Conrad Russell on liberalism 3: Diversity

(This is part of a series of posts about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. You can find an introduction and links to all the posts here.)

To start, a disclaimer. I’m a heterosexual white cis middle class man living in an advanced industrial economy, and as such I’m the beneficiary of more unearned privilege than perhaps 99% of the people who have ever lived, so it’s entirely possible that this post will include lots of inadvertent errors and omissions. There are things that, because of my position and experience, I do not and probably cannot understand, so please feel free to point out where I get things wrong so I can do better in the future.

In keeping with his previous chapters, Russell’s account of liberalism’s support for diversity takes a historical approach. For him, it begins with opposition to the power of the Church and its desire to force all to conform to doing things in one way only. He sees liberalism as defending ‘the rights of the under-privileged, whoever they may happen at that time to be.’ There is a subtle critique of this historical process running through the chapter, however, as he notes that there were many times when people were too busy congratulating themselves over one victory to note that there were many more battles left to fight. He notes, for instance, some of the sexism (both overt and subtle) that prevented the struggle for women’s suffrage being taken seriously for years, but then turns the issue around to note that there may well be subtle and unconscious biases that we hold and may be mocked for in the future.

This element of self-criticism is important, because I think it relates to a trend in contemporary liberalism. We can be very good at identifying oppression or discrimination, but we sometimes act as though merely identifying it is enough in itself to solve the problems it has caused. We’re eager to point out that we’ve spotted and apologised for the overt discrimination of the past, but we’re often reluctant to accept that the legacy of that discrimination still has effects, both overt and subtle, in the present. There is a tendency to think that because we are so much more enlightened than our predecessors that we must therefore have solved all the problems, ignoring the fact that our predecessors felt similarly, and our successors will no doubt think the same of us.

For Russell, diversity exists as a key liberal value because of liberalism’s commitment to pluralism. Diversity is about celebrating the difference between individuals, and recognising that is important to allow people to be different, and that society does not seek to limit them because of that difference. Russell points out that liberalism is concerned about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that merely saying that everyone has an equal opportunity does not make it so.

Liberalism wants to see everyone fulfil their potential, but their potential as they see it, not as what society defines for them. Diversity in liberalism is important because it recognises that no one has the right answer for how everyone should live, and it’s a mistake to try and force a way of life on people. It comes back to Russell’s initial point of how liberalism is about power, and freeing people from the use of power to oppress them. However, it’s also about recognising that their are many ways in which individuals can be oppressed and restricted by many different forms of power. It’s entirely appropriate for liberalism to want to use the power of the state to liberate individuals from those other powers, and not to just limit our championing of diversity to saying the state won’t oppress you, but you’re on your own if something else does.

There’s an important point to be made here about the importance of linking the theoretical and the practical, of making our commitment to diversity mean something in practice instead of just being good works. Russell points out that this is a long-standing issue — Liberals in the late nineteenth century were great champions of the working class, but in many cases were notably reluctant to promote and advance working-class candidates, which eventually led to the creation of the Labour Party. As I said earlier, there’s a tendency within liberalism to assume a rational process and that once we’ve identified a problem, everyone will accept that diagnosis and fix it. If that doesn’t happen, we can then get quite defensive and assert that it’s obviously not our fault that something’s going wrong because we’ve identified our problems and fixed them.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m aware that I’m striding into the issue carrying tons of privilege with me, and I don’t want to start using that position to decree solutions to other people’s problems. Indeed, deciding that we know how to solve other people’s problems — rather than listening to what they want, then helping them achieve it — may be one of the reasons those problems still exist. There can be a sense of noblesse oblige in the way we can haughtily lay down solutions and expect others to be grateful we’ve noticed their problems and are now going to solve them for them, no matter how much they might be capable of solving them for themselves if we let them.

I’m going to finish this post with one of my favourite quotes from Russell in this chapter about pluralism, which manages to perfectly capture a liberal principle about the freedom of individuals (which we’ll look at in a later post) and make me wonder about the circumstances in which he wrote the book:

What two young men of seventeen do in bed in private is nothing to do with me, but if they then play their stereo so loud that I cannot continue to write this book, that is something to do with me.

In Part 4, we move away from the more philosophical and into the practical, as we take a look at the economy.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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