Why do people who consider themselves ‘left-wing’ seem to embrace a raft of policies that appear unrelated? For example, if you’re of the left, and you believe in (say) progressive taxation, why should that also mean that you believe in gun control, or a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, or that you’re against the death penalty? There’s no common thread that runs through those policies, apart from the fact that the left tend to embrace them, and the right to reject them. What is it that connects progressive taxation and a pro-choice stance?
Left and right tend to view each other with incomprehension. A question like this might come from the left:
How on earth can someone be against abortion, because it involves killing a fetus, but perfectly happy to execute a sentient adult?
This seems to make sense – you can understand their confusion – there seems to be a contradiction there. And yet, this question might come from the right:
How on earth can someone be against the execution of a convicted serial killer, but happy to allow the killing of an innocent unborn child?
Again, there seems to be a contradiction, and you can understand their confusion.
Here is a video of a lecture by George Lakoff (author of Don’t Think of an Elephant) in which he attempts to explain the contradictions – it certainly helped me to understand to roots of left and right thinking.
According to Lakoff, conservative or left/liberal politics comprise diametrically opposed worldviews whose roots lie in the understanding of the role and values of the family. There is, in fact, very often a metaphor of the nation as family (sending our ‘sons’ to war, founding ‘fathers’ etc.). The important thing to remember is that neither view is right or wrong, and both are thought of as being best for the kids raised in those families.
Differing views on what the family is for
First, the conservative view of the family: the right-wing family is definitely gendered – single-parent families or same-sex parents are seen as inferior to families with a strict, dominant father – because there is evil out there that kids need to be protected from, and there is competition out there that kids need to win. It’s very important to teach kids right from wrong, and to teach them discipline. It’s behaviourist – punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour, so that they learn to discipline themselves, to avoid punishment.
This is seen as the only way to instill self-discipline; when they get it, they become moral, and ultimately, prosperous. From this, it’s extrapolated that poverty is down to a lack of self-discipline and morals in the poor themselves. Individuals need to work on that – no-one is going to do it for them. So it’s good to have the discipline to pursue your own self-interest, because it benefits society as a whole – which is why the right are interested in removing barriers to people pursuing their self-interest, such as taxation or government regulation.
Moral, disciplined people should rule – and this viewpoint is not (necessarily anyway) sexist, homophobic or racist. Most conservatives see themselves as good people, which baffles liberals, who don’t see them as good at all. They see them as selfish and ruthless.
The liberal view of the family is quite different. Both parents are equal, and nurturing rather than disciplined, and not only are children nurtured, they are taught to nurture others too. This requires empathy – parents empathise with children, who are taught to empathise with and have a responsibility towards other people.
This is not seen as ‘permissive’ parenting, without discipline – the aim is to have a happy family life. You have to be happy and fulfilled if you’re going to have empathy towards other people. Nurturing people should rule – people who are honest, open, co-operative and who care about people.
So both views, both ideologies, are constructed via the family itself, and especially via the view of what the family is for. I think that most people are a mixture of both – a strict morality in some areas (especially when it comes to personal safety, perhaps) and a nurturing morality in others; and both positions are at least ‘a bit’ right.
But some things are just plain wrong
Here’s what’s wrong. Corporations sponsor right-wing ‘think-tanks’ that are really propaganda machines. There are now over 80 well-funded right-wing think-tanks, that receive over half a billion dollars worth of corporate money per year, as well as corporate-funded and initiated journals. And of course, the mainstream media is corporate-owned, and does the job of interpreting for a general audience. The ideas generated are massaged and funnelled into messages, and those messages include outright lies. So for example, legislation that allows increases in pollution emissions is called ‘Clear Skies’, or that allows deforestation in protected areas, ‘Healthy Forests’. It’s a nightmare of Orwellian language that has been largely successful in reducing environmental protection.
However, ecology doesn’t care about the difference between left and right. I’ve known people on the left (usually the extreme left) and on the right, who don’t understand – and in fact refuse to understand – what’s happening to ecology. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, ecology is slipping away from us – we’re losing species, habitats, vertebrate numbers and soil, to the extent that, unchecked, will send ecology into irreversible and terminal decline, and the human species can only decline with it. Climate change is only part of it, and would actually be quite pleasant if it didn’t also bring with it desertification, soil erosion, loss of habitat and massive decline in biodiversity. Anyone who doesn’t think that this is happening is just wrong, and needs to have peer-review explained to them – we don’t have anything better to explain the nature of reality.
So we need real change
Now here’s the thing. If we try to develop a movement for change that repels either the left or the right, it’s not ultimately going to be successful. All it’s going to do is to veer capitalism slightly towards the left or the right for a while, but it will change direction again before long, and continue its destructive journey towards the precipice.
The right have to cede when it comes to the environment. The voices that try to dismiss concerns about ecology are coming mainly (but not completely) from the right, and those voices are 100% wrong. They have to change on that one. But at the same time, the left have to stop demonising the right. Lakoff shows them a way to do that.
So mutual understanding is crucial. I’ve been searching for a way to help left and right understand each other, and I think Lakoff nailed it. Without mutual understanding, we will waste time fighting each other, and allow the corporate juggernaut to trundle on unchallenged. At the moment, enormous amounts of time, energy and money are spent on promoting the battle between left and right, and this suits the corporate sector completely.
Currently, academia is dominated by the left, and the right hate it; and business is dominated by the right, and the left hate it. Dissenting voices are not allowed in either, and attempts at dissent can in fact damage your career. That’s a problem. Let’s debate – but mutual understanding is necessary first.