Versa | What does it mean to live in a liberal society?

Coming to Oxford is a surreal experience. As a Singaporean student living in arguably one of the oldest colleges at unarguably the oldest university in the Anglosphere, I can’t help but feel a little out of place. My country isn’t even as old as some of the professors here. All that history is exuded in the long Latin graces, the ridiculously green quads and the architecture dating from bygone ages.

Merton. It’s the worst college there is, and it’s still older than America.

It is surreal in another way, too. At no point in my life have I found so many of my substantive views to be shared by so many. I no longer have to marshal long-drawn arguments defending gender equality, LGBTQ, free speech, human rights, secularism and so on. The frontiers of the ongoing culture war back home have largely been settled here. It feels great to be part of the moral majority. I finally live in a tolerant society.

But a few weeks into Michaelmas and I start to notice that things might not be that simple. For clarity, I offer three examples:

A friend wrote a Tab article in an attempt at comedy. He mock-criticised some parts of fresher’s week, and ultimately concluded that Oxford stereotypes are pretty much untrue. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed his brand of humour, but I thought it was ultimately harmless fun. I was struck, however, by the amount of disapproval he got from certain sectors of the college, and wonder if he’ll be as willing to express his opinions as he once was.

A group of apparently white, straight, male, upper/middle-class guys decided to form a social group to hang out and drink. From what little I do know, in the midst of drunkenness, someone made a comment to a person who identifies as a woman that could be construed as misogynistic. The association with lad culture is instantaneous and the informal social disapproval which followed meant the group disbanded.  Curiously, everyone agreed that, individually, every person from the group is a real stand-up guy who showed no sign of laddish or misogynistic behaviour. I wonder if we’ve been too quick to judge.

Drinking societies: not what they used to be

Finally, a personal example: at a meal, I expressed scepticism at the living wage campaign. What followed was not a full-blown discussion on the merits of living wage (which was, indeed, too much to ask for), but rather an exchange of preliminary arguments. The ebb and flow of conversation shifted to something else, and I thought nothing of the exchange. But after the meal, someone who was at the table told me disapprovingly: “I thought you were a progressive!” I have been judged without having been given a fair hearing.

All of this is to say that it is not about the particular issues; I don’t think there are matters of principle at stake, whether people are slightly more or less willing to write Tab articles or to form an all-male drinking group or to talk about the living wage during mealtimes.

It is not about rights, either; thankfully at no point did anyone suggest enlisting the coercive power of the college (or, worse, the government) to shut down particular groups or punish particular persons. This is something to celebrate. But, as the examples above show, social pressure can be no less effective in getting people to toe the line.

It is about confronting the faux-paradox of living in a liberal society: How should we treat those who go against the prevailing paradigm? How do we insist on the strength of our convictions and at the same time take seriously the arguments from the other side? Tentatively, I propose an answer.

Whatever the consensus happens to be at any point in time, there will always be controversy at its margins. Disagreement in good faith is not just possible, but ubiquitous. A starting-point is to acknowledge these facts. Going further: we can afford to be charitable before rendering judgment. It is easy to demonise someone you disagree with. It is much harder to listen genuinely, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to construe the words and actions of that person in the best light possible. But that is exactly what we should do; in that way, people on both sides of an issue will become more open to being convinced, and more likely to work hard to convince others. This is an attitude we should manifest in our everyday interactions with each other—in the hall, in the library and in the lab.

At the end of the day, our substantive judgements could very well still diverge. But this divergence is tempered by a respectful process that reminds us of the fact that people with a different sense of humour, who make different life choices or who subscribe to different beliefs, are not necessarily ignorant, misguided or prejudiced. We are all only human.

Tags: free speech — liberal society — Oxford University — permissiveness