I would both consider myself something of a leftist and a liberal. The two terms are not interchangeable as there are leftists who decry liberalism, and liberals who identify with the political right. An example of the former would be a left wing Catholic like Pope Francis who sees liberalism as something of a failed experiment in unfettered individualism. While an example of the latter is easily identified by the ubiquitous attitude of the person cares much for the equal freedom of people and the flourishing of the market but sees no role for the state in regulating culture and morality; this is the person who is “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” The Economist magazine may be the most obvious example of this kind of outlook.
I give this autobiographical note not because I think it is important to express my political identity, but to position myself as more of an internal critic of certain trends in left wing politics that I find troubling and problematic. From my perspective, left wing political discourse in the last ten years has at once been too moralistic and too opaque and removed from the concrete understandings of ordinary people. In what follows I will explain the rationale behind these judgments and the negative effects of the political left’s dominant modes of rhetoric.
It should be noted that none of this is too suggest that right wing discourse has been more enlightened than left wing discourse and is without flaw. Instead I am just focusing on what I see as the shortcomings of the rhetoric of the political left. Ironically, being of the left makes me somewhat more critical of left wing political discourses, because I expect more from it than I do from the right.
To begin I find the discourse of left wing politics too academic because of its failure to explain its ideas to those that are not already part of the activist community. This failure to explain its idea is made most evident by invocations of racism and sexism without context or explanation. Racism and sexism have very particular meanings when they are invoked in left wing political discourse, but this meaning is quite distinct from the everyday meaning of the term that most citizens of post-industrial liberal democracies hear when the terms are invoked.
Most ordinary people think of sexism as explicit discrimination against people based on sex or race, or a personal attitude that claims that people belonging to a certain group are inherently less than those of other groups. However, typically in left wing discourse these terms refer to forms of oppression that systemically disadvantage women and non-whites. These forms of oppression are not simply based on intentional acts or negative attitudes, but on unconscious prejudices, the cultural association of value with norms of masculinity and whiteness and the historical residue of previous attempts to intentionally disadvantage these groups. A clear example of this invocation of systemic sexism occurs when activists raise the point that that American society pays women approximately 70 cents for every dollar men make constitutes a form of sexism in itself. What has lead to this inequality is often unexplained by activists, instead the point is brought up as if it speaks for itself. This makes it very easy for people to rightly point that the stat itself is a bit misleading. While men working in the same job as women typically make more than women, this stat does not compare the pay of men and those who are women in the same professions, but rather men and women as a whole. In this case, what accounts for the stark difference are not just inequalities in pay in the same profession, but also that work that is associated with women, and where women constitute the majority tend to be paid significantly less than professions associated with men. Now, this stat gestures towards the insightful point that “masculine” professions are more highly valued than “feminine” professions, but this stat is rarely brought up with this additional context and explanation. Instead, the stat becomes a talking point whose meaning should be evident and transparent to all. In which case, it is hardly surprising that when people hear the stat and are told that it reveals the inherent sexism of our society that they automatically get defensive and think that they are being told they themselves have sexist attitudes. This does not logically follow from the use of this stat without explanation, but it is a common and deeply understandable psychological response based on the audience’s understanding of sexism.
To explain further, when the term sexism is thrown at someone without an explanation of the concept of sexism being invoked people are going to default to their own understanding of what it means to be sexist. Consequently, given that most people understand sexism as a personal attitude rather than a systemic concept of oppression, they are not going to be convinced when they are told that our society is inherently sexist, as they do not think less of people based on their sex or gender, and know few people who think less of people based on their sex or gender. Furthermore, they are likely to see the invocation of sexism as a hyperbolic personal attack. While this is only one example of a miscommunication occurring between activists on the left and others that are not part of that community, I think it is plausible to posit that this form of communication has become far more common due to the changing nature of media. This change will be adumbrated below.
I think it is fair to say that over the course of twentieth century forms of media have gradually begin to focus more on soundbites, talking points and slogans as opposed to lengthy arguments. Our political dialogue must be digestible in small chunks because we do not have the time to focus our attention on a complex issue amongst the business of contemporary. I refer to this change in media as the soundbitification of media. While it would take an entire book or more to document the nature of this change and its causes, the prima facie experiential evidence for this change is made quite clear when we consider two aspects of our political discourse: social media and televised political punditry.
