Legality, Social Authority and Liberal Democracy

Interestingly, within the realm of social critique liberal democratic societies like Canada, the US and the nations of Western Europe are subject to two seemingly contradictory criticisms. On one hand some traditionalists find liberal democratic societies decadent and troublesome, as liberal democracies often do away with more traditional social goods and give rise to an aimless, meandering freedom. Consequently according to this type of critic liberal democratic societies are too permissive and fail to promote the traditions that are at the core of each nation’s history. On the other hand some on the progressive left decry the authoritarian nature of these very same liberal democratic societies as while these societies proclaim freedom, there is still a great amount of pressure to pursue career success, reproduce, get married and check all the other boxes that society deems to be part of a worthwhile life. Thus for all of the rhetoric of freedom liberal democratic societies are actually quite authoritarian as societies demean people who do not bow to social pressure and reject its values, and honour those who simply mimic what society values. These two critiques are in stark opposition to each other, but I want to say that both point out a significant aspect of social authority, if dimly.

Social authority is the sum of ideas, goods and values through which society expresses what it values and shames or honours its individual members; while the illegal is typically shamed and the legal honoured, social authority does not simply honour what is law, and dishonour what is illegal, as society will often shame legal activities such as adultery, alcohol abuse, or just generally being a jerk. Thus, while there are significant connections between what social authority shames and honours and law, the two are distinct as social authority will often dishonour and shame perfectly legal activities.

The traditionalist critique rightly points out that in liberal democratic societies there is tension between law and social authority, and that this tends to encourage a permissive culture to develop. For example, if we look at the case of abortion we can see how this operates. When abortion is made legal by a state this does not mean that people cannot still think, and a culture cannot still adopt the stance that abortion is bad. It merely means that the requirements of equality require that the state not prevent women from pursuing abortions. But the traditionalist argues that in rendering abortion legal, the state tends to unleash forces that in time will lead to abortion being viewed as something that is not shameful or a necessary evil. And this seems plausible because if we are willing to permit something to occur in our society and give its practise the support of law it clearly cannot be that bad, and it may not be bad at all. Thus, when something that is shameful from the perspective of social authority in a liberal democracy is made legal over time social attitudes towards this practise will begin to accept it validity, and thus a more permissive culture will be created.

So, what the traditionalist gets right is that because liberal democracies tend towards legalizing activities that do not violate the basic rights of others even when these activities are deemed to be shameful, these sort of societies tend to become more culturally, as opposed to legally, permissive over time. In essence, after an activity gains legal recognition as valid that activity will gain validity in cultural or social terms as social authority will tend not to shame the activity. Now unlike the traditionalist I do not decry this development in many cases, but I think the traditionalist is right to notice this tendency in liberal democratic societies.

Similarly, the progressive critique of social authority in liberal democratic societies quite astutely points out that even when there is no law against a particular activity this does not mean that social authority will not shame the activity or view it as less valuable than the norm. There may be a tendency for legally valid modes of activity be barred from the shaming tendencies of social authority, but this is a mere tendency, not an eventuality. Furthermore, it is something that admits of degrees. Certainly attitudes, and consequently the perspective of social authority, towards non-monogamous relationships has become much more sympathetic and accepting since the existence of laws against adultery have been reversed, but attitudes towards it still view non-monogamous relationships as less valuable than monogamous one. Consequently, the process legal change makes to social authority often occur very slowly, and furthermore, there is no guarantee that because non-monogamous relationships are legal that eventually social authority will eventually come to the conclusion that non-monogamous relationships are equally valid to monogamous relationships. Due to the slow pace of change of social authority even after legal recognition of the validity of an activity or way of life has been given, people who engage in these activities or way of life may be still be subject to cultural modes of oppression.

We can see this in the case of LGBT quite clearly. Since the mid 20th century throughout the US and Canada these groups have received progressive legal recognition of their status as equals. But even with this change there is still a great degree of shame that people in this group experience, because elements of social authority still tends to view being LGBT as worse than being heterosexual. This can have severe effects on the self-esteem, emotional well being and the sense of freedom that people in these groups experience. They may have feelings of inadequacy, and struggle to see themselves as possessing dignity as the image of their identity that is represented to them by society is one that tends to be demeaning, superficial or unduly negative. So clearly, in this case social authority has a negative effect on the development and well being of LGBT individuals despite the fact that in Canada and the US legal recognition of equality of status has made great strides. Therefore, the progressive critique rightly points out the way in which social authority can cause harm to human beings, and the way in which liberal democracies do not guarantee the fullest freedom for all through law, as many are still left feeling excluded, alienated, and unworthy.

