An Open Letter to Moderate Liberals: Stop Tolerating Bigotry

I have a confession to make: I, Her Campus at UVic’s resident trans girl social justice warrior, once considered myself . . . “Socially progressive and economically conservative.” *shudders*

This was at a point in my life when I thought I knew a lot more than I really did. It was only through extensive self-reflection and more than a few patient people helping me that I began to open myself to new ideas. This was tied to my personal development, too; as I learned more about social issues, I began to realize things about myself, including my struggles with mental illness and my identity as a queer person. As such, I want to use my unique privilege to try to explain the problem with moderate liberalism, the kind of ideology that I once adhered to.

 

Moderate liberalism

To start: what is moderate liberalism? Well, that’s kind of a tricky question to answer. It’s an umbrella term that can be used to describe anyone who does not subscribe to any extreme political alignment on either the left or the right, or people who may have extreme beliefs on some specific issues but generally fall somewhere towards the middle of the spectrum. What constitutes “extreme” is also fairly subjective according to an individual’s own feelings on a given subject.

People from any economic or cultural background can be a moderate liberal, but it is especially common amongst people who had a middle class upbringing. These people were afforded access to education and generally have at least a cursory understanding of a variety of different subjects. They also often have a deep respect for rational discourse, or the process of making a decision based on logic and gathering facts and as much information as possible before deciding on a course of action.

That sounds pretty reasonable, right? After all, why wouldn’t you want as much information as possible when approaching an important issue? As I mentioned before, this is something that I once believed in with an almost dogmatic fervour. And see, that’s part of the issue. It can be easy to fall into a trap where emotional responses are seen as inherently negative, and to then apply this clinical approach to issues that have a tangible effect on people’s lives.

Now, maybe you don’t immediately see the problem there. Well, what happens when a debate includes Neo-Nazis?

 

 

The limit of tolerance

Now, I know there is this idea that people on the left just call anyone they disagree with a Nazi as an ad hominem attack. But I’m not referring to some goose-stepping strawman. Literal Neo-Nazis and white supremacists have platforms to circulate their views to broad audiences. Richard Spencer, one such Neo-Nazi and owner of the world’s most punchable face, publically proclaims the inherent superiority of the white race over all others. And if you don’t see why that’s an issue on your own, then I probably don’t have much chance of changing your mind.

There are other similarly toxic beliefs that have been given a large amount of attention online and through mainstream news media. Incels (involuntary celibates) commonly voice venomous hatred for women, with some going so far as to call for state-mandated girlfriends. A disturbing number of them act on their violent and controlling words, too. Look at mass murderer Elliot Rodger, who created a video manifesto that he emailed to a handful of people before killing 6 and wounding 14 others in 2014. Rodger has since become an icon amongst incel circles, with some men aspiring to be like him so they can punish women for sexual promiscuity and for rejecting them.

But this isn’t just some online fringe element. Politicians like Faith Goldy and Donald Trump have positions of varying degrees of power and influence and also have a track record of targeting minority groups, which serves to make other racists more bold in their own beliefs. There is a big difference between having a conversation and actively restricting a group’s rights or encouraging violence against them.

The moderate liberal would probably respond by claiming that that is why it’s so important to hear their perspective, as it can then be rationally analyzed and dismissed. Because once it is found to be irrational, most people will just stop listening to it, right?

Not so much. Bigotry is not a rational thing. It is not based on logic. It is based on fear and ignorance. Racism isn’t cartoonishly evil individuals abusing the system to hurt others; it is a systemic aspect of power structures that are designed to maintain the status quo for the benefit of the few and at the expense of the many. Giving it a platform also gives it legitimacy. As Karl Popper put it: “if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, [. . . ] then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

 

Refusing to excuse bigotry

I do not need to allow space for bigoted, racist people in my life. And when you do allow them space, the implication is that you agree with them. You are allowing them that legitimacy unchallenged. I firmly believe that not all of the people who voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election were racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, or transphobic. But everyone who did vote for him made the conscious decision that Trump being all of those things was not a dealbreaker.

A pessimist might say that a lot of moderate liberals approach these issues in a purely academic sense because they don’t fully understand how they impact people’s lives. And that’s what I used to be like.

I didn’t know any better. I hadn’t lived outside of a fairly safe little bubble. The bad guys were cartoonishly evil and “the right thing to do” was always simple. People were in control of their own destiny and could accomplish all of their goals by working just a little bit harder. Both sides of every story were always equally valid and needed to be heard.

But none of that is true, is it? Good people can do awful things. We are trapped in a capitalist hellscape with an increasing disparity in wealth, one where most people will never really achieve the success they were once promised. Unformed or bigoted opinions are not valid.

But when you allow bigots a place at the table, you are telling me that you believe they are valid. And you are telling me I can’t trust you. So if you call yourself a moderate liberal, I hope this will encourage you to apply your critical eye to yourself. I know you are well-intentioned, but good intentions require action to be worth anything, and it is going to take the help of allies to fight people with bigoted beliefs. Simply put, they aren’t going to listen to the marginalized because they already see us as subhuman. But you can help make the difference. And if you choose not to do that, then the only people you are helping are the bigots.