While we can make corrections to “ideal” liberal theory, these corrections are at base additive. They don’t fundamentally restructure the foundation of liberal society — namely the promise of universal and equal protections alongside a systematic impulse to violence in the name of “civilizing” the heathens, or for the purposes of maintaining “law and order.” At base, this is what the killing of Michael Brown, and the ensuing encounters between the police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., have exposed: peace, safety, recognition of one’s humanity, law, order, rights will be doled out — or withheld — only in terms that allow those in authority, those with wealth, to remain comfortable.

–Falguni A. Sheth on racism in liberty.

In first year Law,1 we had a class that was a sort of 101 introduction to the history of western law and politics. One of the things we covered was liberalism, in the “classical liberal” sense. We got introduced to the theory of equality under the law and the whole “all men are created equal” sort of stuff and, being the naive undergrads we were, most of the class thought it all sounded pretty awesome.

And then the lecturer–as stuffy an old white guy law school professor as you’re likely to get–asked us all to think about whether we thought we were “born as equal” to someone coming from a background of extreme poverty.2

His point was that the fundamental assumption of “all men are created equal” is a straight-up lie. The line was imagined by rich educated white men who only considered it applicable to other rich educated white men, because they were the only sort of people considered, well, people. The reality is every individual is born into different life circumstances and some of those life circumstances afford more opportunities and ease-of-access than others. To deny that reality is a fundamentally disingenuous act; one that’s racist, sexist, classist, ableist… pick your intersection, basically. Worse, it’s an act that validates the systemic disenfranchisement of certain groups based on the notion that if they “just tried harder” they, too, could have all the privileges of the SWARM. In other words, it moralises inequality as the result of individual sin rather than the product of oppressive histories. And if inequality is the fault of the “un-equal” then, at best, there’s no impetus for the privileged to do anything about it, and at worst, the impetus is for the privileged to “save” the disenfranchised from themselves.

It’s violence either way; either the violence of neglect or the violence of paternalism.

That was one pretty heavy law 101 tutorial day, but it was nonetheless my first introduction to the notion of putting the *ism in liberalism. It’s also a huge mental hurdle to get over, particularly amongst the educated suburban middle- and upper-classes, because we’re so used to All Men Are Created Equal as being an honourable soundbyte. But it’s one of those things that, once you’ve seen, you can un-see the effects of.

  1. My only year of law school, if you’re wondering. []
  2. It’s worth noting that we had some mature age students in the class who did, in fact, come from some pretty disenfranchised backgrounds. They were quick to put the rest of us middle- and upper-class teens in our place. []