When Defense of “The Other” Runs Contrary to Liberal Values

There has been a lot of back and forth among progressives about Charlie Hebdo, whether progressives should stand in solidarity with a magazine that prints admittedly racist images, and whether it should be OK to show pictures of the prophet Mohammad–or whether such imagery should be avoided in order not to cause offense or inflame Islamophobia.

Without going too far into the specifics of Charlie, Islam itself and history of depictions of the prophet (much as with abortion in Christianity, it was not always such a hot-button issue), the conversation highlights a tension within the philosophy of liberalism. The tension exists between liberal principles in general, and defense of “The Other” in society.

Liberal principles, generally understood, involve a few core tenets: economic equality and justice, sustainable environmental policy, the right of free speech and the right of determination and freedom from oppression for all groups in society. It’s basically the enforcement of the “your right to swing your fists ends at the bridge of my nose” principle writ large. Liberalism attempts to allow a maximum of arm-swinging with a minimum of nose-busting.

Conservative principles, by contrast, are the opposite. Conservatives favor unrestrained economic inequality, no concern for the environment, and the ability for dominant groups and hierarchies to oppress others at will (mostly so long as no actual physical damage to to persons or property is committed.)

Application of liberal principles leads progressives to defend “the Other” in society because “the Other” tends to be the victim of oppression by dominant groups.

But what happens when “the Other” is more conservative than the more dominant liberal society? What happens when a specific “Other” is more misogynistic, more homophobic, more theocratic, less tolerant of free speech and more prone to violence than the secular society at large?

This is a challenge for many liberals, broadly speaking, but it shouldn’t be. Most liberals have no problem mocking the tenets of a conservative religious minority when that group is, say, Scientologists or Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is broadly understood that while these groups are minorities in society, their illiberal behavior makes them an easy target of satire. It is also broadly understood that no one’s religion should be immune from satire.

Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to oppose conservatism in all its forms, and to stand up for a free secular society unafraid to use satire to defang patriarchal conservative religious dogma. Even if that dogma is viewed as inviolably sacred by one of society’s minority “others.”

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.