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’
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.