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Which came first: the chicken or the egg? I’ve never understood why the age-old causality dilemma should be expressed in these terms. As far as I’m concerned, chickens are blundering, ignoble creatures who have no place in the realm of philosophical discourse.
So let’s put it another way. Which came first: the alt-right or the social-justice movement? Will Donald Trump eventually be toppled by leftist activism, or will such activism guarantee his second term in office? Is Katie Hopkins right to describe herself as the creation of her enemies, as the ‘monster’ to the liberal-left’s Dr Frankenstein? Do attempts to shut down free speech on university campuses prevent the dissemination of extremist views, or make such views more likely to gain traction? You see, it’s perfectly possible to consider the principle of cause and effect without having recourse to poultry.
It’s a circular pattern that appears to be accelerating, largely thanks to the nuance-free arena of social media. As politics becomes more polarised, each side is resorting to increasingly distorted caricatures of the other. It’s like a pair of duellists retreating indefinitely until they are no more than blurs on the horizon. This explains why so many online spats feel as though people are lashing out at imaginary opponents.
This leaves us in a quandary. More than ever, we are in need of frank discussion about the issues that matter most. But with figures on all sides of the political spectrum so determined to double down on their alienating and ad hominem strategies, the possibility of debate is seriously curtailed. The rapper Joyner Lucas has addressed this problem in his recent viral hit ‘I’m Not Racist’, which presents two men – one white, one black – candidly airing their grievances. One commentator found the conceit ‘exhausting’, claiming that ‘the notion that social divisions [can] be reconciled through “honest” conversation’ is ‘hopelessly outdated’. God help us if he’s right.
It’s an attitude that is entirely self-defeating. The ongoing demonisation of those who voted to leave the European Union has all but ensured the impossibility of a second referendum. Smearing one’s opponents as ‘racist’ or ‘stupid’ may be satisfying in the short term, but it’s unlikely to change any minds. Nor is it supported by the facts. A recent study by the think-tank Open Europe has revealed that although immigration was a major factor in the referendum, the vast majority of voters have a ‘far more nuanced and sophisticated’ attitude on the subject than is generally acknowledged. Likewise, the inaccurate and promiscuous use of terms such as ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ has been a boon to the far right, particularly in the US. It has enabled vile fringe groups to claim a level of support they simply do not have.
Uncritical fealty to any given ideology is always a bad idea, because ideologies are only ever sustained through over-simplification. In their current forms, the far right and the liberal-left are equally reactionary movements. Both are mired in identity politics – a xenophobic form of nationalism on the one hand, and intersectional victimhood on the other – and consequently neither is capable of rational debate. Each ideology feeds on the other, existing only to counter its antithesis.
Part of the problem is that many who identify as ‘left-wing’ are nothing of the sort. There is nothing leftist about campus radicalism that promotes No Platforming and censorship. There is nothing leftist about the kind of slippery wordplay that sees the Daily Mail redefined as ‘far right’. There is nothing leftist about identity politics in its prevailing form, because it fails to recognise the centrality of class when it comes to social and economic opportunity. There’s a simple test: if you think the Guardian is left-wing, then you’re probably not left-wing.
Whether or not the hijacking of the left was the principal contributory factor to Trump’s success is one of those chicken-and-egg questions that is difficult to answer. What we can say for certain is that the tactics of these illiberal self-styled ‘leftists’ is generating the very conditions through which the likes of Trump are able to thrive. Resentment is a powerful emotion. We have already seen what happens when a presidential candidate writes off half of the electorate as ‘deplorables’. This hasn’t stopped supposed progressives from insisting that if you are white ‘your DNA is an abomination’, or that heterosexual men ‘hate women’ if they do not acknowledge their ‘toxic masculinity’. Such commentators haven’t so much shot themselves in the foot, as opted directly for the full amputation.
We are dealing with forms of zealotry that are more religious than political. There is a very good reason why Joseph Schumpeter devoted an entire chapter to ‘Marx the Prophet’ in his seminal work Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942). He understood that once a series of tenets are accepted as articles of faith, debate is no longer feasible. In such instances, says Schumpeter, ‘the opponent is not merely in error but in sin. Dissent is disapproved of not only intellectually but also morally. There cannot be any excuse for it once the Message has been revealed.’
This is why the new illiberal leftists are unlikely to deviate from the self-destructive path they have chosen. In these precarious times, we should be aspiring to a form of political discourse that is at once nuanced and open-minded. Instead, we are likely to see greater degrees of polarisation. Herbert Spencer opens his First Principles (1862) by reminding us that ‘when passing judgment on the opinions of others’, we should be willing to concede that even an erroneous proposition contains ‘a nucleus of reality’. For those of us who wish to remedy our degraded culture of political debate, this might be a good place to start.