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From liberalism to radicalism

I've been reflecting recently on the journey I've been making from liberalism to radicalism, and how I'm beginning to see it as a necessary evolution if you're not going to get stuck in a kind of immature liberalism that fails to serve both you and the world.

By liberalism I mean ideas and movements that emphasise personal freedom and not being restricted by the patterns of the past.

By radicalism I mean ideas and movements that emphasise justice, solidarity, and liberation from oppression.

Yes, I'm using broad categories here.

Let me give an example. Let's talk about sexual liberation in a Western context for example. We can talk about women getting more agency over their bodies; gay and bi people being able to have sex with one another and marry one another; we can talk about the work of overcoming shame around sexuality. All of that is liberalism. It's good stuff. It's still ongoing.

So we might ask the question "where next for sexual liberation?" One answer is, for example, to talk about kink or BDSM sexual practices. I've heard the argument that these expressions of sexuality are oppressed and need to be celebrated, etc. That is one way to talk about the next stage for sexual liberation.

But the other day I watched a short film set in Palestine. It showed a young different-sex couple with a small baby. In the middle of the night they felt like they might want to have sex. They began to make sexual advances to one another. But then the sirens went off and the bombing started. The baby woke up and cried. They had to deal with the baby. No chance for sex tonight. This happened night after night after night.

And I thought to myself: what does it mean to seek approval and celebration for different sexual practices in Western Europe when couples in Palestine are prevented from having sex by being bombed? Where is their sexual liberation? But of course for them to have sexual liberation will also involve them having political and economic liberation, and that brings us to the mess of that situation of oppression.

Liberalism takes the path of seeking ever greater freedom for relatively privileged westerners. Radicalism begins to see the need to look at power and privilege on a global perspective.

Another example: queer liberation has reached a point of being safe for the most part. A gay liberalism celebrates the party of every city's Pride parade, where every bank, large corporation, police, military organisation, etc march and wave and dance in a safe parade. Gay liberation is now quite safe and every part of society falls over itself to show how inclusive it is.

It surprises me (but in a way it doesn't) how so many white gay cis men can be fairly privileged, ignorant, racist, sexist, and conservative, while still holding on to an identity as a minority. They have their rights so they're now pulling the ladder up.

But there's still work to do. There's still transphobia to fight. There's still LGBT+ asylum seekers that need to be supported. There's still a lot of solidarity that's required. But again, this requires intersectionality, it requires committing to solidarity with women, trans people, foreigners.

Gay liberalism enjoys a fun weekend at the Pride parade. Queer radicalism is still in protest-mode for the liberation of all.

Finally religious liberalism. And in terms of politics you can pretty much put forms of liberal atheism and liberal Christianity together. It always strikes me how narrow a focus Humanists UK have. What are they talking about this week? Getting on Thought for the Day on Radio 4. I mean, what could express middle class privilege more than that? I mean let them on for all I care. I don't listen to Thought for the Day on Radio 4. Who the hell does? Like much of the atheist vs Christian debate this happens in the higher echelons of a Radio 4 culture of male whiteness. Richard Dawkins debating another bishop? Yawn. Who cares?

But I want to know, what's humane about poverty? What's humane about a hostile environment for immigrants? What's humane about climate change? And yet how often do you hear humanists using their voice on these issues? These issues are ignored because what Humanists UK represents is a liberal humanism that is concerned with personal freedom and represents a fairly privileged position. It's not radical humanism. That's probably because the word for radical humanism is "socialism".

I only attack humanism because it sits culturally very closely to where I sit in a tradition of liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity seeks ever greater personal freedom from strict dogma and traditional social conservatism. It continues to define itself by what it is not. It is not homophobic, not dogmatic, not anti-science. It appeals to people (like me) who like ideas, nuance, and discussion.

My Unitarian denomination often has a fairly narrow agenda around issues of personal religious freedom (I remember a General Assembly motion about whether Scouts should have to give their oath in the name of God). It has occasionally spoken on more substantial issues: on austerity and climate change, but this always takes the form of motions and good words, almost never substantial action.

At the moment there is a fuss because a Conservative Peer has been invited to address the General Assembly. There is an argument that a representative of a government responsible for a decade of austerity should not be invited (we did pass a resolution condemning austerity). But then the counter argument has been: "We are liberals! We calmly and politely listen to both sides of an argument with an open mind." This is the liberalism that refuses to make enemies, that always wants to remain polite, that does not want to upset anyone.

I'm reminded of the words of Curtis Reese (1887 – 1961):
"This is not a time for liberals of the genteel tradition who are frightened in the presence of explosive issues that blast their world and shake the earth. It is not a time for liberals of the pious tradition who believe that all is right with the world and that all things work together for good. It is not a time for confused liberals who move simultaneously in all directions without arriving anywhere in particular."

The problem with this kind of liberalism is it is blind to its privilege when calmly considering issues and looking at both sides of an argument. Its refusal to take sides in any substantial way always serves the powerful, and never serves the poorest. It continues to pursue rational arguments about "issues" and an agenda of gradualism while lives are on the line. It does not feel urgency because it generally speaks out of privilege. 

Racism has been what has revealed this most clearly in the American Unitarian Universalist Association. White UUs, with a sense that they are good, moral, liberal people, have struggled to acknowledge the white supremacy that is within them. That's because it requires a more thorough ability for self-examination and a better theology of evil than liberals can usually muster. 

But they are trying, which is more than is happening in a British Unitarian context, where there is really no substantial conversation whatsoever around racism. 

The big problem with religious liberalism is that it has learnt very well to resist the dogmatism of conservative religion, but has proved itself to have very little ability to resist the dogmatism of the neoliberal capitalist system. A religious liberal will pass a billboard advertising the Alpha course and think "what nonsense!" But then will pass 1000 more billboards advertising cars and beauty products and will let their insidious ideology seep into the soul. 

Religious liberals are still fighting yesterday's battles. They're still worried about the Catholic Church burning people at the stake. But they are often intentional blind to today's battles against poverty, racism, and climate change. 

It is for all these reasons that I find myself thinking more in terms of radicalism and less in terms of liberalism. And because, religiously, I just find liberalism very boring now. I find the liberal sermon just says the same thing again and again and again, and I wonder how some people have got through 40 years of hearing them. In terms of personal spiritual development I think liberalism is a way station. Liberalism is knowing what you are not. But eventually I think you have to get to a point when you know what you are. You have to commit to a deeper and broader understanding and practice of liberation. The end point is still freedom, but it is a bigger freedom. I don't think you should rest in the narrow sense of personal freedom. I think you have to do the harder work which leads to a broader freedom for all. 

"We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."


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