Thursday, 30 April 2015

Decline of the left, part 2: Timidity

The first post in this series asked why some on the modern left behave as badly, and as bigotedly, as those they oppose.

The problem in part comes down to justification – specifically, a misplaced, ideologically driven sense of over-justification. The ‘privileged’ are fair game for name-calling because they are on the wrong side of what is presumed (self-servingly and almost certainly wrongly) to be a moral divide. On the one side of it is the modern leftist and blessed justification, and on the other the damnable privileged. 

This tendency towards self-serving schismatism can be seen in the way the largely technocratic difference between UK political parties is overstated, absurdly, as a moral gulf. (The narcissism of small differences.) The motivation behind this hyperbole, I suggest, is the desire to man long dismantled barricades, to repeat the slogans of the previous generation (‘Tory scum!’), and thus to borrow its certainties and anathemas. After all, if you exaggerate political issues to the point they become a moral schism you can, by putting yourself on the correct side of it, point to yourself as a morally justified crusader.

So this hyperbolical, and rather self-serving, moral distinction seems to be the cause of the inflated sense of justification, which in turn justifies the prejudiced unpleasantness – the modern left are fighting the good fight!

The fallacy that political landscapes endure leads in other curious ways to an excessive sense of self-vindication. I came to political consciousness in the early to mid-nineties, when the sleaziness and nastiness of the Conservative party was axiomatic, and largely in evidence. I’m not minded to make any claims on their behalf, but I don’t think the Conservative party of today is quite the same – British politics being what it is, no political party has remained the same over any twenty-year period. While accepting the fluidity of political parties over time is part of being a grown up, no one seems to have told the modern left, for whom centrist ‘wets’ Cameron and Osborne are, laughably, baby-eating Thatcherites.


Having clung far too long to the rule of thumb that Tories are nasty and lefties are nice, niceness and nastiness have become integral to the modern leftist’s definitions of left and right-wing politics respectively: to be right-wing is to be by definition nasty, to be left-wing by definition nice. They have made an ontological error – a whopping big one. 

What do I mean by this? Consider – the modern leftie might entertain misgivings that his name-calling, love of denunciation, prejudice etc. are actually a bit nasty, but if they are then he is in contradiction, because as a leftie he is by definition nice and not nasty. Now he knows he is a leftie because he calls himself one – that hasn't changed – and he knows too that if he is a leftie then he is nice. So how can the nasty behaviour fit in to this without contradiction? A solution to the contradiction follows irresistibly: by a process of elimination, it must be the case that his actions are in fact not nasty after all, and that therefore it is acceptable to name-call, to denounce, and to entertain prejudices. Not just acceptable, in fact – nice. Hence, I suggest, the perceived justness of all this increasingly rancid behaviour.

The modern leftie is thus rather like James Hogg’s Calvinist sinner, who is sure that, because he is justified by predestined grace, he can never be said to do wrong, despite his terrible crimes. The problem with using any such definition as a starting point is that it makes the moral value of one’s actual actions irrelevant.

Such absurdity follows on only naturally from what was an absurd premise to begin – i.e. that to be left-wing is necessarily to be nice. The motive behind the modern left's adoption of this stance, unassailable and reality-proof in its absurdity, is, I argue next, a deep and abiding insecurity about how the left should argue its case.

Timidity and the desire for ‘safety’

The fact that sexism and racism and homophobia are serious problems is exactly the reason why they shouldn't be countered by mere assumption and prejudice, by slap-happy accusation: the greater the ease with which we lay a charge against someone, the less seriously we take it. How’s this for a rule?
Be as careful and conscientious in making accusations of sexism and racism and homophobia, as you are in avoiding incurring them.
While this might or might not be a good rule (I think it is) it is certainly a simple rule – the modern left’s inability to formulate or grasp it is a fair measure of the utter state it is in right now. It is the morality of someone who gives fair credit to the good in himself, and tirelessly denounces the bad in others. Which is to say, the morality of a child.