In the case of social media, Twitter is particularly illuminating. Due to the inherent character limits on Twitter, political talk on Twitter tends to revolve around cheerleading for a cause, insults and sloganeering rather than the exchange of ideas. I cannot make a good argument about why I like the idea of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) in 140 characters, but I can create a tweet that others sympathetic to this policy will spread. Furthermore, while Facebook posts have no inherent character limit the norms of usage surrounding this platform mean that political talk on Facebook is more about garnering “likes” as opposed to the exchange of ideas. Once again political talk does not focus on exchanging ideas but on signaling one’s allegiance and rallying for the cause. In this soundbitified media context we are likely to hear a lot about rape culture and white supremacy in the public sphere, but little about what these concepts actually mean.
Televised political punditry more obviously encourages sloganeering, as pundits are given just 30 seconds, if they are lucky, to explain their perspective on a complex issue. The result is obviously that issues are dumbed down and that there are few genuine exchanges of ideas. Instead people are more worried about shutting down their opponents and identifying themselves as authentic fighters for their particular political cause.
It should be emphasized that activists don’t just engage in soundbites to get media attention, although that is certainly one reason for it. Instead, the forms of communication through which social activism occurs, and is organized, such as social media and street protest encourage a heavily sloganized and soundbite oriented politics. In this context politics becomes a very tribal activity where though my clever use of buzzwords and slogans I signal to others that I am one of the true believers fighting for good, against the evils of the world. Explaining my points to people who disagrees and persuading them is not the point. Winning the war is. And it is in this aspect of our modes of political communication that we also see why left wing discourse has not just become opaque to those outside of the group, but also excessively moralistic.
Moralism as a concept may seem to refer to someone concerned with morals, in which case those of us who care about ethics would rightly praise moralism. But on my understanding moralism is a mode of thought that condemns actions, individuals or agencies by expressing indignation towards anything that does not agree with them, as uncompromisingly evil. In this sense moralism is linked to fanaticism and zealotry. For moralists there is only the light and the darkness. Capitalist moralists cannot see anything in socialism that is redeeming, and likewise socialist moralists can only see capitalism as a Satanic presence. As a result socialist moralists are peculiarly theoretically opposed to Marxists who recognize capitalism’s failings, but also see the gains it has made over feudal and explicitly aristocratic modes of social and economic organization.
Now, in what sense is left wing discourse moralistic? It is moralistic precisely because its modes of communication are meant to signal virtue and that one is a righteous warrior, but it is also moralistic because of the way that it denigrates aspects of the culture without thinking about how this denigration will be seen by those outside of the activist community. For this latter aspect let us look at a contemporary example. This example is the characterization of corporations and banks in popular activist left wing discourse. This characterizations sees corporations as an insipid evil with leaders that only care about profit. It is important here that the critique is not that these groups have illegitimate power and therefore are at risk of increasing inequality and injustice. Instead, the critique is that bankers, CEOs and shareholders are greedy, mean and unfeeling and put profits before people. Our economy is critiqued not for being unjust or unfair, but rather for being without compassion. While there is some merit to this critique of the character of the powerful it will be seen by many as mere resentful moralism for good reason.
The public mores of our society put a very large weight on the importance of economic success to a fully successful life. Our culture admires those who are successful in private industry because we do not see pursuing self-interest ambitiously as a vice; rather we see it as in some sense admirable and integral to the freedom and prosperity of our society, but at the same time as something that can be taken too far and destroy other valuable elements of life such as friendship, family and romantic love. This belief in the value of career ambition may be mistaken, and I think the value of it is at the very least deeply overstated, but it is a significant aspect of our culture. Therefore, many ordinary people who are not deeply committed to an ideology will tend to see people criticizing successful business people as resentful individuals who just weren’t able to be successful in their own lives, and therefore need to knock the powerful down a few pegs. And even those who do not have this strong of a reaction may find the characterization unfair as they have likely worked in a private industry and known business owners who seemed to be kind, admirable people. Therefore, the characterization will strike them as simply untrue and overtly judgmental and narrow-minded. While their boss may have pursued profit they are not the moral monster that a particular kind of activist is depicting. As a result many of those outside the activist community will have missed the valid point that activists are gesturing towards. This point is that our economy should not be structured just to generate growth, but instead should be structured to ensure equitable outcomes and a decent life for all, and the current role of corporations prevents the creation of this kind of economy.
The key forward for left wing discourse is to get away from simply communicating to organize the faithful and moving to genuinely persuading others. This require us to actually think about why we believe what we do, rather than communicating in ways that assumes that we all already agree and have the same understanding of what is wrong with our society.