The following is Part One of two essays about liberalism. In Part One, I describe the emotional and philosophical reasons that I identify as a liberal. In Part Two, I will offer some constructive criticism for liberals as well as suggestions for how we might better live up to our own ideals.
When I was 16, I studied abroad for the first time in La Rochelle, France.
I was there for four weeks, living with a host family (who was really just a single empty-nester). My French language classes took place at a school for foreigners about fifteen minutes outside the city center.
Since the school was for international students, I spent my month in France not with French students, but with students about my age from all over the world. My closest friends were from the U.S., Denmark, Spain, and Mexico.
The study abroad trip was my first time away from home and away from my parents. So, as many 16-year-olds would do, I drank Sangria on the beach, stayed out late with my friends, and frequented bars whose bouncers showed no concern for my age. I was 16, but to my teenage ego, I was 25.
Every night at 9 p.m., a group of students and I would meet at “la grande horloge,” the “big clock” downtown near the port. We would eat dinner and drink more than our under-developed bodies could handle, often ending the night at a Moroccan hookah bar, passing the hose in a circle while seated on plush, decorative pillows and sipping hot tea.
The hookah bar was our favorite place to unwind. We would talk too loudly and touch each other too much, our postures getting lazier and our inhibitions weaker as we relaxed and eased into the night.
One of my schoolmates and fellow bar-hoppers was in the Level 1 class with me. He was from Turkey. He was a few years older than me, a couple inches shorter than me, and quite good looking. He was one of those people that always wanted to entertain, buying entire trays of shots for us, passing them around and expecting nothing in return except a smile and a “santé!”
He also displayed, to be frank, a subtle sexism that came out mostly in jokes or after a couple glasses of wine.
During one exercise in class, we each had a personal white board where we had to draw what the other person was describing to us in French.
I was partnered with him, and I’m not sure if this was before or after the exercise (or during, for that matter), but I remember that he wrote, “I’m with stupid,” on the board with an arrow pointing to me.
He thought this was hilarious. I didn’t want to come off as uptight, so I laughed along. Our other classmate even took a picture of us, and I pointed to the “I’m with stupid sign,” smirking and feeling slightly embarrassed.
Honestly, I didn’t really care for the teasing. I still don’t. I’ve only just recently learned how to handle light teasing without taking it personally.
I know, it’s a character flaw.
But one of the reasons I put up with it – smiled and went along even if I was annoyed on the inside – was because I felt slightly embarrassed around him, like I did around many of my classmates, but especially those from the Middle East.
The year was 2007, George W. Bush was president, and the U.S. was still waging a war that I didn’t quite understand.
Depending on the person, my level of shame when I introduced myself as an American while abroad ranged from minor embarrassment to full-blown guilt. With my Turkish friend, I felt guilty.
I felt guilty because of my country’s imperialist reputation in the world. And I felt embarrassed because his subtle remarks and backhanded compliments made it clear to all of us that “American” to him meant “joke.”
One night when we were all out, after meeting at “la grande horloge” and trying out our drunken French on way too many unfortunate locals, we made it, again, to our favorite Moroccan hookah bar. We ordered some hot tea, gathered around the table on our favorite cushions, and started passing around the long, thin pipes full of flavored tobacco.
I wish I could remember the context, or what prompted what ensued. But alas, most of my memories from that night are just as cloudy as the smoky air that filled that room. All I remember is that, seemingly out of nowhere, my Turkish friend locked eyes with me from across the table and said firmly,
“America deserves another September 11.”
“Excuse me?” I responded.
“You heard me! America deserves another September 11!” he shouted back, this time letting anger flourish under his skin and sweat coalesce in his pores.
I’m not sure how long it took for me to move from outrage to tears. Maybe I was already somewhere in between. Either way, I remember half crying, half yelling back at him,
“How could you say that?! How could you wish that on innocent people?! How does that solve anything?!”
Now, he was ready to fully let loose. He stood up and postured towards me, showing no sign of concern for my emotional distress. His voice rose and his hands were shaking with anger.
He yelled, “You Americans call us the terrorists?! You’re the terrorists! You drop bombs every day in my backyard!”
I didn’t know what else to say. I just sat there confused and bewildered. It was the first time I had ever felt that I may not be one of the good guys.
It was also the day I became an ironist.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, philosopher Richard Rorty describes an ironist as a person who is always questioning the truth or morality of his or her own beliefs.
Ironists either don’t believe, or aren’t interested, in attaining the Truth (with a capital “T”). They aren’t interested in the “intrinsic nature” of things or who they “really are” as people. Such questions, to them, are usually a waste of time.
They also think that our definitions of vital terms like “justice,” “democracy,” or “freedom” are limited to our available “vocabularies” – the language and values of the time, place, or culture in which we find ourselves.
This isn’t to say that all definitions are equal, as a relativist would. It is to say that humans are incapable of transcending their own contingency, their own “luck” of being born in a certain place and time.
Because ironists don’t believe they can ever grasp the true nature of things, they spend their time worrying that their beliefs are, well, wrong:
“The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialization which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being.”
That night in La Rochelle was the first time I seriously questioned not only the values with which I was raised, but also the ideas that I was taught by my school, my social groups, and my culture.
I realized that some people’s experiences are so utterly different from mine, that they are outside my realm of imagination. I realized that there is so much pain in this world that I am unaware or unexposed to.
And I realized that sometimes I, or people with whom I share a connection, are responsible for that pain.
I became an ironist because never again have I assumed that the dominant narrative told by my community, my culture, my political party, my friends, or even my family is the good (or right) one.
Even though my Turkish friend’s opinions were problematic, the fact that someone could have a perspective so entirely different from mine – one that I had never even heard of, that I had never even imagined – was enough to plant an enduring seed of doubt within me.
That general disposition – one of constantly questioning the certainty of my own beliefs – has thus far guided my life.
What Irony Has To Do With Liberalism
For some reason, in his book, Rorty argues that personal irony – that is, constantly doubting one’s most fundamental beliefs – contradicts liberalism.
Rorty uses Judith Shklar’s definition of liberal to mean someone who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.”
And many liberals I know would agree with this definition. Being a liberal, to them, means trying to diminish pain and suffering, especially if that pain is due to factors outside of one’s control, such as one’s race, class, gender, or LGBTQ status. (More on this in Part Two.)
To me, Rorty’s contention that private irony has nothing to do with political liberalism is ludicrous. My recognition of the contingency, happenstance, or imperfection of my own beliefs is at the very core of my liberal identity.
But that is because, to me, being a liberal means that you are open to change. You believe things can be better. We might not know exactly what we mean by “better,” but we do know that “the way things are” isn’t good enough.
So, that night in France almost thirteen years ago, I didn’t insist on the correctness of my own views or the wrongness of my Turkish friend’s views. As an ironist, I saw his pain, his frustration, and his anger and decided, instead, to reflect.
I am an ironist and I am a liberal. I am a liberal because I am an ironist. And I believe that all progress begins with the recognition that we will never know it all.
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