Why Cosmopolitanism is the Answer to the Culture War

Editors Notes: This is the second article in a series on Cosmopolitanism (First article here)

The culture war is a fire that consumes everything without any respect for the beliefs and values of others.  It isn’t defined by any particular issues, but rather by the way behavior and emotions interact with each other to create a toxic, collectivist environment around certain disagreements.  The tribal forces stimulated by culture war conflict allow institutions such as social media, news outlets, and politicians to manipulate and distract people from pro-liberty solutions.  The culture war by its very nature is collectivist and directly in conflict with independent thought.    

At the core of culture war conflicts, you will often find groups that have lost touch with nuanced thinking and fallen victim to logical fallacies and groupthink around an issue that allows them to believe themselves superior.  In this kind of echo chamber, emotions like disgust and rage make it easy to dehumanize those who take an opposing position.  A certainty takes hold that it is legitimate to do whatever it takes to deal with “them”.  In this process, even liberty-minded participants can become an authoritarian reflection of that which they hate as they get drawn into the mainstream culture war narrative.

To think as an individual, it becomes necessary to find a way to take a step back. Cosmopolitanism, is the belief in universal human rights that expands the tribe to all humans and soundly rejects the tribal instinct at the core of the culture war. By providing an individualistic path through conflicts that necessarily arise when people come together, cosmopolitanism is the antidote to the collectivist energy that the culture war feeds on.  We understand that walling ourselves away from those we disagree with is not a solution.  Our respect for universal human rights keeps us focused on a peaceful, individualistic path through conflict and helps us accept that defeating others through coercion is no victory.   A cosmopolitan outlook is necessary for any culture war conflict to result in a pro-liberty outcome.

Once a culture war has developed around a particular topic or issue, there are three primary ways the conflict can end.  The first is some sort of division between the various sides of the war.  The second possible outcome is a de-escalation of emotions around the issue, allowing tolerance or compromise.  The final and most dangerous result is when one side gains political or social power over the other and uses force to settle things.  Are any of these outcomes pro-liberty, and if so, under what circumstances?  

When deep emotional tensions arise around an issue, separation or division can be a natural way to allow each group to go their own way and avoid escalation.  If the state reduced its power in order to allow choice within a free market rather than forced unity, this would be a pro-liberty outcome. A division of a state into smaller units, where state power isn’t reduced, but rather divided between tribes that can force their own way on the issue may reduce conflict, but it is not an outcome that advances individual liberty.  Down the path of division lies the potential for increasingly smaller culture wars that will draw lines between smaller and smaller tribes until no human cooperation is possible.  A cosmopolitan outlook, with its focus on individual rights, helps us find ways to resolve differences by understanding that in the absence of the state limiting or forcing choice, tribal separation is not necessary to coexist. 

Deescalation of tensions is a peace-based solution that is often neither pro nor anti-liberty in the culture war. Tolerance and compromise between groups are likely to reduce the urge by both sides to use state force to resolve their dispute.  Sometimes avoiding a statist, anti-liberty outcome is the best that can be hoped for. However, de-escalation of tensions may become anti-liberty if it requires ignoring violations of individual rights.  A cosmopolitan tolerance for wide-ranging ideologies allows conflicts and disagreements to remain peaceful and pluralism to thrive, while still standing firm against those seeking to actively deny human rights through force. We must have confidence that in the free marketplace of ideas, well-articulated pro-liberty arguments will win out over those cloaked in fear, tribalism, and a desire for power.  

As Ludwig von Mises said, “For what impels liberalism to demand and accord toleration is not consideration for the content of the doctrine to be tolerated, but the knowledge that only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.” 

The final outcome of a culture war conflict comes when a simple disagreement has been magnified into a life-or-death struggle, where any action can be justified to gain power. Peaceful acts advocating for individual rights using the legal system, boycotts, strikes, or protests while avoiding tribalism are almost certainly pro-liberty. However, any initiation of force to achieve political or social change can not be pro-liberty.  This is especially true if state force is used to violate individual or property rights, even if done in the name of freedom.  There will be groups whose beliefs are not compatible with freedom and it is only natural for those who love liberty to be tempted to dehumanize or even consider an initiation of defensive force against them.  However, seeking power over these anti-liberty groups only turns us into an authoritarian reflection of that which we are fighting.   A cosmopolitan understands that fighting over which side of a culture war should “win” and have power will only lead to more authoritarianism, not peace or freedom.

In each of these culture war outcomes, the cosmopolitan approach will result in a pro-liberty outcome.  Freedom lovers must understand that the only path to greater liberty is by avoiding tribal emotions.  The othering and dehumanization the culture war demands have no place in a free world.  Liberty can not be found through culture war narratives dictated by the collectivist thinking of those who seek to control us.  A cosmopolitan thinker understands that when faced with conflict, only by advancing choice tolerance, and refusing to initiate force to resolve differences can we move towards a world set free in our lifetime. 

This piece solely expresses the opinions of the author, and not necessarily the Classical Liberal Caucus as a whole.

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