The New Sophistry of Liberal Thinkers
by Adam Naphta
Taking Terms Hostage
Any reader of establishment moral and political philosophy will come to notice a peculiar trend. Each writer begins their argument with a variant of the following: Given that we wish to uphold liberty, freedom, social justice, equity and gender equality we should then… And what follows is usually their milquetoast moral project. We should analyze this discourse in order to understand how liberals speak to one another. These arguments are not addressed to us but are used to convince or, as I will argue, take hostage other liberals.
This statement is innocuous to the liberals themselves. However, I have found this statement used to justify an increasingly large set of questionable political, social, and philosophical projects. Many papers begin with this statement and continually refer back to it in order to advance from one part of their argument to another. It is the standard of justification. As long as they can convince you that their argument upholds such goals then their argument should not only be considered but any attack on their argument is tantamount to an attack on liberty, equity, etc. They bake their project into the definitions of the justificatory standard.
We should note that all the key terms in that preceding thesis are all notoriously slippery in actual philosophical discourse. Liberty and equity are far from agreed upon concepts, however they are used as if we know what they are in their entirety. Thus making it easy to find enemies of these concepts. They all know what these concepts mean and yet other liberals are eager to entertain any redefinition from a supposed expert. Implicit in the declaration of this statement is the assertion that “this is what we are doing now, if you do not agree with this project you will be found to be the enemy of social progress.” We should think of anyone using this statement as a hostage taker. He, or she, has taken the social background in which we have discourse hostage and is making demands not negotiations.
How to Prevent Your Opponent from Speaking
The real tactic lies in making their conclusion analytically follow from the definitions. The argument usually begins with “these terms mean such and such, and such and such is the very definition of my conclusion, therefore I am correct.” Their current pet project is then baked into the definitions of the terms. I believe we should look at these inter-liberal discourses as hostage situations in which each side takes the horizon of intelligibility hostage to advance a project. These projects are not addressed to us. They are addressed to other liberals. Each liberal points the gun at his or her fellow liberal and shouts “this is how it will be done now and either get with the program or get out.” Odd how this simple phrase reframes discourse in such a way that detractors of the program are no longer interlocutors, willing to advance the same agenda albeit in different ways, but are now instead verified enemies. To disagree means to show yourself. You must be an enemy for it has been brilliantly shown that X person’s political project is in the definition of liberty!
A Useful Case Study
I will use a case study to make this clearer. I came across this woman’s work recently after she signed a petition against the academic disenfranchisement of gender-critical feminist theorists, or those unwilling to accept that a man can become a woman. Surprisingly enough, I agreed with her on this point but that is neither here nor there. I then saw her most recent book titled Against Marriage. Here is her central claim “state-recognised marriage violates both equality and liberty, even when expanded to include same-sex couples. Instead Chambers proposes the marriage-free state: an egalitarian state in which religious or secular marriages are permitted but have no legal status.” Following this she supports her argument by saying “ that state-recognised marriage is […] problematic for liberalism, particularly political liberalism, since it imposes a controversial, hierarchical conception of the family that excludes many adults and children.” It should be strikingly obvious what the problem is.
Where in the definition of political liberalism or liberty does it entail the destruction of exclusionary hierarchy? Liberty is most certainly not the abolition of all hierarchical structures. In fact, many would argue that liberty requires a properly functioning hierarchy for those to be free in it. We can see exactly what I mentioned earlier at work here. She is building her pet project of abolishment of marriage into words like liberty or liberalism.
The New Sophistry
She has held the terms hostage and states to other liberals that if they wish to keep their card they must join in on abolishing marriage because that’s what it means to be a liberal. This is an argument tactic that is so pernicious, so insidious, and done in such bad faith I feel absolutely no need to argue why she is wrong. She cannot merely redefine these terms and expect us to accept it. Is marriage anti-anti-hierarchical? Yes. Is liberalism anti-hierarchical? Either it is and thereby it is no longer liberalism but an ultra-egalitarian communism, or it isn’t and her argument is unsound.
Luckily for us this argument usually holds no weight, but this is a warning sign for any liberal-minded people reading. Do not let sophists like this fool you with their credentials and rhetorical tricks. Do not let them redefine terms post-hoc to suit their personal pet project of resentment. Be picky about definitions, and make sure they hold up to historical scrutiny. Ms.Chambers has a wonderful pet project, but it is absolutely not liberal. It is utopianist. If this is the case she should be forthcoming with it, but she is not. She knows that she can bargain for much more by holding the term liberal hostage than she can forwarding her own manifesto. Sophists of today look like Ms.Chambers: Oxbridge educated, tenured, and manifestly resentful.