From the preceding we can see that both the traditionalist and progressive critique get at something important about social authority in liberal democracies, but while they both get an aspect of the situation both fail for reasons that I will get into below.

In the case of the traditionalist critique the problem is that their argument fetishizes whatever social authority currently says, and somewhat blindly opposes allowing individuals to pursue what they deem to be best or most pleasant. The problem with this is that while the creation of a more permissive culture may be problematic if it destroys valuable social goods that are necessary for and constitute the well-being and solidarity of society, there is no reason to think that making a culture permissive will necessarily lead to the decay of valuable social goods in a liberal democracy. Our opposition should not therefore be to cultural permissiveness per se, but cultural permissiveness that can be shown to damage valuable social goods. But the argument then is not about reducing or increasing the permissiveness of culture or social authority, but what kind of social authority and culture best conduce to supporting social goods. And once we accept this argument we must forgo traditionalism, because if what matters is social goods and the way social authority supports them the question is not how to preserve existing social authority to support social goods, but what form of social authority best supports social goods in general.

On the other hand, the progressive critique is equally confused because the logical outcome of it is that we should be creating a form of social authority in which no one feels excluded, marginalized, alienated or unworthy. But given the way in which culture and social authority operate this is strictly speaking impossible unless there are no minorities in a society who have conceptions of the good that are distinct from the majority society. I say that this is impossible because as long as there is a majority culture that majority culture will esteem certain values, goods and ideas and demean others, as valuing something necessitates disvaluing something else. As soon as the majority culture esteems certain goods and values, these goods and values will become the perspective of social authority, because through digital media, literature, education and other modes of social reproduction the superiority of these goods and values over others will be expressed. Now given that we have social authority that esteems certain goods and values and demeans others in this society, people who value goods antagonistic to social authority will feel demeaned, as they will be viewed as the threatening other who is an enemy, threat, or useless to society. In which case we have the exact same type of cultural oppression that we mentioned earlier with LGBT individuals. For example, if a society values career success as its fundamental good, then individuals who balk at this value and instead support the superiority of a life of quiet contemplation and simplicity, these opposing individuals will be demeaned and viewed as a threat to society, and thus experience cultural oppression.

While the preceding shows the impossibility, in a society with diversity, of a form of social authority that does not lead to people feeling excluded, demeaned or alienated it does not show that diversity is required for a just or valuable society. Perhaps the just society is one in which all diversity has been overcome? However, I strongly doubt this, as a society without diversity would be one where no one could learn anything from others because if everyone has the same opinions about what is valuable, there would be no reason to speak to others as they could have nothing interesting, insightful or new to say that you had not thought of. But surely this society would be deeply impoverished as learning from others is a deeply significant value in any society. This imagined homogenous society would only be fit for a beast or a God, as only a beast or a God rather than a human being has no need to learn anything. A mere animal has no need to learn anything from others, because its instinct provides it with everything it needs, and God has no need to learn anything because he is perfect and self-sufficient. However, human beings are always in a quest to discover what is truly valuable, as our instinct does not equip us with what we need for a valuable life. Often times we abandon this quest and distract ourselves, but in the course of our lives we are trying to figure this out, and it is through encounters with others who disagree with us that we can question our existing sense of what is valuable, and move to one that is more satisfactory. This may have been why Aristotle said only a beast or God could live outside the city, because humans unlike beasts and God need to encounter diversity to have full lives. Beasts are fine as long as they procreate and survive and God, as an all-knowing being, has no need for others, but humans call out for more than procreation and survival, but also are not self-sufficient and thus require distinct others to engage with. Therefore, human beings requires society with diversity for their fulfillment, and thus it seems implausible that diversity would not be required for the existence of a valuable or just society.

So the question we must ask when thinking about social authority in liberal democracies is not how to avoid people feeling excluded or demeaned as this is bound to occur as long as there is a majority culture, or how to preserve existing social authority. Instead the question we should be asking is how do we create a form of social authority that at once complements law in supporting social goods and also does so in a way that allows us to engage with others so that we can learn through the conversations we have. This requires us however to both avoid fetishizing already existing social authority, and the attempt to structure social authority such that it does not demean the values of any group within society.

Now some may find it a bit harsh that I am saying that a valuable society should not try to structure social authority so that no one feels demeaned or excluded. However, it should be noted that the fact that social authority should not be structured does not mean that other actions should not be taken to avoid people feeling demeaned or excluded, it just means that we cannot abolish diversity in the name of ensuring feeling of marginalization, exclusion and alienation are avoided.

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