Saturday, April 4, 2015

Introducing the Libertarian Dismount

As coined by US SF writer John Scalzi, the libertarian dismount is an attempt to disrupt the discussion of any social or political issue by re-framing it around the individual and their freedoms.
This is a prime derailing maneuver, [...] e.g., 'It’s a shame that so many people are opposed to same-sex marriage, but this is just why government has no place legislating relationships between people, and why in a perfect society government steps away and blah blah blahdee blah blah.” 
A generation ago, we would have been more familiar with its kissing cousin, the Marxist dismount, e.g. "It's a shame that so many people are opposed to same-sex marriage, but come the revolution..."

It's the bane of many an (online) political debate in the US, but rarely do you see a libertarian dismount tried over here. Unless, of course, you're Brendan O'Neill, The Big Issue columnist, Spiked editor and professional contrarian.

Last month in TBI O'Neill - and I offer reluctant admiration here for his sheer brass - attempted a libertarian dismount against the entirety of identity politics when writing about the upcoming elections.

Here's a couple of extracts demonstrating O'Neill's MO - wrapping an unreasonable claim inside several reasonable ones:
We’re all being put into biological or generational boxes. It’s no longer ‘one person, one vote’ – it’s one gay person, one vote; one pensioner, one vote. It’s expected we’ll vote according to the supposed interests of our race, sex or generation.
But why should we? These are phoney communities (my emphasis). Generation doesn’t determine our worldview, nor does sex or skin colour.
The PC communalism tells the young to see themselves in opposition to the old; it says the black community has different concerns to the white; it says women are a distinctive bloc. What happened to viewing us as The Electorate, a vast group of many equals, to be appealed to on the basis of what we think, not what’s in our underpants or what year we were born?
This denial of lived experience barely needs refutation - and I suspect I'd be playing into O'Neill's assumed intentions in writing the article by trying to do so. Not to mention recapitulating Sociology 101.

So let's just say that here that by making this argument, it seems to me that O'Neill is obscuring real common interests, real issues of discrimination and hardship for which characteristics like race, gender, sexuality and age are flags. It feels like he is suggesting that only his terms for debate are the right ones.

And that, squire, is your actual libertarian dismount.

Any good faith argument of sufficient sophistication - including libertarian ones - will meet its counterpart in the middle. There will be points of agreement. Complexity, like the coexistence of individual rights and collective interests - will be acknowledged. But the libertarian dismount tries to kick away the very fundament of an issue without having to address the points it raises. 

At heart, it's a cheap rhetorical trick disguising a refusal to engage. 

And I think we're going to see more of the dismount here in the UK in the years to come. Not only is the boundary between the market and the state once again becoming contested territory, but there is a worrying backlash against the politics of diversity on the breeze too. 

So, keep a look out for the libertarian dismount when you see it. Know it. Challenge it. If there's one to be had, insist on a good faith debate instead.

*Interesting the only community O'Neill does seem to acknowledge is class - presumably the roots of Spiked in Living Marxism are showing here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tim, late to the party on this, but it's an interesting piece that starts teasing out some of the differences in world views that confound useful debate.
    People like Brendan O'Neill (and me, though, probably not to the same extent) do view groupings based on race, sexuality, gender, religion, age as artificial or phoney because they don't reflect the reality of how we live our lives. The community I live in (for example) is not that of white, straight, Irish descended Catholic men, in fact it contains more people who are different from me using those demographic categories, than are similar to me.
    This is not, however, incompatible with the politics of diversity. Recognising that black people, for instance, are not an homogenous bloc, and individuals within that bloc can be as different from one another as from anyone outside that bloc does not negate that discrimination against black people is a problem that needs to be tackled.
    There is a very real problem with defining people by demographic grouping, in that personal identity is primarily formed by opposition, and therefore emphasis on these types of groupings inevitably raises barriers between them, and creates the impression that we're in a zero sum game.