Some vaguely liberal principles I seem to have found to hold up well

1. Human groups range from the whole human race through the nation, the city, the family and the individual (with many intermediate groupings like friendships, clubs, churches, professional organizations, corporations, international treaty organizations, etc). Larger groups often include many smaller ones. Even an individual can have subordinate sources of action, as evidenced by various sorts of involuntary impulses, internal conflicts, and indecision. Each level in this complex hierarchy has its own integrity and its own rules. The one with the greatest integrity is the human individual: the number of constituent communications among all the cells within a single human body dwarfs to insignificance even systems as complex as an ecosystem, a nation, or even the total sum of connections in the worldwide internet. Thus it is the integrity of the human individual—i.e. personal freedom–that should be considered as a sort of veto in any decision to alter the arrangements of the entire hierarchy.

2. Subsidiarity: given this range of groupings, actions are best decided on, and problems best solved, at the lowest level (in the smallest group) for which the challenge exists. Personal thoughtfulness is the best way of solving individual and family problems. Custom, courtesy, handshakes, and manners are best for dealing with many issues inside local groups. Markets should rule through most contexts between the realm of voluntary communities and large scale political constitutions; contracts (central to the market) work best for a wide range of concerted actions. A system of civil law only becomes necessary when contracts are breached. Criminal law comes into play in cases of coercion, fraud, injury or wrongful death. Constitutional law and democratic voting compete to deal with larger issues, and international law deals with larger ones still. The “higher” levels of regulation should not command the lower: the lower levels are responsible for corralling the higher levels within their own (hopefully rare) regions of legitimate authority and drastic enforcement. When the weight of the State comes down on some thoughtless local offence, huge damage is done to the assumption that human beings are free and responsible, that is, moral beings worthy of human and civil rights.

3. The market is the only system that humanity has found to engage simultaneously the judgments of the maximum number of human beings (in setting prices) day by day and moment by moment. Thus it is the most democratic of all forms of assigning value. (Democratic in Churchill’s sense that it is the worst system imaginable with the exception of all the others.) Markets are the only known antidote to tribalism (barring moral reform, which by definition cannot be enforced, since morality only applies to cases where free choice exists, and the enforcer defines the morality). Tribalism says you can kill a stranger and take her stuff. A market says that maybe you could trade for the stuff rather than risk a fight. The market is a game rather than a duel. Negotiation and compromise are forms of trading.

4. We must resist the universal human desire to call in an authority higher than that of oneself and one’s opponent in a dispute, an authority that is on one’s own side and that will suppress one’s foe. Only the prevention of force or fraud justifies such an abandonment of the local rules of play. Such invocation of a higher level is usually destructive in some way, and thus the evil that must be suppressed should be clearly greater than the evil of intervention. If you hand over power to a judge, you run the risk of corrupting the judge and damaging the tacit local consensus and the efficient harmony it supports.

5. Civilization is a good. Generally speaking, a culture that has included, preserved in itself, and amicably reconciled many other cultures is likely to be qualitatively better in the realms of value—that is truth, beauty, and goodness. Not because of any innate superiority of its members but because more human decisions and more accumulated creativity and accumulated criticism will be brought to bear in any situation. The principle of subsidiarity nevertheless protects minority holdouts against a broader consensus, so there is a necessary tension between the value of local parochial wisdom and a more global, tolerant cosmopolitan wisdom: between the dear familiarity of local arts, crafts, customs, rituals, etc, and the grand historical richness of the world’s great classical civilizations (such as Europe, China, India, the Middle East, Mesoamerica and others). Great classical civilizations are traditions of debate, of enlarging spheres of discourse, of inclusion. “The West” was made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different tribal viewpoints. Likewise China, Islam, etc. The grand historical richness of the classical cultures is made up of the dear freshness of the local practices and perspectives they originally opened themselves up to. And the richness is lost when their local idiosyncratic roots are cut out or forgotten.

5. Getting our words right is not just a scholarly eccentricity but is fundamental to decent political discourse.

Three misused words:

The word “privilege” is seriously misused as a political weapon. All people have a RIGHT to be treated fairly by their neighbors and by the authorities. It is not a privilege. Indeed, many people are deprived of that right, and the law should be used severely to restore that right to them. They are not “underprivileged,” nor are those who are treated fairly “privileged.” “Privilege” implies an unfair or unjust precedence or special treatment and can thus be weaponized. But to assume that someone in proper possession of their rights is thereby unqualified to understand the plight of those who have been deprived of them clearly does not follow; indeed, the more freedoms someone has, the freer their imagination to experience the condition of others. The term “privileged” used in the current sense is harmful in another way: it (intentionally?) confuses the respect naturally given to hard work and achievement with foolish and arbitrary distinctions of class, race, and rank.

The word “appropriation” in the context of “cultural appropriation” is another innocent but weaponized feature of the current lexicon. “Appropriate” is a fancy word for “steal:” cultural appropriation means a kind of stealing that does not include physical objects but ideas, symbols, memes, styles, etc. We already have laws of copyright and intellectual property and sanctions against plagiarism, trademark abuse, ripoffs, fakes, and suchlike. Those laws should be enforced. End of story. But it’s not the end. As a weapon the word “appropriation” has done great harm and could do much more. If it is theft for a “white” person to wear a kimono, a dashiki, a war-bonnet, a cheongsam or a sari, it is theft for anyone who is not a white person to wear a business suit or an evening gown. If it is theft for a white to practice yoga or chant mantras or play jazz, it is theft for nonwhites to use the principles of science and mathematics, or to play soccer, or to speak English, for that matter. Should English people stop using the originally Latin or French words in the lexicon? It is amazing how fast any application of the idea of cultural property, beyond sensible copyright, degenerates into absurdity. All great civilizations became so by combining many different tribal memes; language itself is a way of sharing thoughts; translation is the only way brilliant literary achievements get the audience they deserve. The idea of “cultural appropriation” is a dagger aimed at the heart of the human race.

