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.


  1. I remember years ago in an interview with film director Lindsay Anderson, the interviewer was surprised that Anderson, despite being firmly on the Left, was a Telegraph reader. "At least I'm not expected to agree with this!" Anderson replied. I find myself feeling much the same these days. I, too, would describe myself as being on the Left, and it is for this specific reason that Left-wing idiocy - of the kind you highlight - annoys me so much more than what I read from the Right.

    And perhaps it becomes too easy to turn one's wrath on the Imbecilic Left, and give the Imbecilic Right (for that exists also) a free ride. for instance, one's faith in the essential goodness and nobility of human nature rarely survives the reading of the below-the-line comments of Rod Liddle's Spectator posts. (Or, for that matter, Rod Liddle's Spectator posts.) And yes, it is true that there are many on the Left who give their support to vile tyrannies, but I'm damned if I take lectures on this from people who bent over backwards to support Pinochet.

    I am not sure whether 'twas ever thus, or whether I have just grown up. Identity politics are certainly a major feature nowadays, and they most certainly weren't when my political outlook was first moulded (back in the 70s and 80s). Back in my day, anti-racists fought *against* segregation: nowadays, we have this:

    I really don't know what's gone wrong, or why, but something has. It really didn't, I'm sure, use to be this bad.

    I look forward to your subsequent posts on this matter.

  2. Yes, it's a tricky thing – it certainly struck me that much of the criticism that I make of the modern left could equally be made of the modern right, but I probably don't adequately address this in the series of posts. A quick look at the web reveals that a depressingly huge proportion of *all* online political discussion is bloody awful – maybe really that's the problem I should be addressing (actually, I am working on a project regarding this - watch this space, hopefully).

    All that said, I think it's justified to hold the left to a higher standard – it makes more ambitious moral claims than the right and, frankly, no one ever expected much of the right anyway. I agree entirely that the focus on identity politics feels disproportionate - my feeling is that this is something that distinguishes the modern left from previous generations, but it's not something I could say for certain. The Goldsmiths thing, for instance, is just bananas.