Do-Your-Do Liberalism, J.S. Mill, and Dr. Pangloss
I am (or at least I would be considered in some circles), broadly speaking, a liberal. I am pro-choice, I believe in free-markets whose excesses are regulated by a sound and competent government, I am for gay marriage, I’m not a huge fan of borders, although they are necessary, I am in favor of universal healthcare, reproductive rights, universal education, I don’t like war (and I also don’t like the fact that it might be necessary in some cases), I believe in gender equality, . I tick most of the “liberal boxes”. My listing of beliefs may be odd, but in a world where everything is shorter, the opportunity to fully flesh out ideologies is not available, and liberalism is nothing more than a hodgepodge of talking points, that should not be in the least bit surprising.
Before I describe my misgivings with this worldview, a detour into what on earth I mean by “do-your-do” and how that can be applied as model with which to think about liberalism.
“Do-your-do” is a shortened version of a line in a Nigerian pop song by the now-defunct band, P-Square. The name of the song was “Do Me”, and that line that is the genesis of this phrase is “Do Me I do You, Man No Go Vex”. This line can be interpreted in two ways: first, as a line about retaliation, and then, more importantly for the purposes of this post, a defense of freedom. You see, the line basically means “leave me alone to do my own thing, stay out of my business, and we won’t have any reason to fight”.
The reason I apply this 2000’s Nigerian line to liberalism is precisely that interpretation. One of the schools of thoughts of liberalism, and one favored by classical liberals and libertarians, has its focal point in the “freedom to do your own thing, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else” point of view. The greatest exponent of this is John Stuart Mill, and his book, On Liberty, is certainly a must-read for anyone at all who is interested in these issues, liberal or not. One of the quotes from his book helps me think is emblematic of this school of thought.
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
It’s a very easy perspective to adopt, for the most part because it places the burden on personal responsibility rather than collective responsibility. The level of freedom it advocates is a very releasing type of freedom. Let people do their own thing. Let women have abortions. Let people marry whoever they please and have sex with who they want to have sex with. All as long as it does not harm other people in any way, shape, or form. So you can have sex, but do not rape. No FGM, no child marriage, nothing that harms other people. You can harm yourself all you want.
I happen to think about the world in this way, both on a personal level, and on a collective level. With time, however, I have begun a slow divorce from the collective side of this model, and I haven’t replaced it entirely (more on that later). But the reasons I had my break from the societal-scale version of that model, I think are worth noting.
- This style of liberalism presupposes some form of individualism, which obviously isn’t a problem. But in my opinion, it takes this to an extreme in the way it places emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to let people do their own thing. Human beings are not silos. We are social animals, and from birth, we have filtered information through that social perspective. Many people simply don’t think this way. Usually, this point of view isn’t valid in many social systems (with the exception of the West), and even when one has adopted the worldview, different people have different perceptions of the scope of “harm”, which brings me to my next point.
- People have different ideas of what “harm anyone” means, and these ideas are mostly mediated by the social structure in which they find themselves in. Social customs, traditions, and beliefs constitute a large part of our lived reality. A person who grew up where homosexuality is considered a grave sin and a grievous harm would not view homosexuality as something that extends a person’s circle of freedom. A person from the West and a person like this can very well start from the same foundations, but arrive at different conclusions.
- In the way this model assumes a level of sameness to everyone’s experiences, it takes a Panglossian form of thought (from Dr. Pangloss the character in Voltaire’s book Candide, who opines that this world is the best we could have lived in, and “All is best in the best of all possible worlds”). To build a social contract on this blank slate simply cannot work. The experiences of marginalized people cannot be equivalent to those who live a normal life. This isn’t an argument for equity or that kind of policy, just stating a simple fact here. Everyone has different experiences, and you simply cannot build a social contract on a model that presumes a high level of sameness in people’s experiences and their priors.
There you have it. Why I think liberalism of that form cannot constitute the basis for a social contract. The bulk of my discontent comes not from any inherent flaws in the ideology as it is, but with how it fails to square up with human frailties. It remains a useful tool for activism and effecting social change in nations and systems that are repressive of human freedom, but beyond that, it serves little purpose in public policy.
Author’s note: This is a diversion from my usual subjects of interest: books, technology, comics, and everything Nigeria. I’m currently reading Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Synder, and I’ll be back next week with a review. So far, I have found it interesting. I also intend to post my thoughts on the recent uproar that accompanied the #SilhouetteChallenge on Naija Twitter and how I found it very, very weird.