Liberalism and Diversity

Recently, I have come to think that I have been confusing two desirable situations when thinking about tolerance, diversity, and liberty. Here, I will refer to them as “diversity” and “liberalism”, not because I think that is how the words are generally used (I think a lot of people confuse them), but because I think these words fit the respective situations quite well. Both concepts apply primarily to societies, and to individuals insofar as they support that kind of society.

A diverse society is one that approves of a wide variety of people and lifestyles. The opposite of a diverse society is a uniform society, which only approves of a narrow range of people and lifestyles.

A liberal society is one that tolerates people and lifestyles of which it disapproves. The opposite of a liberal society is a repressive society, which attempts to suppress people and lifestyles of which it disapproves.

As should be clear from my choice of labels for the positions, I think that a diverse, liberal society is the best, and that a uniform, repressive society is the worst. However, once written like this, it is also clear that these two labels are, in theory, completely independent. Diversity and uniformity are concerned with the range of things of which a society approves, while liberalism and repression are concerned with its attitude to the things of which it does not approve. Thus, a diverse, repressive society and a uniform, liberal society are both entirely possible. I think merging the two ideas makes it hard to see this; at least, it made it hard for me.

Let us be a bit judgemental. A uniform society is evil, just because it only approves of a limited range of options. Thinking about sexism makes this particularly clear. Being a full-time mother is not a bad choice for a woman. In fact, I would say that it is a very good choice. There is a significant amount of self-sacrifice involved, and such a woman is likely to make a large, positive contribution to the well-being of a number of people, not just her own children. Traditional gender roles are not an evil because they force women to do something bad, because they do not; they are an evil because they say that one good thing is the only thing that women should do. On the other hand, a diverse society is good. It allows people to choose from a wide range of good lives. Women can stay at home and raise their children, or they can become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Naturally, only the extremes are clearly good or evil. A society that gives women a dozen choices is clearly better than one that gives them only one, but not as good as one that gives them a hundred. We might be forced to say that societies in the middle are neutral.

Liberal and repressive societies should be described with different terms, so that we do not reinforce the confusion. A liberal society is chaotic. People are permitted to do things of which society does not approve, so plans for society keep getting disrupted by people doing things that society would prefer them not to. I suspect that it is not possible to produce a beautiful society in a liberal society, because someone will build an ugly house in the middle of your historic area, or insist on wearing hot pink to your goth gathering. On the other hand, a repressive society is lawful, because people only do what they are supposed to do. There may be a wide range of things to choose from within that, if the society is also diverse, but society only permits the options of which it approves. This means that you can have a diverse, yet beautiful, society. There can be many kinds of flowers in the garden, but you exclude the weeds. In a liberal society, almost anything is allowed to grow, so your ability to create any sort of pattern is very limited.

In a liberal society, people are willing to let people do things that they disapprove of, and that they think are bad. As long as they do not cause too much harm to other people, they are left alone, although other people may try to avoid having too much to do with them. Hate speech is a good example in Japan. We recently completed an interview survey of foreign residents of Kawasaki, and the general attitude of the Koreans to hate speech was that they didn’t like it, and would rather it didn’t happen, but that it couldn’t be stopped, because people have various opinions. They just wanted to avoid getting caught up in it. That is a very good example of tolerance in its pure form: they disapprove of something, but do not want to take active steps to stop it, as long as they can stay away from it.

In a repressive society, people are not willing to let people do things that they disapprove of. I could argue that this is an important source of the culture wars in the USA. Neither side is willing to let people do things of which they disapprove (practise homosexuality, or preach orthodox Christianity, depending on which side you mean). It is true that one side is typically called “liberal”, and uses arguments about toleration, but in the terms I’m using here, they are diverse, not liberal. The other side is typically neither diverse nor liberal, however, so if I have to pick one side or the other, it’s easy. However, while the choice between “uniform and repressive” and “diverse and repressive” is indeed easy, neither is my preferred option.

Indeed, if asked to rank “diverse and repressive” and “uniform and liberal”, I would have to say that “uniform and liberal” is better. No matter where your preferences are in relation to wider society, you can at least live according to them in a liberal society, whereas in a diverse and repressive society, you are in trouble if you fall outside the charmed circle of societal approval. A diverse and liberal society is better than both, of course.

