South African public life: the facility with which words and concepts are made to mean what the speaker wants them to signify.

A recent example was the reliance placed by Mzwanele (Jimmy) Manyi on the principle of the rule of law, when he berated those who had condemned the decision of Shaun Abrahams to have instituted the prosecution against Pravin Gordhan on charges of fraud and theft. The critics, he claimed, were in violation of the rule of law. This pronouncement was evidently based upon the mistaken belief that what the National Director of Public Prosecutions did in his official capacity necessarily accorded with the rule of law: anyone who interrogated the legitimacy of the decision was, according to this wisdom, in violation of the rule of law.

This interpretation is, of course, entirely misplaced: the rule of law requires that the legitimacy of any such decision be vigorously investigated whenever it appears that, in making an official decision, the National Director may have abused his authority. And so it now appears to be. Jimmy Manyi must be reminded that the rule of law demands of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, like the President and every official, a dedicated fealty to the law.

How may we be sure that such perversions do not become endemic if the conditions described by D’Souza should become universal? The real apprehension is that they have taken root, not only at the universities, but in society in general. The observable evidence in Britain and the US (two long established democracies) is that the radical left is already in thrall of a form of post-rational fantasy.

Rex van Schalkwyk is a former judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa and is the Chairman of the Free Market Foundation’s Rule of Law Board of Advisers. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.







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