Posted by lizw on Wed 25 Aug 2010 at 13:11
One of the odder accusations I hear as a Lib Dem activist is that we have a "civil liberties fetish". So far, I've always heard it from Labour-leaning people, though that may be a reflection of a currently slightly anomalous relative positioning of the Labour and Conservative parties rather than anything intrinsic to the species. It's supposed to make us sound irrational, I dare say, or naively idealistic. It's supposed to make us blush and admit that yes, perhaps we did get a bit carried away, and perhaps that nice Mr Blair was all right after all.
I'm sorry - or actually, I'm not sorry at all - but no. Shall we pick that phrase apart a bit? Civil liberties fetish. Let's start there, because metaphors that depend on belittling sexual minorities are always a good way to get me riled. Make no mistake - and if you've spent any time in the fat acceptance movement, you won't - "fetish" is just another way of saying "a sexual interest the majority doesn't like". You only get turned on by thin women? Congratulations, you're normal. That's fine, perfectly healthy. (You're male, right? If you aren't male, it might not be so fine, to the majority way of thinking.) But what's that you say - actually, you only get turned on by fat women? Oh dear, that's a fetish. It's not healthy at all. In fact, it's creepy. You're not really interested in them for themselves. You're objectifying them. You need therapy. You're sick.
See what I mean? That's pure cultural bias, right there. But let's play with the metaphor a bit longer and ask ourselves what a "civil liberties fetish" would look like if it really did play out in the bedroom. Only getting turned on when the other person - or people, even - made a free choice to be there? Keeping their confidences, because their right to privacy trumps your mates' right to cheap entertainment? Respecting their dignity, even if it means they won't do what you want? Assuming their likes and dislikes are as valid as your own, even if they seem squicky or silly at first? Not meddling in other areas of their life uninvited, even for their own good, because they have a right to do it their way if they want to? You know, I've had partners like that - I have partners like that - and I can't for the life of me think why that's supposed to be a bad thing.
So yeah, telling me in a disapproving tone that I have a fetish doesn't get me to change my behaviour, unless it's to avoid the person speaking. It's not a good metaphor for anyone who wants to convince me of anything. What of the truth that underlies the metaphor, though? Because I will grant you there is some truth there. If it comes to a trade-off between liberty and security, even the kind of material security that comes from having food and shelter and a half-decent education, you don't have to push it very far before every Lib Dem I know will choose liberty. For my Labour-leaning friends, that tipping-point seems to come much later. (I trust them to have one somewhere, or they wouldn't be my friends.)
Are we wrong? I don't think so - because liberty without security is far more remediable than security without liberty. Security without liberty leaves people at the mercy of authority, dependent on its good will. Liberty without security at least offers the prospect of trying something new. To have any prospect of material security in the long run, you need to be able to change your government if they don't care or don't know how to foster it; and for that, you need to have a vote - I don't think many of my friends are good shots or know how to plan an insurrection, though Heinlein would probably think they should - and for votes to work, you need to be able to scrutinise what your government is doing, and campaign against it, and generally make a nuisance of yourself; and for that, you need a legal system that will protect you even when the government finds you troublesome; and for all of those things, you need people who care about civil liberties. Who will take risks for them, so that even if you disagree, you can at least vote for a bigger bread ration and perhaps the occasional circus. You need people who have a fetish for your liberties, even, maybe.
Irrational? I don't think so. Naively idealistic? Maybe. But I'll take that kind of idealism over Labour's brand of authoritarianism any day.
(Cross-posted from lizw.livejournal.com at Helen's invitation)
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