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Freedom & Diversity: A Liberal Pentagram for Living Together

Institutions such as political parties, trade unions, schools, universities, and publishers all need to play their part. It is, for example, lamentable that Yale University Press (full disclosure: Yale is my American publisher) decided not to publish an already prepared section of illustrations to the Danish scholar Jytte Klausen’s book about the controversy around the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. As a result, in a careful, scholarly book entitled The Cartoons That Shook the World, the one thing we cannot see is the cartoons that shook the world.

At the moment, facing down violent intimidation is the most important example of this essential liberal firmness, but it is not the only one. Firmness is also required in the face of popular, tabloid-stoked hysteria (“something must be done!”), overt and covert lobbying by rich and powerful interests at home and abroad (from Rupert Murdoch, through all manner of ethnic and faith-based groups, to the authorities of Saudi Arabia and China), and every other pressure to prevent or pervert the consistent application of explicit standards to all members of a multicultural society.


I describe the last side of the pentagram with a word that picks up some old, now half-buried connotations of “liberal.” The meanings of “liberality” include generosity, open-mindedness, and freedom from prejudice. It evokes the strand of liberalism that takes a generous, curious, imaginative interest in other cultures, philosophies, and ways of life. Most brilliantly represented by Isaiah Berlin, this liberal pluralist approach goes beyond the mere affirmation that liberal societies do not require all their citizens to be liberals. It takes seriously the proposition that we can understand, appreciate, and learn from others even while profoundly disagreeing with them. Its qualities are evoked in phrases such as “liberal mind,” “liberal spirit,” and Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination.

Martha Nussbaum eloquently speaks for, and continues, this tradition in her book The New Religious Intolerance. She pleads for the use of our “inner eyes,” for that “curious and sympathetic imagination” that is adept at “recognizing humanity in strange costumes.” Like Trilling, she illustrates this liberal imagination with works of literature—in her case ranging from Lessing’s Nathan the Wise all the way to the children’s books of Marguerite de Angeli. We can’t all be novelists or poets, but some of their imaginative skills are essential if we are to combine the stern, singular legal and political requirements of equal freedom with the baggy, polyphonous reality of social and cultural diversity.

To say “a curious…imagination” implies that you go on to find out a bit more about the others next to whom you are now living. This is essential because, as the writer Devla Murphy has observed, “if you know nothing about a people, you can believe anything.” The Council of Europe now promotes what it usefully calls “intercultural” education and understanding. Yet paper knowledge will be useless without the imagination to inform it. With a little imagination, and with human contact, we soon discover the shared humanity beneath unfamiliar garb and tongue. This is the subject of many a novel and poem, but also, as Zadie Smith recalls, the everyday experience of schoolmates and neighbors engaged in joint activities that have nothing to do with getting to know each other’s cultures: smoking your first cigarette behind the school gym, for example, or campaigning for a new local bus route.

Behind the curtain of alien idiom, we may also find insights that we can recognize as valuable and true. As we have seen, this will not always be the case: sometimes there is ineradicable conflict, requiring only toleration up to the frontier of the liberal essentials, and iron firmness at that frontier. (Violent intimidation of free expression, honor killings, and forced marriages are all-too-actual examples.) But closing ranks in the defense of basic values and human rights does not require, and should not lead, to the closing of minds.

Reflecting on the sometimes hysterical debate about Islam in Europe, in an essay originally entitled “The Dialectics of Secularization,” Jürgen Habermas insists that since fellow citizens should be “taken seriously as modern contemporaries,” so

secular citizens are expected not to exclude a fortiori that they may discover, even in religious utterances, semantic contents and covert intuitions that can be translated and introduced into a secular discourse.

In contemporary Western Europe, this admonition is addressed to a secular, if not an atheist, majority. In the United States, one has to turn this around, addressing the expectation to a religious majority in respect of an atheist minority. But as Habermas himself points out, it is not just a call to the given majority.

As someone whose ancestors have been at home in England for as long as our sketchy family tree stretches back, I do feel a special obligation to reach out, in a spirit analogous to hospitality, to assist those more newly arrived to feel at home in England. But if we take seriously the aspiration to create a “new We,” there has to come a point when those whose families arrived somewhat more recently are as much hosts as I am. To treat them still as guests—let alone as Gastarbeiter—is precisely the illiberal thing to do.

Moreover, while postmigrants remain an overall minority in most Western countries, there are London boroughs in which they already are, and whole English cities in which they soon will be, a majority. So the very distinction between majority and minority will become inadequate. Meanwhile, the “We” and “They” are, with the aid of love and lust, getting ever more gloriously mixed up together.

The demand for liberality therefore extends to the whole of a multicultural society, not just to its current majorities. If the atheist is called upon to allow the possibility of hidden value “even in religious utterances,” the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or fundamentalist Christian is equally called upon to have the imaginative generosity of spirit to understand the values of, say, a homosexual atheist. While liberality cannot be codified in law, let alone delivered by government departments, it is the vital fifth ingredient in combining freedom and diversity.

Having reached the last corner of the pentagram, a disaffected reader may complain, “but here is nothing new; just old, familiar liberal virtues, applied and adapted to the new circumstances of multicultural societies.” Exactly so.

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