Put simply the modern left, deep down, doesn’t believe in itself. A sure sign of the collapse of the left’s stature and self-belief is its unending preoccupation with the Daily Mail. To be ungenerous a moment, one might say that it is fitting as the Guardian and the Mail are increasingly on a par. Though still – can Guardianistas not see the irony of falling in love with the sound of their own shrill indignation regarding the perma-indignant, ever-shrill Mail? (see this excellent article). I agree with James Bartholomew that if the emphasis were on counter-arguing Mail headlines, or on taking them to task, then all well and good – but overwhelmingly the approach to the Mail is to use it as a moral orientation point, an identifier of the moral virtue that the left, contrarily, imagines itself to possess: show your left credentials, denounce the Mail

The Daily Mail is tawdry and intolerant – we know this. But a quality newspaper should not take a tabloid as its counterpart. The Economist does not fill its pages picking apart the arguments of the Socialist Workers Party – it has a justified self-belief that it is better than that, that it can pick on those its own size. That many modern leftists don’t have this self-belief is telling.

At the party political level, for around 30 years the left has increasingly failed to convince the British electorate of its arguments. Are we witnessing the death throes of a dying ideology, an insecure, punchy, aggro response to the perceived hostility and estrangement of fellow citizens, leading to an increasing exclusion from the mainstream of political debate? Indeed, is this a reason why the university campus (especially in America) has increasingly become a bastion for the most rebarbative and intolerant forms of leftism – a retreat to the embattled but secure space of the quad and the ivory tower? I wrote in previous posts about the curious complacency of opponents of the British monarchy and their seeming reluctance to make their case (which assuredly the royal family are doing with every baby, every photo op, every ribbon cut – see here and here). The same shying away from argument was seen during the Snowden affair – after the two largest leaks of confidential material in history, the intelligence chiefs came out fighting (see here, here, and here), and yet in defending its campaign and its two enormous scoops the Guardian was seemingly unable to argue its way out of a wet paper bag

I wonder too if the tendency towards making prejudiced arguments while claiming to attack the prejudiced is also the result of a certain introversion: even though the modern leftist frequently makes arguments as bad and unpleasant as the bigot’s, she can always rescue herself from that comparison because of a belief in her distinctly good intentions. Even if her public arguments, out there in the world, suggest otherwise, in the safe, private, cocooned world of her own intentions, the leftie can assure herself of her virtue.

In its strongest form, this strange morality, which is certain of itself yet which shies away from challenge, can be pernicious. See, for instance, the website Racists Getting Fired (and the BBC report on it here). The blogger scours Twitter looking for evidence of racist behaviour, and when s/he finds it, reports it to the offender’s employer with the aim of getting them fired. There is a lot that is obviously distasteful here – the self-appointed moral supremacism taken to the point of vigilantism; that squalid love of denunciation – but I accept that this could be justified in some instances (an obviously racist judge, say). Most worrying, however, is that upon encountering a racist on social media, the instinct is not to use Twitter’s open forum to challenge the racist, debate him, show the poverty of his arguments, but rather to seek straightaway private vindication and punishment. I can only think that this bizarre and inappropriate use of a public forum is motivated by a deep discomfort with the uncertainty and exposedness of reasoned debate.

When it is felt there is no middle ground worth fighting for, and no possibility of persuasion, then political discourse degenerates into culture war: that sorry state of affairs whereby debate comes to consist of two parties both trying to be more bigoted than the other. Certainly this has happened in the United States, where this sense of the term ‘culture war’ originated, and whose campus culture is a particular hub of the shrill-yet-retiring left. The intellectual timidity and aversion to challenge this culture fosters is increasingly attracting concern (as here and here) and I hope this is the beginning of a wider assault. Brendan O’Neill in the UK is also taking a stand. 

There is a vicious circle here – and it really is vicious. The more the left-winger assures himself of his lofty moral position by condemning and denouncing, the more diluted and the more abused his own terms become, and thus the weaker his moral position becomes. All the more motivation, then, to continue making even more accusations, in an attempt to regain a position of strength. And so ad infinitum.

Pretty much the rest of this series will pursue the line I have attempted to develop above: that the modern left's severity, intolerance, and moral supremacism are all symptoms of, and covers for, a deep underlying insecurity about how to ground moral arguments. The modern left has lost its way terribly, it knows it and it fears it.

