Being liberal: Where do we draw the line?

For every age, there is always a non-negotiable limit. That’s the progressive project.

WrittenBy:Abhinandan Sekhri
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Last week, two episodes across continents led to debates on liberalism and what it should stand for. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia. This piece gives you a good idea of responses to the issue from across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, Rupa Subramanya, a columnist and opinion writer who is pretty active on social media and has also written a piece for Newslaundry, wrote this piece for The Print. The website received much criticism and was accused of providing a platform to someone who had indulged in hate and communal prejudice.


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The founder defended the decision here with a predictably patronising elegance.

In both the cases above, the expected-to-be-more-tolerant liberals have been accused of several things: from “liberal bigotry” to being holier-than-“cow” and weakening the “liberal cause” (which is clearly different to different people).

Before I present my proposition, two caveats. What is liberal/progressive and who is conservative/Right-wing is context-specific, as argued here. I will use the word progressives to replace liberals because it serves the proposition better.

What society considers civilised often becomes a first principle of the civilisation of the time. This is ever-evolving and never static. Changes and challenges to these accepted societal mores are far swifter in the digital age than ever before. And because of our hyper-connected world, disagreements and variance of opinion are way more visible, stretching societies to breaking points.

Forget the case of Sanders working for POTUS for a minute. Would you allow a person to sit in your restaurant—naked and playing with himself? It may have been acceptable in an age when we hosted each other in caves with clubs to hit the nearest mate, but now?  Similarly, would you eat at a restaurant that has child labour serving you, or would you boycott it? Or served by slaves? On Twitter, I’m sure you’ll find some group who would think wanking off at a restaurant is acceptable, as is being served by slaves, as long as the food is good, and denying such a person or establishment a table or business or column space is illiberal. But you get the idea. These are extreme examples, but that may not always be the case. Which is why conversations need to be had about how far is far enough to be socially or professionally spurned.

Every age has progressives advocating values that are non-negotiable, thus making society “progress”. Thus “progressive”. That is, in my view, the fundamental progressive project—to fight for and transform unjust and inhumane socially-accepted negotiables into non-negotiable.   

Our life choices determine our position among friends, family and peers. Society acknowledges those choices by giving us titles, status, tables at diners, and column space. There have always been, and will always be, social ramifications for our life choices. Some of these choices put us in a team that may be challenging basic human values of the time. There will always be early adopters (progressives) of social values, and there will always be those citing what happened 200 years ago or saying “what about Nehru” (PM of India from 1947 to 1964. We’re in 2018 FYI) to explain a contemporary social evil (neanderthals).

So, when confronted with choices that challenge basic decency or human values, what does one do? And when confronted with a person who made that choice, is it okay to shame them or ostracise them socially? This is an important and necessary question.

I’m not saying there should not be a big tent for dissimilar points of view to enrich the ideological and philosophical canvas of the time. There is no doubt it will lead to smart and productive (even if often nasty) debates that move society and popular discourse in a more evolved direction. But how big is that tent? Where is the limit? How far is too far? It is different for different people, but the general acceptable range will be determined by society as a whole depending on the ideas that prevail. History has shown that in the long run, better ideas prevail.  

Thought experiment time: I’ll take a few extreme examples and some not-so-extreme ones. Remember, context is everything. The world of the 1930s and 40s is not that of the 21st century and neither are the accepted human values of the time, including what is considered decent, reasonable, primal, savage or uncivilised. There is always a line for each age.

You have a restaurant and the district representatives of the Ku Klux Klan decide to have lunch at your establishment. Is it okay to refuse them entry? Or ask them to leave? Is burning people on a cross, a line?

Or if Ram Sene’s Pramod Muthalik decides to have a Sena brunch at your veg-only, non-booze serving, shutters-down-at-8 pm establishment? Would you ask them to leave? Is beating women pub customers the line?

What about a party spokesperson calling a Muslim cleric a katmullah on live television? Is that enough to renounce him and never provide him a platform again? Has a line been crossed?

Is wanting EVMs over paper ballots or vice versa, a line?

Is simply wearing the badge of a political party, crossing a line?

What about someone who mocks a woman who has been attacked with a chemical thrown on her face?

Will you offer a table to a bunch of cops who have overseen a lynching, or a person who justifies casteism?

Is burning a copy of a religious book/Constitution/national or political flag, a line?

For every age, there is always a line. That’s the progressive project.

Thanks to technology and social media, basic human values that were considered settled at one point are open to discussion again. Negotiations on non-negotiable debates are being attempted. Bigotry has found a critical mass (it’s tiny but loud enough) of people who unselfconsciously propagate and normalise primitive behaviour. Thus the case for digging one’s heels in and not “engaging” with bigots and despots is stronger than ever. Stronger than the case for making the tent bigger to accommodate non-negotiable, disgusting behaviour.

For some, the get-out-of-my-restaurant or get-off-my-news-portal cutoff point may be being a spokesperson for someone putting kids in cages or for normalising casteist slurs, for some it may be beating women in pubs and for some naked wankers at diners. What’s yours?

For me, the ones who make you want to throw up, can’t be dined with.


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