The “Illiberal Liberal” Narrative
Opinion by Francesca Maviglia, Guest Columnist | Illustration by Roger Ko
There’s a tendency to attack left-wing individuals as the ones with authoritarian attitudes that has been recently growing in popularity—the “illiberal liberal” argument. This line of thought goes something like this: liberals, a label lazily used to group together a broad range of actors and realities from centrist political parties to radical activist movements in one simplistic “leftist” hodgepodge, have certain opinions and positions (for example, that LGBTQ+ individuals are entitled to equal rights). Said liberals will violently try to censor, ostracize, punish, and otherwise silence anyone who has a different opinion (for example, that there should be a law making same-sex relationships illegal). Thus, these liberals are the actual illiberal ones—dogmatic, bigoted, thought-policing, intolerant—as they only allow their own opinions to be expressed, ultimately infringing on other people’s freedom of speech.
Although this narrative developed primarily in the Anglo-Saxon world in relation to identity politics, it has gotten so well-known among those of us globalized enough to be familiar with American and British political discourse, that is now joyously borrowed even half a globe away. Indeed, so popular that even Singapore’s ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan recently had a go with it, in a Facebook post about the controversy triggered by Ambassador Chan Heng Chee’s remarks on 377A at the Universal Periodic Review – ironically criticizing the ‘insanity of American Academy’ through the use of a predominantly American rhetoric (if you don’t believe me, compare the quantity and content of results for a google search of “illiberal left America” and “illiberal left Singapore”).
The “illiberal liberal” argument is at best misleading and at worse deliberately disingenuous. Yet it is one that is having significant resonance, outside and inside Yale-NUS College. It’s an argument that I want to tackle because it’s particularly relevant in the discussion about Ambassador Chan’s remarks, as one common reaction to the suggestion of a possible call for her resignation was that such an action would equal to a punishment for holding conservative values. This is obviously in contradiction with our school’s commitment to diversity of viewpoints. I feel compelled to write this article because I think it is regrettable if some students feel silenced, marginalized or excluded because of their opinion. It’s something that creates a deep wound within this community. I’m also not a big fan of elephants in the room. I think the general feeling, that there is in Yale-NUS an underlying antagonism between those holding conservative and liberal positions with regards to LGBTQ+ issues, is something that should be talked about.
It’s true—freedom of speech includes all opinions, even those we dislike. 377A, however, is not an opinion. There’s a stark difference between a personal belief and a government law. An individual opinion, as unpleasant or hurtful as it might be, does not by itself have the power to negatively affect the life of citizens in an entire country. Politics does. The claim that non-implementation of 377A nullifies its negative impact on the community is empirically untrue. The documented experiences of discrimination lived by LGBTQ+ individuals in Singapore is evidence enough. As a foreign national, I’m in no way qualified to speak for the LGBTQ+ community in this country, but local organizations like Sayoni provide plenty of material.
Taking a stance against prejudice would not make Yale-NUS formalize a position of non-tolerance towards conservative opinions, but towards institutionalized discrimination, which are significantly different concepts. This is a stance that Yale-NUS already endorsed when it included “sexual orientation” in its non-discrimination policy. This would not be anything new. It would not be a redefinition of our values. Saying that we do not accept the political legitimization of a discriminatory law would be an application of what our values are already; it would be a choice of coherency and honoring of our values.
It’s misleading to approach political power in the same way we approach individual values. Equating laws to personal opinions doesn’t serve in conceptualizing a realistic model of reality, or in figuring out how to apply the abstract concept of tolerance in practice. It’s also a tactically effective way of deviating attention from what’s really at stake when it comes to clashing viewpoints on minority rights. It’s a lot easier to antagonize LGBTQ+ activist groups by accusing them of wanting to silence and oppress the average citizen than to justify the systematic infringement of the human rights of queer individuals.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org