The Fight of the Left and Right
An essential battle that’s becoming uglier every day
I grew up about as liberal as any kid can. Liberalism represented all that was bright and hopeful about the world: everyone is born the same, every one helps each other, big corporations are bad, globalization is the future, Obama good, Romney evil. Out with old guard and in with the new. The inevitable march of progress.
I lived in that cozy little liberal bubble, not paying much attention to news or politics, but always believing that the left had it right and the right had it wrong. Over the last few months, that’s all changed.
For starters, paying thousands of dollars of taxes out of hand, all at once, forces me to think in more detail about what exactly the government is giving me, and what I’m giving to them (as well as my fellow citizens).
Another catalyst is the growing absurdity of the left: Political correctness culture and social justice warriors, equality of outcome, instead of equality of opportunity, the relationship between sex and gender identity, personality differences between men and women, and myths about the gender pay gap finding their way into education and legislation.
Listening to RadioLab podcasts has also made it very clear that you can never take anything at face value, and that every story has (at least) two sides.
The shock provided by these events and others have pulled me from the left, and helped to foster a far more balanced perspective of the world.
First of all, it’s helped me re-align my internal political compass. To put it simply: conservatism and liberalism represent two fundamental forces, both in ourselves and in the society we construct: tradition and innovation, respectively. One is not evil, one is not good. They are yin and yang: balanced, complementary forces. One is necessary to keep the other in check and vice-versa.
Unhindered traditionalism (conservatism, the right) will stagnate any system, preventing it from updating, improving itself, and ultimately surviving. Unhindered innovation and change (liberalism, the left) will recklessly attempt to alter and update everything that a stable system has built over time, resulting in chaos. The balance of these two ideas, and the open communication between them, is a big reason we live in one of the best countries in the world. The 10th best, to be precise.
So what are they good for?
Conservatives tend to excel in orderliness, responsibility and self-determination. They’re good at running a business. They respect customs and heritage, and have a large amount of respect for our current system, for good reason. There is certainly injustice and corruption, but compare it against living under one of the world’s many despots, or amongst the 700 million people that live in extreme poverty, or in a place where free speech doesn’t exist. Being the 10th best country to live in means that there are 185 places that are worse. With that in mind, conservatives rightfully question anything that wants to alter our path too drastically.
Liberals, on the other hand, incline towards creativity, compassion and equality. They are often more accepting of people and cultures that are different, and of those less fortunate. Our social safety net is a manifestation of these values. Women’s rights, the civil rights movement, gay and trans rights, have all risen from liberal ideas eventually shaking the dust from the system and updating it in essential ways. Liberals are the artists and entrepreneurs of our society, and absolutely essential in it’s growth and continued success.
It’s pretty clear to me that these are both vital concepts, but modern politics isn’t played out as an intelligent debate between fundamentally different, but equal, forces. Pick up any newspaper, you can usually tell within 10 seconds if it leans right or left. Respectable media outlets resort to childish name calling (like this quote from a recent Guardian article: “…even for Theresa May, whose mouth spouts so much horseshit you’d think her anus gobbled oats.” What the hell?). Even sports reporting is becoming politicized. Everywhere you look, it’s not about reaching a compromise, it’s about pointing out everything that’s wrong in the opposing side, and presenting yours as the only rational choice.
Of course, the critics have a point.
There’s plenty that goes amok in each camp. On the negative side, conservatives tend to be lower in empathy, resistant to change, and more suspicious of people that are different from them. They are more likely to cut social spending, cut taxes to big business and oppose immigration. It’s usually conservative forces that stand in the way of necessary liberal progress (for example, Trump’s recent denial of trans people serving in the military).
In contrast, liberals can be impulsive, irresponsible and exceedingly empathetic. They are more likely to disregard borders and national defence, spend more than they have, and go overboard in extending rights and privileges to people both within and without their borders. It’s usually liberals who rack up debt, destroy business with higher taxes and social crusades, and oppose free speech in the name of safety or sensitivity.
So, there’s the good and the bad in both. Neither is always right, nor always wrong. We vote for those that best represent our view and in a free, diverse country like ours, that means many different views are represented. These converge in the media, policy debate and legislation, with the ultimate goal of finding the best way forward for everyone.
What’s frightening, however, is that the extreme ends of the political spectrum are becoming louder, more obnoxious and more visible, drowning out all that necessary, rational conflict that is the foundation of our success. Luckily, though, we’re intelligent, rational people, able to make up our own minds independent of any radicalizing pressures, right?
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening. This rational approach to political self-identity doesn’t seem to be taking place at all. In fact, quite the opposite. Violence and irrationality are swirling around antipodal ends of the political spectrum. Alt-right, Antifa, white nationalists, social justice warriors. Complete isolationism versus social constructivist dystopians. The Ryerson University free speech debate that was recently cancelled by far left protestors (under a hammer and sickle banner, no less), white nationalist rallies with Nazi flags, a U.S. president that openly mocks the media, the Google employee that lost his job over an internal memo about diversity and gender, a professor at Evergreen State College silenced by students for opposing a day of racial segregation and, of course, the Charlottesville riot. Not exactly shining examples of effective communication.
“…disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.” — Bret Stephens
These extreme actions (or in some cases, reactions) may seem to be on the peripherals of political life, but they likely won’t stay that way (we can look south of the border at Trump’s election platform for an example of that). Extremes generally produce two different results: polarization or alienation. In other words, pick a side or shut up. Radicalization, or political apathy. None of these outcomes are good.
Silencing isn’t an option
If we lose our ability to communicate and debate, our whole system suffers. We may be far from that, but there are plenty of examples in the 20th century that show just how quickly it can happen. As much as you may disagree with a point of view, or even find it abhorrent, silencing it is not an effective option. The silenced don’t disappear, they go underground, radicalize further, or turn to violence.
We each need to become the sort of person that isn’t fooled by a headline on Facebook, convinced by an uncontested point of view, or willingly embedded in an echo chamber of our own opinions (beware of your Facebook feed and Google Now). We need to be aware of our biases; We need to learn to listen and debate, instead of getting defensive and stubborn whenever someone challenges our point of view. We need to realize that our system is far too complex for one worldview to have all the answers.
“A solid perspective doesn’t need to be insulated from criticism in order to stand.” — Dr. Debrah W Soh
The truth seldom lies on either extreme; it’s found somewhere in the middle. In compromise, in mutual respect, and in an understanding that (almost) all of us are just trying to find the best way to make this crazy, complex, imperfect system function as well as it can.
Bret Stephens, delivering a lecture at the Lowy Institute Media Award, paints a particularly vivid, and accurate, picture:
The purpose of opinion isn’t to depart from facts but to use them as a bridge to a larger idea called “truth”; and appreciates that truth is a large enough destination that, like Manhattan, can be reached by many bridges of radically different designs. In other words, journalism that is grounded in facts while abounding in disagreements.