Read the next part of my argument here.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Decline of the modern left. Part 1

Modern left-wing arguments are all too often bad: they are weak, and they are bad-tempered. Why is this? Why are so many left-wing people making such poor, self-defeating arguments despite being overwhelmingly intelligent and well educated? And why, furthermore, with such rancour that the once reliable notion of the ‘nice’ left and ‘nasty’ right is increasingly obsolete? 

By ‘modern left’ I mean a specific and easily recognizable contingent found among the commentariat and on social media. It has a particular interest in identity politics, and a strong suit in slap-happy denunciation. I am talking about what might, ungenerously, be called the shrill left: Owen Jones (‘the Peter Hitchens of the left’, in the astoundingly true words of Nick Cohen), Zoe Williams, Laurie Penny, and colleagues of theirs who write for the Guardian, New Statesman, Jezebel, Huffington Post, etc. I remain a supporter of what I call the reasonable left: the aforementioned Nick Cohen, John Harris, James Bloodworth, the formidable Peter Tatchell, David Aaronovitch, Mary Beard, Lisa Jardine, Camille Paglia.

Two premises

First off, two premises that will apply to everything that follows.

  • No good cause can be well served by a bad argument. Why not? Because any cause requires common purpose between oneself and others. To pursue common cause arbitrarily (‘it’s a good cause, and that’s all you need to know’) or coercively (‘pursue this good cause or I hurt you’) would offend our dignity as reasoning human beings acting according to our individual consciences. So any cause pursued by arbitrary say-so or coercion would cease to be a good cause. A truly good cause must therefore be communicable and shareable, and for this we need arguments that demonstrate the goodness of the cause clearly, rationally, and convincingly; that way, other reasonable people could agree that the cause is indeed a good one. 
  • No society can call itself decent that makes difference of identity alone, or group belonging alone, the grounds for legal, political, cultural, social, or economic inequalities. If we can assume that we all feel ourselves to be as human as everyone else, and that we are (with the exception of those who are unwell or impaired) reasoning human beings acting according to individual conscience, then any laws, policies, social conventions etc. that make us less than that, by reducing us to a group label, must be an affront to our basic dignity, and must therefore be bad.

Obviously, the first premise applies to the second: we cannot promote the cause of an equal, non-discriminatory, non-sexist, non-racist society unless we can defend it with arguments that satisfy the standards of reasonableness and clarity held by our fellow citizens. 

Why, then, is the modern left so very bad at this?

Test case no. 1: Privilege

No attack on the modern left could go without a mention of ‘privilege’. Here’s Laurie Penny writing on it in the Guardian. ‘Check your privilege’ is used to notify a privileged person that the argument they are making is or might be a thoughtless product of their background – they should check their privilege and think again.

But doesn’t it also mean: ‘whatever the sincerity or possible trueness of what you say, and whatever you think as an individual, certain motives and beliefs are always imputable to you because of what you are – so watch out.’ Or rather 'you would say that, wouldn't you?'

Apart from the obvious and deep unpleasantness of this, it is clearly contradictory – it encourages exactly the sort of objectifying, dehumanizing, reductive thinking that Penny claims to be fighting against, reducing a speaker to an inhuman category (female/male, working-class/posh, gay/straight, black/white, disabled/able-bodied) and thereby offending their human dignity. After all, what if the privileged person isn’t an automaton programmed by his or her background – what if they are speaking as an individual, speaking reflectively after much thought, or expressing an opinion which they have arrived at following a very particular experience or train of thought?

It strikes me also as woefully under-examined – I don’t particularly feel that by being white or by being male and able-bodied I have automatically committed myself, or been committed, to any moral positions. The corollary of this would be that our moral stances are not the result of a process of reasoning or thought, but of acculturation and reflex. I find this a dangerous possibility – morals arrived at through reasoning are probably the best sort – though modern leftists such as Laurie Penny should be praised for their consistency here, for their moral stances are indeed arrived at reflexively, and without any reasoning or thought.

Just look, for instance at this poor sap apologizing to Guardian readers because his parents sent him to Eton. One motive behind this form of prejudice I can understand: prejudice against the rich, say, isn’t as bad as prejudice against the poor because the rich can take it – to prejudge them does less damage, it doesn’t enforce any existing social stigma or disadvantage, so let them have it. 

