The New Anti-Liberals
A Program of Social Equality and Tolerance Has Been Transformed
DECEMBER 01, 2000 by THOMAS F. BERTONNEAU
Americans concerned about the inroads that political correctness continues to make into their lives would do well to look northward to Canada. The intrusive regime of moral reformation according to the left is about ten years more advanced there than it is in the United States. The situation permits us to see our probable future. So stifling indeed has the atmosphere of legal intimidation become in the land of the maple leaf that author A. Alan Borovoy, a lawyer long committed to so-called progressive causes, has found it necessary to challenge the trend. His book, The New Anti-Liberals, describes how, over the last 25 years, the program of advocating “social equality” and tolerance has been transformed into a campaign against those who dissent from mandatory dogma.
True to his roots, Borovoy says that “attacks on liberal values” came historically from “right-wing sources.” Today, however, “a number of new constituencies have begun to attack liberal values.” The book’s table of contents makes it clear who these “new constituencies” are: feminists, racial and ethnic minorities, academics, members of the peace movement, and the federal and provincial governments—roughly the same constellation as south of the 49th parallel. In Borovoy’s analysis, these groups initially pressed their claims legitimately in terms of “equal rights,” but then, having secured their goals, they began pressing for what amount to privileges for themselves and a diminution of rights for others.
Feminism illustrates the way in which “promoters of equality . . . have gone off the deep end.” Canada’s first-generation feminists argued for and gradually achieved genderequality in the law, saw women elected to high public office and selected for the upper echelons of corporate management, and generally succeeded in persuading people that the feminist agenda was simply a manifestation of the broader social trend toward equality and dignity for all people, men and women. As these gains piled up, cracks began to open within the feminist coalition. “Numbers of feminists became increasingly hard-line in their political demands,” Borovoy writes. In a characteristic incident, a well-known Canadian university president who had been outspoken in his support of the feminist agenda found himself stained by an accusation of racism. The accusers were a group of black women who claimed employment discrimination. In another case, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which was closely identified with feminist goals, came under denunciation by prominent feminists for being unduly “male” in its outlook and insufficiently sensitive to “women’s issues.”
Under the guise of further stigmatizing racial bigotry, a coalition of Canadian minorities succeeded in establishing a raft of “anti-hate legislation.” Borovoy argues that such laws far exceed the goal of non-discrimination in the public sector, in protection of which, in any case, a bevy of laws already exists. “Anti-hate laws,” he argues, are in effect infringements of free speech that corrupt the polity by smudging the line between words and deeds. They make hurt feelings, or worse yet the mere claim of hurt feelings, rather than physical tort, the cause for action and lead to a general fear about free expression.
The story of campus speech codes in Canadian colleges and universities parallels that of “anti-hate laws” in the Canadian polity at large. The difference is (as in the United States) that the codes are more fanatical in their stipulations than the laws. Proponents of the codes argue, in Borovoy’s summation, that “there can be no meaningful speech without equality” and that in a society presumed racist, sexist, and so forth, certain groups require extra protection and increased dispensation in order to be equal. The codes will therefore invoke penalties against anyone who might utter anything perceived as demeaning by someone in a designated group.
To show the absurdity of such strictures, Borovoy cites the case of a pro-feminist law professor who assigned half his class the task of defending an anti-pornography law and the other half the task of arguing against it. A number of women who fell into the first category accused the professor of “sexual harassment.” The administration failed to defend the accused; worse, it lectured him that “the way he had divided the assignment . . . could create serious distress for those who had to argue against their own personal opinions.” Thus the sanctity of personal opinion trumps the rigor of how to make an effective forensic argument. “The lesson,” Borovoy writes, “is clear: if you want to avoid having to worry about possible discipline, avoid controversy . . . . That’s quite an outcome for an institution of higher learning to create.”
Perhaps the most alarming chapter of The New Anti-Liberals is the one on “Governments and their Agencies.” Borovoy here documents how deeply the attitudes of anti-liberalism have ensconced themselves in the federal and provincial bureaucracies. The provincial Human Rights Commissions regularly act on complaints as arbitrary and as shoddily motivated as the “sexual harassment” complaint against the pro-feminist law professor. The same commissions impose quotas in hiring and recruitment, and the linguistic authoritarianism in Quebec province is well known.
One could criticize Borovoy for making the assumption that the original welfare-state liberalism was as benign as he says. F. A. Hayek and Eric Voegelin, to name only two, have persuasively argued that the distortions of that liberalism, revealed in a tendency toward totalitarian management of individuals, were present in its inception. It is nevertheless encouraging that some “progressives,” like Borovoy, have been pushed too far and now dare criticize those old allies on the left who formerly enjoyed exemption from judgment.
Thomas Bertonneau is a professor of literature and adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.