“Cultural Libertarianism” on Trial

In their July 20th Breitbart article, Milo Yiannopoulous and Allum Bokhari refer to the growing network of resistance to “social justice warriors” in the entertainment industry as “cultural libertarianism.” It’s a powerful term and intuitively appealing to supporters of a free society. Extending scepticism of “big government” to what the authors call “cultural authoritarianism” seems natural. In essence, what the authors call cultural libertarianism might be more accurately described as anti-political correctness.

Whilst cultural libertarianism (at least as the authors define the term) has merit, it’s often so intentionally “rough around the edges” that it becomes counterproductive. It also sometimes manifests itself in reprehensible ways. Rather than framing the debate as cultural libertarianism versus social justice, opponents of big government should take the best of both and discard what doesn’t work.

Let’s start with cultural libertarianism’s positives. It tends to be profoundly hostile towards anti-discrimination laws, and rightfully so. As Jeffrey Tucker argues, anti-discrimination laws represent an authoritarian approach to social change. They trample on free association and withhold information from consumers who may wish to avoid trading with bigots. In short, anti-discrimination laws push bigots into the shadows.

Cultural libertarians call out the vicious strategies social justice warriors frequently employ. There are numerous cases of online hate mobs — identifying as feminist and anti-racist — posting personal information (doxxing), harassing people, and sending death threats to those who express bigoted views.

Boycotts and pointed criticism of homophobes, sexists and racists are good things. Resorting to potentially life-ruining tactics, harassing, and threatening to kill those you disagree with are not. The immorality of such actions aside, John Stuart Mill reminds us in On Liberty that bigotry can only be extinguished by open debate:

Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.

Despite their opposition to the social justice narrative, cultural libertarians frequently draw attention to issues facing marginalised groups. Those of us who are concerned with structural oppression could learn a lot about intersectionality from cultural libertarians. For example, feminist concerns about UK “lad culture” frequently ignore class considerations.  Empathy for low-income males is usually lacking in a social justice movement that claims to concern itself with disadvantaged groups.

But there are serious problems with cultural libertarianism too. Its proponents use doxxing, harassment, and death threats, just like the social justice warriors they criticise. This behaviour is far too often motivated by cultural libertarians’ blatant misogyny, overt racism and callous enjoyment of trolling.

Moreover, cultural libertarians are generally blind to structural oppression. They tend to view oppression as a phenomenon occurring on an individual or small group level, ignoring its systemic manifestations. Racism, sexism, and other cultural ills can’t be eradicated without an examination of the power structures within the world’s governments, media, criminal justice systems and other institutions.

Looking at the libertarian blogosphere, a neutral observer would be forgiven for thinking advocates of free markets have lost their way by failing to address non-state forms of oppression. The controversy surrounding Rihanna’s recent music video demonstrates this problem. Brendan O’Neill’s Reason article on Rihanna’s video is a prime example.

His criticism of any attempt to politicise pop culture is based on the false premise that art exists in a vacuum. The valid points O’Neill makes about the aggressive tone of some cultural critics are drowned out in a sea of scorn for anyone remotely interested in the morality of music videos.

Overall, there is value in cultural libertarianism just as there is value in social justice activism. Both sides are guilty of hyperbole and fail to acknowledge their own camp’s malicious elements. Instead, they tar the entirety of the other side as the problem. The shared attitude amongst both movements is, to paraphrase Scott Alexander, that they can tolerate anything except the outgroup.

My acquaintances with people from both groups probably biases me towards a non-partisan position. That said, I genuinely believe each side has something to offer. In the end, it’s perfectly consistent to be a cultural libertarian and a social justice warrior when one weeds out the authoritarian strains that exist in both.

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