Since my late 20s I have defined myself, politically speaking, as a classical liberal. This meant that I believe in human rights and freedoms as the cornerstone of human society and any legitimate political authority. I also believed that this liberal vision, if explained well, would appeal to most people unless they are wild-eyed fanatics or ruthless autocrats. Why would people, I thought, dislike a political order where everybody can enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and basically the freedom to live however they want?
I even thought that this liberal utopia was something that humanity was geared towards. I have never been a “Hegelian,” in the sense of believing that history has a pre-determined course and inevitable destination. And I also knew that heralding a liberal “end of history” was a bit too romantic. Yet still I thought that modernization, education, and the rationalizing forces of the market would tilt societies towards liberalism.
Today, I guess, I am wiser. In other words, I am less optimistic. Instead of seeing liberalism as the norm to which most humans can adhere, I increasingly see it as an exception from which most humans are distant. The human reality seems more prone to illiberal values such as conflict, domination, revenge, and even what the Germans call “schadenfreude,” or the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.
I saw this human reality first in Turkey, a country I was very hopeful about until a couple of years ago. For much of the past decade, I subscribed to a naïve dichotomy about Turkey’s human reality. I thought there was an authoritarian political system based on an illiberal ideology, but the downtrodden masses complaining about this system wanted more freedom for everybody. Once the authoritarian political system is subdued, I thought, its victims would establish a more liberal order.
Well, the victims did subdue the old authoritarian system, but it took only a little time for them to begin to establish their own authoritarian system. The liberal language they adopted when they were oppressed by power rapidly devolved into a language of power. Worse, instead of giving an ear to all those who criticized them, including myself, these former “traitors” began to condemn us as the new “traitors.”
All this led me to think that there is something wrong with my country. But the more I followed world affairs, I saw that this is a problem that cuts across all nations, continents and civilizations. It is a problem, in other words, about the human reality.
That is why politicians who preach hate, arrogance and exclusion are becoming more popular across the world, from India
to America, from France to the Netherlands. “The people,” or at least some of them, like the demagogues who stoke their egos and demonize others. A leader can be applauded for basically saying that Syrian refuges can go to hell and his county will not give a damn.
I am not arguing that humans are evil by nature. That would be the other extreme of assuming that they are good by nature. But it is a bitter fact that humans can easily justify injustice and cruelty when they feel insecure. We are not a totally wicked species, but not a terribly admirable one either.
Any viable future liberalism has to reckon with the dark side of human nature more than before. This should start by asking a very simple question: How can we protect humanity from its own built-in nastiness?