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123. Coming to meet (II)

A long time ago, about two centuries ago to be exact, the word “liberal” was a generic term for open-handedness or generosity. A person might, say, be known in their neighbourhood as: “John, a man who is very liberal with his home-brewed cider; indeed, he is a man who is liberal with his good cheer and advice to all people in the locality.” To be a liberal man suggested that a person was generous—probably wealthy—or at least had certain qualities in excess. A liberal person had such a surplus that they could afford to give away the excess just for the joy of doing so. Indeed, a liberal person was very close to what Nietzsche would have considered to be an aristocratic overman; someone that would help another man, not from phoney moral sentiments or to look good, but because he had so much goodness in his own life that he could afford to give it away—his strength overflowing from a brimming bowl.

A liberal man was, then, pretty much the opposite of another word that has mutated its meaning over time, niggardly—the miser or the man who held back his abundance and counted his coins very carefully. Today, the word “liberal” can only mean a political position. If I said, in Britain, that my neighbour was a “liberal man” it would be assumed I meant that he voted for the Liberal Democrats or read The Guardian. In America, it would be taken to mean that he supported the Democrats or, perhaps worse, was a “shitlib”—a kind of poseur or moraliser. In short, a very useful word has been completely colonised and distorted, so that it now only has a political meaning. This process, in turn, marks a corruption and diminution of the language; it is a perversion of a kind.

It is easy to see why leftists would want to make use of the word for political purposes: to identify yourself as a liberal was, in the past, to cloak your intentions in the language and sentiments of being a noble person. To be a liberal was to be easy-going about the behaviour of others—suggesting a position of strength and nobility in yourself, since the tolerant man can afford to be tolerant because he is secure himself. It also suggested, in an unconscious way, that the liberals would be liberal with money; in this case, they would be liberal with taxpayer money, not their own. So the adoption of the term for political purposes contains an early element of what we today would call a “virtue signal”. The liberal in politics wished to indicate that he was similar to a liberal gentleman or nobleman; but, unlike the individual who was liberal with his own property, the political liberal was liberal with the property of others.

A similar transmutation has taken place in recent times with the word “gay”; and this is something that people, even in my Millennial generation, complain about—a girlfriend of mine once complained that “gay” now only means “homosexual”. The word “gay” used to mean cheerful until relatively recently; in late Victorian slang, it also meant a prostitute or loose woman. As with the perversion of “liberal”, it now only means a politicised form of homosexuality. Does it matter? Yes; because, in the case of “gay”, this retroactively damages large amounts of English literature by perverting the meaning, and it also deprives us of a means to convey an innocent form of cheerfulness. It also destroys concepts, such as Nietzsche’s “gay science”: a term that referred to the French troubadour tradition.

We use words to construct our thought: when words are distorted for manipulative political purposes, as happened with “liberal” and “gay”, part of our mind is annexed and certain types of thought become unthinkable. Lies are at the root of this tendency: the underlying desire is to pervert and steal the valour of the words, to make what is distasteful attractive and vice versa.


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