Tuesday, May 21

Bending us towards compulsory virtue

What a time is was! Back in the day. Around the time Fran Wilde’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality was making its fractious way through Parliament. A time of passionate – and often deeply divisive – debate.
Many of the country’s largest institutions: the trade unions, the churches, political parties, sporting bodies; were split. It was interesting though, because those in favour of liberalising the law did not seem to be as quite as angry as those who opposed it.

Some reformers even managed to retain a sense of humour. I remember a tough-as-nails old trade unionist who didn’t care who knew that he belonged to the “live and let live” faction.

He would tell his fellow unionists: “I don’t care what people get up to in their own bedrooms.” Before adding with a wink: “Just so long as they don’t make it compulsory!”

Forty years ago, people laughed out loud.

Forty years on, however, it is possible to locate in the unionist’s bon mot the ideological fissures that have, over the decades, widened to the point of unbridgeability.

At the heart of the liberal impulse lies a revulsion against the tendency of empowered majorities to despise, isolate, condemn and punish refractory minorities. The liberal refuses to locate moral certainty in the judgemental multitude. Though an individual may find him or herself quite alone in their personal convictions, it is nevertheless entirely possible that those convictions are correct. Belief, providing it does not actively, deliberately, and without just cause, seek to impose restrictions upon others, is to be tolerated – not persecuted. Similarly, to prohibit actions which do no harm to others cannot be morally justified.

The thing about the liberal temperament is that, for some on the left, it comes across as just a little too relaxed. Getting the angry masses to march behind a banner inscribed with the words Leben und leben lassen (Live and let live) is a lot harder than mobilising them behind the more active slogans of progressive radicals and revolutionaries.

The very term “progressive” embodies movement. Progressives are people with a purpose. People determined to, in the splendid metaphor of Dr Martin Luther King, bend the arc of history towards justice.

Unfortunately, it is in the “bending” that the trouble starts. Those convinced that the arc of history is sending humanity in quite the wrong direction, often feel a strong moral obligation to wrench it back on track. For such people “live and let live” is a dangerous principle – not least because it means leaving all manner of “incorrect world-views” to flourish unchallenged and uncorrected.

So long as evil thoughts do not father evil deeds, a complacent liberalism seems happy to leave the Devil alone. For the revolutionary Left, however, that’s the problem. The Devil has never been content to just sit on his hands and think evil thoughts. Lucifer, Satan, the Devil: Patriarchy, Capitalism, White Supremacy; all of them prefer their brainchildren alive and kicking in the real world. If the Liberals aren’t willing to fight against these evil things, then it’s safe to assume they’re fighting for them.

This is what explains the unusually high heat in the political kitchens of the 2020s. It is no longer enough to take up arms against a specific evil: labour exploitation, racial persecution, sexual discrimination; and defeat it. The struggle for justice must be continuous.

While evil ideas and practices grow strong in the dark interstices of contemporary society, justice-seekers can accept no respite. To those still in possession of the wrong beliefs, it is no longer morally acceptable to apply the principle of “live and let live”. To argue that beliefs do not lead to actions flies in the face of all historical experience. If we are not to live in a worse world, then the struggle for a better one must be constant.

When Fran Wilde’s Homosexual Law Reform Bill became law, many liberals cracked open a bottle of bubbly and toasted a job well done. The “Blackmailer’s Charter” was gone. People could be who they were without fear of legal persecution. Conservative New Zealanders didn’t have to like gays, but they were now required to tolerate them.

Live and let live.

“No!”, shout the moral Jacobins, “Not good enough! Not while homophobia and transphobia destroy lives. Not while heteronormative privilege endures!”

Bending us towards compulsory virtue.