Why I do not call myself a liberal

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I believe that words are important. We should be precise in our use of language and understand what it is we mean when we choose our words.

A word that does not, in my opinion, exemplify precision is used in political context. Tis word is “liberal.” It doesn’t mean much these days. It is so particular to each individual’s perspective of the world that it holds little universal value. It is a placeholder for deeper analysis of our beliefs, and it only manages to communicate a vague notion about which group we identify with, not the more nuanced reality of who we are.

I say this not to come off as pretentious but in an attempt to convince others that saying “I’m liberal” provides an image that is unclear and misleading at best and deceitful at worst. This word is contaminated by various perceptions of its meaning. One person might say “I’m liberal” and belong to a labor union. Another person might also identify as “liberal” but scoff at organized labor.

When people call themselves “liberal,” they assign themselves to one group or the other. The opposite in this scheme is typically “conservative,” and this word lacks meaning as well, but for now let’s focus on the word “liberal.” One usually chooses to be “liberal” because of their parents’ or friends’ views but might not take the time to investigate the deeper understanding of this label. What does “liberal” really mean? Do I share the same views as other “liberals”? “Liberal” divides us into in-groups and out-groups. Ultimately, I believe this word confines philosophical and political conversation into two camps and impedes introspection.

Let us explore this word and the philosophy behind it. Classical liberalism refers not to the policies espoused by the Democratic Party, some of which are wider freedoms for same-sex couples and a larger welfare state, but to political and economic freedom. This means a hands-off approach to the economy and to civil liberties. When one thinks of liberalism, one should think of figures like John Locke and Adam Smith. The actions of 20th century “liberals” like Franklin Delano Roosevelt would surely be seen as oppressive overreach by classic liberals. To call oneself a “liberal” today requires believing that the free market requires little to no government intervention. Most people don’t mean that they are classically liberal.

Sure, words sometimes change in meaning. Today, some people use “literally” as an adverb that exaggerates a verb or noun. When used in this way, they mean something is “figurative,” not “literal.” But the word “literally” provides more hyperbole—a stronger, bolder metaphor— than to say “figuratively.” The problem is that one person sees “literally” as meaning “exactly” or “strictly as the word suggests,” but the other sees the word as an intensifier. The problem is that these people are playing different games with language.

This idea of a “language game” was formed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher. He focused on language and communication throughout his life, specifically our failure to communicate. He believed that miscommunication occurs when people are playing different language games. These language games refer to the different ways we use words as tools in our communication with others. For instance, one type of game might involve discussing facts. The sentence “The Gateway Arch is 630 feet tall” deals with a game of facts. “You never listen to what I’m saying” is a sentence that deals not with facts but expresses an emotion. One feels as though the other does not pay them enough attention.

These games are used for different purposes, and when two people are playing different language games and also do not recognize the differences in the games that they are playing, the meaning of the message is lost. When someone describes themselves with the vague adjective “liberal” or “conservative,” there is ambiguity as to what game they are playing and what they really mean when they use one of these words.

I believe that we should describe ourselves accurately and take more time to find out what it is we really believe rather than connecting ourselves with an in-group and an out-group. Today’s version of “liberal,” even if you distinguish between social and the economic issues, is not descriptive enough to convey the complexity of one’s views. Giving a language monopoly to this word sacrifices clarity for simplicity, but this simplicity reduces our meaning too far. Saying “I’m liberal” only causes miscommunication.