I have often found a fascinating conflict between the way groups of people engaged in politics describe themselves and others. As a person who engages in politics as a hobby I have a adopted a specific language shared with others in my ideological circle. People on the Right, for example, tend to describe things in a way that people on the Left and average non-political observers, simply do not.
A perfect example is the phrasing of ‘people on the Right/Left.’ Those on the Left do not tend to refer to themselves as ‘the Left’ or refer to those on the Right as ‘people.’ The Left views, as a general rule, all people as educated, ignorant or bigoted. They do not consider themselves to be on a political spectrum as much as simply being correct and enlightened. Their job is to spread this enlightenment and denounce the segment of the population believed to be too far gone to salvage. Those categorized as ‘hateful’ or ‘bigots’ are dismissed as ‘the Right.’
Non-political people see no distinction between the Right or the Left. Oddly, those outside the political bubble simply see groups of people bickering over various issues and assume it to be a mere differing of opinions. When asked they will likely shrug and wave their hand saying ‘People have different opinions and who is to say who is right or wrong.’
The Right, in contrast, views the political spectrum as a highly nuanced and segmented spectrum in which all people can be categorized. The reason we see it in this way is because we understand political and ideological thought in a limited number of categories and can track patterns of viewpoints. Although we may vary slightly on the definitions, we tend to agree on the general theme.
The Left and the Right have very specialized vocabularies that easily distinguish one from the other. The Left, for example, does not refer to anything as ‘Leftist’, rarely uses the term ‘liberal’ to define themselves, (‘I am a liberal’), and will act confused by being described as such. The Left uses phrases like ‘normalize’, ‘problematic’, ‘privileged’ and ‘wingnut.’ They tend to refer to us as ‘right-wingers.’
I do not generally refer to myself as a ‘right-winger’ just as a liberal is unlikely to refer to themselves as a ‘Leftist.’
The outside world has absolutely no idea what either of us are talking about. I sometimes slip and go into a rant with non-political friends and use terms like ‘liberals’ or ‘Leftists’ and am always amused by their confusion or annoyance. When I read a tweet or headline by a liberal outloud, they raise their eyebrows, roll their eyes and dismiss it as nonsense. They think we are all crazy.
Despite our differing languages, I do think some clarification is necessary. I often receive feedback from those who consider themselves neutral or independent, but lean Left, that my arguments are undermined by my use of ‘liberal’ or ‘the Left.’ Sometimes people complain that I am ‘labeling’ people and judging an entire group unfairly. My liberal-leaning non-political friends become offended I am lumping them in with the insane people I show them on Twitter.
Although I do not speak for the Right, in my political journey I have come to understand the spectrum as such:
The spectrum, in my view, is divided between those who value personal liberty and those who do not. I label these two groups ‘Libertarians’ and ‘Progressives.’
‘Libertarians’ describe both conservatives and libertarians. Although ‘conservative’ tends to get the most attention, I believe conservatives are fundamentally libertarian, we are simply more conservative in our worldview.
Libertarians range from pure liberty, ie: no government at all, to limited government. Conservatives are comfortable with government as long as it is local and limited. The citizenry should generally follow the law and the law should be rational and benefit the local community.
‘Progressives’ include communists and socialists. Progressive thought requires a singular central authority to guide all of society. I like to say that progressivism is an ideology that believes it can perfect humanity through coercion. Where libertarians view humanity as autonomous and independent, progressives view humanity as deeply flawed and in need of a protective and guiding authority.
Communism and socialism are merely ways to achieve the progressive endgame.
Is there a center? In my view it is more the result of less ideology and more acceptance of ideas. Pure libertarians and progressives hold a very strong ideology. As you move closer in-between you are likely be more interested in outcome than ideology. For example, many support wide-reaching government action in some areas but strongly oppose it in others. What matters is the outcome.
The Right tends to be more process and principle driven; the Left more outcome and concept driven.
What about ‘liberals’?
Liberals are an anomaly. Liberal thinking comes from the ideals of liberty. The freedom to do as you please. Conservativism is usually the social force limiting liberal expression. In some societies this is highly repressive. In ours, conservatives tend to be advocates of liberty while liberals tend to be repressive and controlling of expression.
Many people consider themselves ‘liberal’ because they view themselves as having modern, open-minded or novel views of the world. I find people prefer to consider themselves ‘liberal’ because they associate it with being a good, educated and enlightened person. In contrast people dislike ‘conservative’ because it sounds like someone who wants to preserve the past and restrict other’s behavior.
The word ‘liberal’ is, unfortunately, limited to the Right’s unique language in context. We are the only ones who refer to ‘liberals.’ I like to distinguish the two words in this way:
Progressives are ideological foes capable of complex debate and willing to engage in said debate. They appreciate the challenge as they are invested in evangelism.
Liberals are people who belong to a cult-like hive-mind that obtain a sense of self-worth and validation through slogans and strong emotions. They chant progressive ideas and feel victorious in shouting down opposition. They have absolutely no interest in debate or discussion. They believe their purpose is to expose and humiliate ‘bigots’ and fight ‘hate.’ Anyone on the Right who has engaged with a liberal understands this perfectly. You can almost predict their behavior tweet-by-tweet.
Sadly, this definition exists exclusively within the Right’s bubble and has no translation outside of it. I have found it impossible to define the term effectively with anyone outside of that bubble and unfortunately it tends to limit the interest of non-political people. The first time they see ‘liberals’ referenced they lose interest or assume it is simply an equally biased political argument with no weight or relevance.
The Left has a similar concept that only exists within their bubble. They like to call us ‘wingnuts’, ‘right-wingers’, ‘the religious right’, ‘Trumpers’, ‘teabaggers’, ‘faux news’ or simply ‘bigots.’ They view us in an identical manner in which we view them. Although I believe our view can be empirically substantiated and theirs cannot, it is irrelevant as they cannot be convinced with evidence or reason.
I write for a specific audience of like-minded thinkers and therefore use the common language of that group. When I see a fellow writer or tweeter use certain words or phrases, it signals to me they are friendly and trustworthy. When I write for an outside audience I use an entirely different set of words designed to limit the perception of ‘bias’ and encourage interest in the argument itself.
While it may be more effective to use this style more often to reach a larger audience, I find it enjoyable to speak to my people using our own language to discuss topics only we find interesting and relevant.
Generally speaking I will only label someone if they fit a profile based on how they engage with me or how they present themselves online or in writing. Liberals are extraordinarily predictable and easy to spot. Progressives are more of a challenge. I have good relationships with some and consider others mortal enemies. But they are capable of inspiring thought and argument.
Political language is not easy to understand and often leads to misunderstandings. But it is useful to recognize that most use a fairly standardized set of words and phrases to get certain points across. When you understand that the Right focuses on ideological patterns over judgmental accusations, it makes it a lot more clear.