The distinction between approval and toleration may not be entirely clear, so let me use homosexual relationships as a concrete example. A society tolerates homosexual relationships if they are legal, and if they are not generally treated as grounds for refusing employment, housing, or services. They are welcomed and approved of if homosexual relationships are portrayed positively in the media, and the law recognises gay marriage. It should be obvious from this why I think a diverse and liberal society is better than a uniform and liberal society; it is clearly much better to be gay in a society that approves of your orientation than in one that simply tolerates it.

This is not to say that diversity and liberalism are easy. Liberalism requires us to tolerate things that do small amounts of damage to other people, on the grounds that the damage is less serious than that inflicted by suppressing the behaviour. However, drawing the line is hard. It is, to me, obvious that we should tolerate comedians who insult, mock, and belittle [insert group name here]. We can disapprove and criticise (remember, that’s what “tolerate” means, as opposed to “welcome”), but we mustn’t try to silence them. On the other hand, if that comedian stands outside a school for children from the target group with a massive sound system every day, that’s much harder. To take a different case, people should certainly be allowed to make the claim that abortion is murder, and strongly criticise anyone who is involved in abortions, but should they be allowed to constantly picket abortion clinics? There has to be a limit, and liberals have always recognised this, but deciding on where the limit has to be is a very hard problem. It is hard to specify the standard by which we should decide, and hard to apply that standard to actual cases. Even worse, the hard cases are common in real life.

Diversity has a very similar problem: drawing the line around the things society approves of. If approving of more things is good, one can always ask why we should stop here, wherever here is. Liberals in the US are typically dismissive of the argument that allowing gay marriage will lead to the acceptance of polygamy and bestiality, but that argument is aimed at this problem. Diversity is good, so we should approve of homosexuality. But then, why shouldn’t we approve of bestiality as well? Diversity is good, right? Indeed, there is a substantial group of people (the poly community) who do think that the next step after allowing gay marriage should be to allow polygamy, because they want legal recognition of their relationships, as well. Should society approve of them? Just as with the line-drawing problem for tolerance, the far extreme is approving of people who rape and murder for fun, so the line really does have to be drawn somewhere, and it is hard to see how to justify drawing it in any particular place.

In a diverse and liberal society, this problem is mainly intellectual. People who get put outside the charmed circle can still pursue their lives as they wish to a great extent and campaign for change if they wish, and society asks them to tolerate the unaccepting attitudes of most people, just as most people tolerate their behaviour. Things are not symmetrical, but they are not obviously inconsistent.

However, in a diverse and repressive society, things are harder. There are people who do not approve of the things that society approves of, and society is demanding that they be tolerant. For example, conservative Christians do not approve of homosexual relationships, and society demands that they be tolerant: that they not treat homosexuality as grounds for discrimination in employment, accommodation, or services. However, society itself is not tolerant. It does attempt to repress the things of which it does not approve, such as homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, or racism. Conservative Christians agree with society on some of these points; most of them think that sexism and racism are wrong and should be suppressed. On the other hand they, quite reasonably, do not see why they should put up with things that they think are wrong when society as a whole refuses to put up with things that it thinks are wrong. The result is likely to be a culture war.

In the context of roleplaying games, this distinction allows me to articulate exactly why I have a problem with the SJWs. They are pushing, energetically, for a diverse and repressive society. They put a lot of energy into increasing the diversity of RPGs, by actively seeking out authors who are not WhiCH American men, and by increasing the range of characters portrayed (positively) in games. On the other hand, they also put a lot of energy into trying to suppress things that they don’t like, such as chainmail bikinis.

I am entirely, 100%, behind the push for increased diversity. I am also entirely, 100%, opposed to the push to suppress certain games and elements in games. I think it is at least as important to stand up against the repressive side of the campaign as to stand up in support of the diverse side. However, the polarising rhetoric doesn’t leave space for four sides in the battle. This is odd, because roleplayers should have the conceptual tools ready to hand; indeed, I have already introduced them.

