This is a topic that has been on my mind for a while. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I am in no way qualified to make determinations about the topics that this post is going to touch on. But this is going to be an overview of what I believe on the matter.
First of the all one of the major hurdles liberal people face when arguing against illiberal ideas is the fact that the people that hold any given illiberal idea are not a homogeneous group. Each individual will hold that idea for a different, personal, reason. I believe this is a fact that is well understood, and I don’t have any useful insight here, so I am going to move on.
My next point needs us to group those holding our hypothetical illiberal idea into two broad groups. The first group is made up of people who know that the idea is illiberal, and don’t care, largely this group don’t see themselves as being potential victims of the illiberal idea, so the tactic for arguing with this group is to show them how the illiberal idea can be turned against them. Again I have no real insight here, and no real solution to arguing with this group, my insight (I think) is that this group is a tiny minority. It is in fact the second group, who do not see the idea as illiberal, that poses the problem, showing them how they could be the victim is either harder, because they cannot see how they would be the victim, or because they do not think the cost to them is a cost not worth paying. It is this second group I wish to discuss further.
So the people I wish to talk about, and the group who I think liberal people struggle hardest to argue against are people who hold an illiberal idea, but do not see it ass illiberal. The obvious question is how this can possibly be, and the answer is depressingly simple. People are often stupid and inconsistent. I don’t say this to lord it above others, I am also often stupid and inconsistent, and knowing this does not make me immune from being stupid and inconsistent in future. A more accurate way to say what I want to say is that people suffer from cognitive dissonance, they are able to hold two contradictory “facts” as absolutely true at the same time. They don’t see themselves as illiberal, they believe that everyone should be free to be themselves, and do as they please, as long as that freedom doesn’t harm others, or encroach on the freedoms of others. And yet they also believe people should not be allowed to be, or do, a “thing” that is obviously of no material effect on others. The problem here, is that to show this person why they are being illiberal it is not enough to show that being illiberal in this way could harm them.
They must have some justification for thinking they are not being illiberal, and so showing how they could be harmed will just result in them accepting that harm as a justified harm. You need to get to the root of what makes them think that the “thing” is not acceptable. This will depend heavily on what the “thing” is. Allow me a particularly tortured example. A white man not liking black men in his neighbourhood, is clearly racist, but they may not believe they are racist, they may consider crime statistics, absent any proper context, and use that to justify their dislike of the black men, or they could latch onto some other “fact” that reinforces their position. Of course the “right” black man would be fine, but those black men are the wrong sort, not because they are black by itself, but because by being black they are more likely to be something else that is undesirable. And so it is, I believe, with most people holding illiberal ideas, they have found a “reason” to justify their position, that fits within a liberal framework.
All we have to do now is show them why they are wrong, not why being illiberal is wrong, but whatever their reasoning is, is wrong. And this is where the work gets hard, because these people will all have different justifications, and so the arguments that work against deliberately illiberal people are directly applicable, but entirely unhelpful here. We need to understand the audience better, to understand what they use to justify their position, and then we must find the facts, in context, that show them to be wrong. And presenting these facts, in context, in a compelling way may not be easy.