The word “identity” has come to mean almost exactly the opposite of its earlier meaning. Words do change their meaning—“awful” changed from meaning deserving of respect to deserving of contempt, and “awesome” from sobering to exciting—and that is normal. But sometimes the meaning change can be deeply toxic. “Identity” used to mean that which is unique about a human being, some kind of inner special quality that only that person contains, something whose dignity and exceptionality makes one irreducible and uncategorizable. It has now come to mean the exact reverse: the category that a person falls into that makes him or her indistinguishable from other members of their racial or ethnic or gender group. The earlier meaning seemed to value the extent to which someone did not fit into the group to which they were assigned by the public; it now seems to value the extent to which a person’s inner being, freedom of action, original ideas, and contrarian independence are subordinated to the solidarity of the race, gender “identity,” class or ethnic group to which one claims to belong. It is a clan tattoo, a uniform, not an inner spirit. It is as if we have despaired of the project of standing out, making one’s mark, and achieving something unique–and have instead turned to some readymade category to provide a substance and value that we lack as an individual. In other words, “identity” as it now stands implies that one is limited and characterized by one’s race, class, and gender. This is the same contention as that of racists, classists, and sexists.

6. Tribalism and racism are inborn among human beings as a result of our evolution. Racism, factionalism, classism, sexism, ethnocentrism are by-products of neurophysiological mechanisms that are called “discrimination” and “prejudice.” They do not need to be “taught by society;” on the contrary, all functioning societies try to suppress them at least as far as their own borders, and so they should. These discriminatory mechanisms were once survival traits and even now are often rules of thumb or the equipment for necessary first impressions. Any kind of expectation based on prior information or experience is literally prejudice. One expects to be in danger if one approaches a cliff edge or a wild animal or someone who seems to have rabies or be drugged or in a state of rage or wearing a KKK hood. One avoids a snake hardly at all on the basis of experience but on the basis of what one has heard and read from other people. If only 1/10 of the set of things of which one has just encountered an example is known to be dangerous, that is enough for a sensible human being to be suspicious. “Mostly harmless,” in Douglas Adams’ disquieting phrase, is not reassuring. But first impressions (good or bad) based on prejudice, though inevitable, are only a default state subject to review. And we also possess a strong anomaly detector, so that we are encouraged to question our own stereotypes if out of boredom alone. Prejudice is the hypothesis without which observation and experiment are meaningless. Prejudice is the first furlong of the only road to knowledge.

Human civilization depends upon identifying and suppressing the most dangerous and potentially evil forms of discrimination while encouraging the kinds that make us prefer a good medication to a bad one, a good painting to a bad one, or a good law, bargain, moral act, or neighbor to a bad one. No human has enough individual experience to make these decisions, and must thus rely on social institutions like science, education, scholarship and philosophy to guide him or her. These disciplines urge us to look twice, to question our stereotypes, correct our misconceptions, test the evidence, examine the chain of reasoning, seek the unique exception that makes something itself. Such disciplines must themselves be always alert to the dangers of corrupt old habits of mind or fresh ideological passions that would rip the fabric of subsidiarity and create new unjustified prejudices.

Tribalism is especially virulent when it is found in noble and tolerant people who are aware of their own virtue and who feel totally justified in their hatred of those in whom it is lacking. Consider Himmler’s speech to the SS at Posen:

And then they turn up, the upstanding 80 million Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say the others are all swines, but this particular one is a splendid Jew. But none has observed it, endured it. Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of.

Himmler’s appeal is to the higher moral instincts. In argument, beware of appeals to morality and moral solidarity. Best is exact knowledge of the case, and failing that, an intelligent imagination. In any conversation, always believe yourself to be a worse person than your partner. Let him keep the moral advantage; this may make him a little more relaxed in the presence of different ideas, and make you more prepared to question your own.

7. Evolution, we now know, takes place at all levels, all scales, and all time intervals. The brain alters its structure by thinking. We alter our bodies by action. We alter the potentiation, activation, and suppression of our genes (though not our genes themselves) by our habit and experience, and pass these settings on to our young. Through different rates of reproductive success we alter the gene-frequency of the species. By divergence in species habit and habitat we alter our species. By genetic engineering we may even alter our genes. This multilevel alterability is the substance and complex mechanism of freedom. Thus subsidiarity holds true for our biology, from the small, local and momentary to the large, global, and epochal. Freedom operates at all scales; the future does not exist, but is made by this work. Even inanimate matter alters itself by appearing in the next moment with slightly different coordinates with respect to everything else. But allow each level its own sphere. Do not overmaster the humble evolution of a good habit. Freedom is not merely the condition of creativity; it is creation itself. If love is the highest of all virtues, what is love if it is not the willing of the loved one’s freedom to make herself as she will?

By Frederick Turner

Professor, poet, lecturer, black belt, and more.

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