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Defining Liberalism, part two

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What is liberalism?

So. What is liberalism? The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us this:

Latin liberalis “noble, gracious, munificent, generous,” literally “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person,” from liber “free, unrestricted, unimpeded; unbridled, unchecked, licentious.”

mid-14c., “generous,” also “nobly born, noble, free;” from late 14c. as “selfless, magnanimous, admirable.”

Liberal was used 16c.-17c. as a term of reproach with the meaning “free from restraint in speech or action.”

The Enlightenment revived it in a positive sense “free from prejudice, tolerant, not bigoted or narrow,” which emerged 1776–88.

In 19c. often theological rather than political, opposed to orthodox, used of Unitarians, Universalists, etc.

So, you see, #Unitarian Universalists and Humanists are double-liberals, if you will — theologically non-orthodox and politically supportive of toleration and multiculturalism — difference is not a bad word for liberals.

But notice the paradox: liberalism has an aristocratic whiff to it from all the way back.

Why is that?

For one thing, being liberal requires a change in thinking that appears to be difficult for the human brain. Most liberals don’t know that they consciously began to think in this changed way, but it is one key to understanding liberalism. 

European philosophers of the 1600 and 1700s came to the conclusion that each of us can be easily fooled by what we think we see; each of us is fallible. Not only can our senses be fooled but also our subjective social location can fool us into thinking particular things that simply are not true for the wider citizenry.

Yes, it is axiomatic that having the courage of our convictions is a moral good. However, having the courage of our confusions is a moral good as well. As a matter of fact, I think that the courage of our confusions — admitting that we are confused and accepting it — is central to being liberal.

Whatever we think of John Locke and others from the European Enlightenment, what they discovered as a truth is that truth is often debatable.

For example, the Roman Catholic Church had declared that the Mediterranean Sea — get the name: media — middle — terra, earth — the Mediterranean Sea was the middle of the earth. But, evidence to the contrary became plain and bountiful. Human beings discovered that the declared and enforced “truth” concerning the Mediterranean was not a truth at all.

The British Enlightenment philosopher John Locke said this:

False and doubtful positions, relied upon as unquestionable maxims, keep those who build on them in the dark from truth. Such are usually the prejudices imbibed from education, party, reverence, fashion, interest, et cetera.

Notice Locke’s list of reasons that people accept falsehoods:

“Prejudices imbibed” from


party (affiliation),



(self-) interest,

et cetera.

I invite me, you, and everybody to take a good, long think about that:

“Prejudices imbibed” from


party (affiliation),



(self-) interest,

et cetera.

This is not a message for “them,” other people. This is a warning to each of us: watch out for what you have been taught; watch out for the truisms of political parties; watch out for religious assumptions; watch out for the fashions of the time; watch out for the intrusion of self-interest.

Et cetera.

To be truly liberal, not merely liberal in name, we’ve got to watch our assumptions. We’ve got to embrace some “I’m not sure about that.” We’ve got to embrace some ambiguity and confusion.

A couple more quotes from Locke: 

Crooked things may be as stiff and unflexible as straight: and human beings (men) may be as positive in error as in truth.

The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.

That is the condition of life itself, says John Locke: we exist in a “fleeting state of action and blindness” and we are faced with the “necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds.” In this situation, Locke suggests that we be “more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.”

Oh, that we all would listen! And, yes, John Locke himself should have listened to his own advice rather than pontificating on slavery and private property and several other things, living as he did in his very own “fleeting state of action and blindness.”

Yet, let’s hear the wisdom that he has for us:

Truth scarce ever yet carried it by Vote any where at its first appearance: New Opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other Reason, but because they are not already common.

Now that is a very liberal sort of statement. Even “progressive.” And, all the above also apply — all the ways that we human beings get lost in subjectivity and prejudice.

“Being liberal” means all of the above . . . . Sometimes we don’t know and can’t know. 

That’s the fine. That’s the human condition.

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