Category Archives: Radicalism

Why does the Left like to fight itself so much?

@JonnieMarbles discussed this point on Twitter recently, and got me thinking. I’ve been thinking about it because the Jubilee stewards issue and many of the recent articles about rape culture make me turn-green-and-break-expensive-equipment angry. And I had to meet up with the girlfriend’s family this weekend so I was on best-behaviour notice.

[Tl;dr: The conclusion is just after the bold header lower down if you want to skip to the end]

So I’ve been thinking about this question mostly to stay sane, and to an extent it worked. I’ve just started reading Carne Ross’ The Leaderless Revolution which was published late last year and is hopefully a sign that mainstream thinkers and politicians are beginning to understand the power of Occupy-style liberal socialist movements. Which is a good thing.

But part of Carne’s thesis is that people need to come together en masse for change to happen, and while we’re seeing convincing signs that this kind of bottom-up revolution is beginning to happen (Occupy, the Arab Spring, and UK Uncut spring to mind in an instant), the Left remains fragmented, beset by internecine bickering and infighting. Why, when the right wing seem to vote as a bloc on almost every issue in the US, does the left not unite to fight against bigotry and hate? Why, when civil liberties for all seem so obvious a cause to all of us, are there still people on the left wing arguing that fighting for rights for women, gay people and minorities isn’t worth our time?

My early answer was that people dislike hypocrisy more than the things they oppose ideologically. That sentence might not sound like it makes a lot of sense on the first reading so let me try another way: I have a much bigger problem with a man who claims to fight for the people, who promises to give the downtrodden hope, and who wins a Nobel peace prize going on to send drones out to kill innocent Pakistani civilians than I would if a foreign policy hawk spent 3 years banging on about terrorism before doing the same.

In both cases, the action is identical – innocent people will die for no more reason than a far away country convinced itself it was under threat. But in the former case, you can throw in a personal betrayal as well: we believed in the first guy, however briefly.

And to an extent this is a very human thing. We have heuristics for evaluating ideas and people, and things that affect us often seem more important than things which are far away. It’s why the chickenhawks can sleep at night – they don’t notice the children dying on the other side of the world, but they no how terrified they feel every time they go to an airport and see somebody who might be an Arab.

So it’s possible this is the reason. We are self-policing, hounding out people who betray our principles whilst attempting to win our loyalty and keeping everybody on the straight and narrow through a sort of crowdsourced ‘DCI Internet’. And it sounds plausible, but here’s two reasons why it probably isn’t true:

  1. It makes us all look good, which is a bit self-serving
  2. I thought of it

The third reason is again to do with heuristics in our decision making. Kahnemann work on discovering that there are essentially two kinds of thought processes comes in to play here: Type I is quick, but relies on signals and heuristics, Type II can think more rationally but takes more time. And these two sides find communicating very difficult.

It’s why test audiences don’t improve bad films. Audiences use Type I thinking to decide they don’t like a film, but use Type II thinking to answer the question “What was wrong with it?” The answer they give (“The story was overwrought”, “It was too gory”, “Clive Owen was in it”) will be rational, will make sense, and will even be true but deep down won’t be the real answer.

Johnnie’s answer was less kind to us lefties, but strikes me harder as closer to the truth. We are tribal. We label ourselves and fight with a real sense of in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. Look at what happened in the atheist community after Sam Harris turned out to be a racist cock (google Pharyngula Sam Harris and read some comments at mild criticism of Harris if you want to get an idea of what I’m talking about).

It’s easy to give our team a name, dislike any other group with a slightly differing outlook on how to fight for better rights for all and assume that they’re not following the One Right Way(TM) for the movement as a whole. The Socialist Activist Manifesto is a good example of this. It’s like they decided that anyone who has fun and is a socialist isn’t doing it right:

We cannot realize a socialist society with moral and intellectual weakness; we must be consistent and steadfast.
We cannot realize a socialist society with time-wasting and partying; we must always be serious and dedicated.
We cannot realize a socialist society with romantic ideals and sentiments; we must be practical, pragmatic, and deliberate.

That’s tribalism, pure and simple – “if you’re not one of us, you’re one of them” rings from every single line of their insufferably pompous manifesto. This as a reason for infighting feels like it is why, and while I’m not normally one to follow gut feelings, here it’s appropriate: only my Type I thought process can really work like other people’s Type I processes.

So maybe Jonnie’s right. In fact, he probably is right. Maybe I’m right. It’s likely that both things contribute. But I have a final question:

Why does it matter if we fight?

We’re not on a simple linear left-right scale. Left- and Right-wing are simple labels when mainstream politics has essentially a two party dichotomy but it in no way means that we, the people, need to separate into two diametrically opposed voting blocs like foxes and rabbits.

Why are we not asking why there is such a dearth of free thrinking on the right that we’re still hearing the same refrain for lower taxes from a united voice? Why is everybody dumbly towing the line considered a strength? It may get things done, but it’s a weaker movement for it, more open to extremism fostered on a majority by a vocal minority (abortion rights, anyone?).

On ‘the Left’ we represent a cacaphony of different voices, each pushing for their own struggle. Yes, it means some people will think that they have the Most Important Idea Ever(TM) and that there’s a conspiracy to keep it down by all the people who are banging on about other stuff all the time. But it also means that the traditionally voiceless can get themselves heard. And that we raise issues long before ‘the Right’ ever could.

If anyone wants to disagree with that, I’m well up for hearing it. And I love irony.

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