You’re a Liberal and You Don’t Even Know It

9 July 2024
The Influence of Liberalism in Our Daily Lives
A new book, reviewed by The New York Times and The Washington Post, by University of Sydney Professor Alexandre Lefebvre investigates how liberalism profoundly shapes our values, beliefs, and daily lives. In Liberalism as a Way of Life, he argues that liberalism informs our moral, psychological, and aesthetic outlooks, and can be the basis for a good, fun, and rewarding way of living.

Professor of Politics and Philosophy from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Alexandre Lefebvre argues that liberalism isn't just a political ideology having to do with individual rights, parliaments, and courts. Today it has become so much more. Its values have become the air we breathe and water we swim in, impacting every aspect of our lives from our moral values to our everyday choices.

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “If you ask a religious person where they get their values and moral sensibility from, they’ll have an answer right away: a church, faith, or religious text. No fuss, no muss.”

“But it’s tricky for those of us, like me, without religion—the 40 percent of us in Australia who select ‘no religion’. What can we point to?”

The answer he puts forward is liberalism. Liberalism is an ideology born in the 19th century and its core values, Lefebvre states, are “personal freedom, fairness, tolerance, reciprocity, self-reflection, and irony. In the way that Christianity, for example, has a recognisable package of moral commitments and excellences (such as love, fellowship, charity, and devotion), so does liberalism.”

From television and movies to stand-up comedy and social media, he says liberalism profoundly shapes our cultural landscape:

“Netflix, not civics lessons, is where we imbibe liberalism nowadays.”
Professor Alexandre Lefebvre

He says the influence of liberalism in pop culture is pervasive, whether it be TV (Parks and Recreation and The Good Place), stand-up comedy (Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle – whose humour is all about probing the limits of tolerance and identity), swear words (and how slurs have become our taboo words), or pornography (the mainstream of which trades on toying with the notion of consent).

The Benefits of Liberalism

Professor Lefebvre believes many benefits come from living up to liberal ideals of freedom, fairness, and reciprocity: “I’m not talking about the obvious big social benefits, but rather the personal: the good stuff that you can get and experience in your own life.”

So much so that one chapter of his book is titled, “Seventeen Reasons to be Liberal”: “There is no single reason or feature from this list that is exclusively liberal. But together they make up what I think is a liberal package.”

“It includes impartiality; autonomy; anti-snobbery; playfulness; stalwartness; a feeling of being at home in society; gratitude; self-coherence; avoidance of hypocrisy; humility; unity of the self; gracefulness; delight in others; tolerance; civility; cheer; and redemption.”

So how does one deepen their liberal commitments and start reaping the seventeen benefits?

“The hero of my book is a philosopher named John Rawls, and I interpret many of his famous concepts as practical exercises that we can all do right away to deepen our liberal commitments and outlook.

“The most famous one is something called the original position, which consists of pretending that you don’t know anything about yourself and trying to come up with the fundamental rules that would govern your society.

“The goal is to try to become a little bit more neutral and impartial, a little less gripped by the me-ness of me and not try to work whatever positional advantage we may have over other people.”

By highlighting how liberal principles permeate every facet of our existence, from personal relationships to cultural consumption, Professor Lefebvre encourages us to recognise and embrace the liberal ideals that underpin our society and ourselves.

Sally Quinn

Media Adviser

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