Diversity is good, uniformity evil. Repression is lawful, liberty chaotic. The SJWs are Lawful Good. They are paladins, the classic social justice warriors. I am Chaotic Good. I am happy to work with paladins, although I will work to channel their energy into promoting good, rather than law. Sometimes, we will get into arguments. And I think that, sometimes, it is very important to distract the paladin.

Posted in Political Philosophy, Roleplaying.


  1. …so the line really does have to be drawn somewhere, and it is hard to see how to justify drawing it in any particular place.

    I actually see a very clear (and fully justifiable, IMO) place to draw the line – “consenting adult humans”. One the right side of that line, I don’t really care what people do with and to each other. On the other side of that line is coercion, rape, bestiality, child molestation, and so on. The only real variable at that point is defining legal adulthood/age of consent, which in the US does vary a bit from state to state but is nowhere lower than 16 and in most states is 18.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Erik.

    I know that one of my examples was of sexual ethics, but this is a much more general problem than that. If we try to use “consenting adult humans” as the line elsewhere, then we have to abandon taxation, close prisons, and close schools, as well as enforcing veganism on everyone and banning hunting. Although cannibalism is fine if the meal is an adult and consents.

    (Taxation is taking money from people without their consent, prisons confine people without their consent, and schools compel children to do things that many of them do not want to do. If having sex with animals is clearly wrong, then killing and eating them is obviously even more so.)

    If we draw the line somewhere else in other cases, we have to justify drawing it here in sexual ethics, and draw the line around sexual ethics. That might sound obvious, but, well: school uniform is not sexual ethics, right? Until shortly before I started there, my secondary school’s swimming uniform was nudity. (While I was there, you typically had to swim naked if you forgot your trunks.) Does compelling children to swim naked fall within sexual ethics, where it is obviously bad, or school discipline, where it is clearly permissible?

    And that’s assuming that the line is clear even in sexual ethics. The age of consent here in Japan is 13. What about people with serious developmental disorders? Legally, they are never treated as adults for many purposes. For consent, how much coercion is necessary to void consent? Is it rape (of the man) if a woman lies about being on the pill? (I have read a serious philosophical article that argued “yes”; any lie about something that could be a deciding factor in agreeing to sex voids consent, according to that philosopher. It is not an unreasonable position; you agree to A, but what you are tricked into doing is B.)

    So, I stand by my original claim: it is hard to justify drawing the line in any particular place.

  3. Hi David,
    Fair enough – my comment was focused specifically on the sexual ethics question… so I’ll continue to roll with that for a minute before stepping out to the broader question. Developmental disability could well be one of the criteria used to determine legal adulthood, for this purpose. And yes, I am well aware that there is a lot of dangerous ground there – I live in the southeastern US, and we are still dealing with the fallout from eugenics and forced sterilization programs in the early to mid 20th century – but that is why, as with anything else governments do, eternal vigilance would be required. Perhaps the answer there is to remove government approval of marriage altogether, and let the laws regarding child welfare, ownership of property, etc. govern in their particular realms?

    As to the rape/birth control question, my gut reaction is that it might be reasonable to categorize it under the broader term “sexual assault”, of which rape is a more narrowly defined sub-category. Consent is still voided, but the cause falls closer to coercion than duress, I think.

    Looking at the bigger picture:If we draw the line somewhere else in other cases, we have to justify drawing it here in sexual ethics, and draw the line around sexual ethics. Are you looking for a single criterion or set of criteria that could be universally used to decide *any* question? Because if so, I question whether that is at all possible, even as a philosophical exercise.

    I’m with you generally on the desirability of diversity – I approve of a whole lot of it, and tolerate a lot more.

  4. Erik, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your criterion, just pointing out that it isn’t always easy to apply, which is why drawing a particular line is difficult. Deciding that people with developmental disabilities should be denied any sort of sex life (not just reproduction, but any sex life at all with other people) is certainly consistent with many of the reasons used to justify forbidding sex with young teenagers, but it is not an easy decision to make.

    Similarly, I agree that different criteria are needed in different areas, but you do need to justify why the criteria are different, and justify using each criterion in its own area. That is also a difficult task.

    Ethics is difficult.

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