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Past present: Liberalism misunderstood

April 28, 2013

The French Revolution not only changed the social and political structure of the society, it also produced new ideas and thoughts which contributed in changing the intellectual mindset.

In the French national assembly, those who sat on the right were known as conservatives while on the left were radicals. The terms right and left still indicate the political view of parties and individuals.

Besides conservative and radical ideas, a third school of thought emerged which was known as liberalism.

Those who had liberal views differed from both conservatives and revolutionaries. Not in favour of a revolution, they believed that institutions impeding progress should be abolished. They wished to connect with the past yet pursue progress.

They believed in the fundamental rights of society and were also in favour of individual liberty in order to allow creativity to flourish without hindrance.

Liberal ideology was promoted in England by the utilitarian movement, the motive of which was to change the society by introducing political and social reforms through an environment conducive to progressive change. The utilitarians wanted to eliminate traditions and to replace redundant institutions with new ones. They emphasised on legal reforms to discipline society.

In France, liberalism emerged after the restoration of monarchy but the approach of the liberals differed as they were not totally against kingship, but preferred a constitutional kingship to absolute monarchy.

Another major change brought by liberalism was the emphasis on women’s emancipation. Recognising the woman’s role in society, they demanded equal rights for women which eventually led to the feminist movement in Europe.

Liberalism further consolidated when John Stuart Mill in his book Liberty presented the idea philosophically, pointing out its positive role in society.

In his opinion there are two types of tyranny in society. The first being tyranny of the state and its institutions which impede the creativity of individuals by promulgation of laws that disallow criticism or condemnation of institutions and traditions. As a result, the intellectual growth of a society is hampered as writers and artists are expected to express their views based on a state-sponsored ideology.

The second type of tyranny is the tyranny of majority. In this case, the majority of society dominates and does not allow anybody to deviate. It controls by terrorising individuals to neither speak, nor write freely.

Mill believed that unless people are freed from tyranny, they will remain unable to express their views freely and to play a positive role in the progress of a society or nation.

Since tyranny is ruthless and harsh, the ingenuity of an individual is crushed, thereby reducing the individual to a passive and obedient part of the tyrannical system.

State controlled education inculcates its doctrine through a certain curriculum and does not allow the young and enquiring mind to challenge the existing system.

In our society, liberalism is treated negatively and scorned at by traditionalists. For example, a liberal is perceived to be someone who violates social and cultural norms and traditions. They are usually considered rebels who threaten conservative circles by challenging existing traditions.

In Pakistan, liberal ideas confront state tyranny as well as tyranny of the majority which hampers creativity and enlightment. There are social restrictions on poets, writers, social scientists, artists, musicians and dancers.

It is tragic how in our society, tyranny of the majority is more powerful than state tyranny. One can fight the state and its laws but it is difficult to struggle against the opinion of the majority and its ideology which is based on emotion and passion. To silence the dissidents, the majority uses terror and fear as key instruments. Tyranny of the majority is more damaging to society as it does not tolerate criticism. As a result, our society is backward, isolated from the rest of the world and far behind time.