The Philosopher's Cornered
Issue 5

"Liberal" is Not a Four-Letter Word
by Dan Wolaver

    I didn't appreciate my high-school literature class much.  We read about people whose lives I couldn't relate to, and I didn't find it very entertaining.  My teacher explained that, with a limited life experience, young people remain self-absorbed, knowing only their own little world.  Literature helps expand that world, enabling the reader to understand other viewpoints, cultures, and life-struggles.  He learns that, although their customs may be different, others have the same basic desire for security, love, and freedom from want.
     Later I learned that this aspect of education is called a "liberal education," one that broadens the student's viewpoint, promoting understanding of others and tolerance of their way of life.  The American Heritage dictionary provides the following definition:

liberal  adj.
a. Not limited to (or by) established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.
b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.

     A liberal education enables a pluralistic* society—where mutual respect and tolerance allow different groups to coexist and interact without the forced assimilation of any group, where it is recognized that the beliefs of any particular group cannot represent absolute truth.  The alternative is a polarized society in which each side is sure their way is right, and anyone that disagrees is trying to destroy their way and must therefore be evil.  That mindset leads to the anger and rantings heard on talk radio.  In the Middle East it leads to Sunnis killing Shiites and threatening women who don't cover their faces.
     The term "liberal" has recently been hijacked to mean favoring a welfare state and accepting immorality.  It has become the unspeakable "L-word"—reduced to the equivalent of a four-letter word.  How, then, is one to refer to the original meaning?  The leading candidate seems to be "progressive," but this reflects only one aspect of liberal-mindedness. I would like to see "liberal" restored to it's former association with enlightenment and tolerance.
     Without liberalism, there can be no peace in a world that is growing smaller.  "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts" is supposed to be a joke, but it reflects the ignorance that leads to fear.  And fear leads to hate, which leads to some level of warfare in society.  An expansive education can forestall this ignorance and promote a liberal attitude.  "Fear" and "hate" are four-letter words; "liberal" is not.
     And that's my philosophy.

* See "Pluralism (political philosophy)" on Wikipedia.

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