Unfortunately, however, this doesn’t address the issue of why prejudice is bad as an idea, why it is bad thinking; instead it focuses on the particulars of who and when. It is wrong, and surely shallow, to say that what makes prejudice bad isn't some inherent factor, rather it’s in its misuse or misapplication. Prejudice – it's only wrong if you’re not doing it right, apparently

The truth is that prejudice is intrinsically, necessarily a bad thing and not just bad contingent upon particular instances or uses of it; and it is an intrinsically bad thing for largely epistemological reasons: we are never so well-informed that we can dismiss the arguments of others as unthinking reflexes without assessing them first as arguments. Privilege checkers presuppose that, on the balance of probabilities, they don’t need to give someone’s argument a fair hearing or take it on its own terms – but in truth, they have no grounds for knowing the worth of an argument before it has been made. Have we ever been in such a fine and comfortable position that we could afford close-mindedness? Is it not much more rational, much more beneficial to our lives and our wisdom, to give the benefit of the doubt, to assume that we are not in a position to assess the value and usefulness of a contribution until it has been explained to us?

Penny believes that her ideologically based judgement of someone’s background tells her what she needs to know about what that person is saying. We all know, I think, that this is bigoted lunacy: despite his or her privilege, that privileged person is still the best source of information we have for what he or she is saying.

If, as per premise two above, we agree that it is bad to judge people as less than thoughtful, reflective persons solely on the basis of group belonging, then asking people to ‘check their privilege’ is an offence to a basic dignity that is not justified by any particular exceptional or attenuating circumstance. It repeats exactly the same mistake as that made by the racist, on the erroneous assumption that the modern leftist’s mistake at least has good intentions and impeccable ideological credentials. Unfortunately, this makes no difference whatsoever. If prejudice was a bad idea to start with, indeed got us into the mess that the left wing seeks to remedy, what has changed such that it is a good idea this time round?

The unpleasantness of the modern left

This ill-advised embrace of prejudice is one reason why the modern left has become so unpleasant: the hostility to difference of opinion, the shouting down, the love of denunciation, the politics of dirty words (‘Tory’, ‘neo-liberal’, whatever that means) – are not these all the inevitable, predictable results of prejudice and close-mindedness? Someone who is certain that their ideology justifies the belittling of their opponents as mere unthinking ‘types’ will probably be, either as a cause or a consequence, unpleasant. We shouldn’t expect anything else.

I think people know what I mean when I talk about this unpleasantness. But in case you haven’t, have a look at the reaction to Jeremy Paxman’s outing as a one-nation Tory (here – many of the commenters seem to mistakenly think one nation Tories are concerned with the Union, rather than social justice), or the bile directed at Helena Bonham Carter after it was revealed that she is friends with David Cameron (the bitch! how dare she!) , or the unspeakably dispiriting spectacle of Guardianistas having a pop at D-Day because it’s all just so reactionary, right?.

Or if we are to get all empirical, a Google search for (profanity follows, forgive me) 
“labour | socialist | democrat  | democratic | leftwing scum | scumbag | scumbags | filth | cunt | cunts | arsehole | arseholes | asshole | assholes” OR “left wing scum | scumbag | scumbags | filth | cunt | cunts | arsehole | arseholes | asshole | assholes” 
gives 52,900 Google hits (2,280 hits on Google Books); whereas a search on
“tory | conservative | republican | rightwing scum | scumbag | scumbags | filth | cunt | cunts | arsehole | arseholes | asshole | assholes” OR "right wing scum | scumbag | scumbags | filth | cunt | cunts | arsehole | arseholes | asshole | assholes"
gives a whopping 150,000 hits (3,780 on Google books). 

Conclusive? Hell no. But absolutely illustrative. So let’s add another reason why prejudice is intrinsically and necessarily a bad idea: it demonstrably coarsens those who practise it.

I accept that democratic politics must be adversarial, and that inane consensus would be fatal. But we must also look to our most highly educated to shape the debate for the common good, and to help us arrive at the best grounds for political disagreement. This is not happening.

Read the next part of my argument here.