It used to be the case that left were the champions of freedom and equality. The desire to achieve social equality was to enhance the freedoms of people who have faced centuries of discrimination and bigotry, ensuring they remained fodder to be enslaved, hated and segregated. Political correctness was meant to be a weapon that eroded people’s sensibilities to think it is acceptable to behave in deplorable ways to certain people within society. It was meant to educate and enlighten everyone to be aware that our human beings aren’t always, if at all, treat with the same respect as others. These differences in how we treat others are systematic and need combatting to ensure our society becomes inclusive, political correctness was meant to highlight this in our discourses.
Alas, an aberration has been born from this desire to achieve social equality. It’s born out of the influence of postmodernism, specifically the school of post-structuralism, has had on left-wing thinking since the 1960s. The ideals of the enlightenment that defined the original left back in the 19th century have been utterly abandoned in favour of reducing all notions of truth and validity to being associated with the mere context we live in. The most radical proposition of postmodernism is that all our knowledge is derived from the socio-cultural context that we live in, rationality and reason are themselves social constructions designed to promote the interests of certain groups within society. We can only understand the “truth” relative to the social context it lives within. Objectivity is replaced by relativism. This is not a critique of reason, but an outright rejection of it.
The home of postmodernist left lies within university departments who just love the influence that critical studies has had in the humanities and social sciences. The analysis of these “critical theorists” will inevitably conclude that the subject of analysis is yet another example of social constructions that undermine the identities of certain groups within society, whether they be racial minorities, women or LGBT folk. The subtlest case scenarios are microaggression’s; the sort of action, thought process or utterance that by itself seems perfectly innocent but when looked at on a larger scale is just an example of one section of society putting another one down.
For example, asking “Where are you from?” at first seems like an innocent question. When that question is repeatedly asked to an UK born Asian living in the UK on a frequent enough basis by different people, it is implied the UK citizen is in fact an alien within their own country. Microaggressions act as evidence of structures existing in society that are discriminatory to certain identities, the evidence is derived from interpreting language so that assumptions are discovered that point to the existence of structures. In the example above the assumption underlying the language is that Asians aren’t native to the UK.
Here comes the insidious postmodern influence. You don’t need to be influenced by postmodernism to recognise that those assumptions may be held by some. By renouncing reason, however, you renounce the idea that we ought to attempt to measure how prevalent the assumption is held in society. Postmodernism essentially allows critical theorists to define the context they write in as the actual reality we live in, without any need to verify if it is actual reality based on objective criteria. Postmodernism essentially rejects the notion that there can be objective criteria to define reality by, as those criteria are themselves a product of some existing construct which is only true for the context it lives in.
Postmodernism, therefore, allows zealous supporters of the social justice movement to, potentially, exaggerate the extent of the discrimination certain groups face. Efforts to denounce such zealousness by the appeal to rationality can be dismissed as those people themselves acting as a product of the discriminatory forces which try to deny the fact certain groups face discrimination. When zealousness and morality collide, authoritarian tendencies form. When authoritarianism and a total disregard for objective rationality fuse together, we get totalitarianism.
We begin to see the poison of postmodern thought. When truth is relativised to the socio-cultural context it exists in, the malleability of the context plays a large role in shaping what is true in a given society. Truth ends up being derived from the manipulation of context, the ability to reinterpret is the ability to manipulate context. The difference between a social construct and propaganda becomes negligible.
Significantly if truth is relative to social context, what reason do we have to take the values of social equality as being universally true?
How do you police microaggression’s though? They can be so subtle that the only effective way would be to enforce a set of stringent social regulations that forces people to behave certain ways to people. The stringent regulations would exist to force people to acknowledge the hidden assumptions lurking behind their speech and actions. Every aspect of one’s activities would have to be monitored and regulated in order that society could be reorganised to combat the discriminatory structures in society.
Anyone who has headed the lesson of George Orwell’s 1984 will know that I’m not merely describing authoritarianism, itself a belief system that contradicts systems that value liberty and freedom as a virtue. Making truth relative to context allows language to be manipulated and transformed so words end up taking their contradictory meanings, like war is peace or prosperity is destitution. The regressive left who are heavily influenced by postmodern concepts such as relativism and post-structuralism are the apostles of totalitarianism. Even if they explicitly oppose totalitarianism, they infuse totalitarian thought patterns into the public sphere making society vulnerable to authoritarians willing to exploit the disorientation that results.
Those on the liberal left who are influenced by postmodernism are also apostles of totalitarianism. They are supportive of regulations to police speech based upon postmodern justifications of the validity and extent of the assumptions in society. The extremities of totalitarianism will appal them; they are not advocates of totalitarianism and they would oppose an actual totalitarian coming to power to enforce a far more rigorous and radical set of regulations to tackle the injustices. As Owen Jones is beginning to discover though, the liberal left can create their own subculture in which their constructs of social justice are held to be true and valid. Such a subculture will alienate the mainstream left from the concerns of those who don’t want to be part of the subculture. The left will stop being inclusive and the possibility of a socially equal society becomes non-existent, particularly when the values of the left face an existential threat from the populist right.
The desire to regulate social activity, even for a sound motivation, is an authoritarian tendency. Students want educational institutions to be safe spaces for those who feel vulnerable about the state of their identity, how these spaces are conceived have a clear authoritarian line to it. Educational institutions are slowly becoming places were ideas aren’t tossed around and debated with rationality acting as a corrosive acid to the bad ones. Rationality involves confronting appalling ideas, rather than protecting people from them. Safe spaces are yet another example of a mechanism designed to manipulate context to define truth.
The danger of safe spaces is the role they play in defining what is considered truth on a university campus, that is a role they shouldn’t play. The purpose of safe spaces is to protect students from abuse, particularly fostered by discriminatory forces. Nothing special should be required though as educational institutions should be concerned with the welfare of their students. Special measures only need to be taken when some forms of abuse aren’t acknowledged as abuse, but having to confront ideas which imply a rejection of your identity, whether partially or wholly, in an academic setting isn’t abuse. Again, safe spaces act as a mechanism to segregate the left from the rest of society, the discriminated segregate themselves.
Safe spaces also encourage another danger for those fighting for social equality. With the rise of right-wing populism, it may very well be necessary for another civil rights movement to assert itself, such a movement will involve confronting the forces of bigotry head on with violent repercussions entirely possible. Encouraging university campuses to act as safe spaces doesn’t provide a safe environment for confrontation to occur, the first encounter of confrontation discriminated groups will face will be in the real world full of dangers. Campuses’ should be safe areas for confrontation to occur for it is here that the discriminated will sharpen their teeth to try kill the monolith of bigotry. Safe spaces encourage students to wrap themselves in cotton wool, but cotton wool is not good protection from the spears of bigots.
Perhaps now is a good time to define what the regressive left is. The regressive left aren’t those on the left who support political correctness and identity politics. It is those which incorporate postmodern thinking and influences to define what political correctness and identity politics is about. In concrete terms, this definition ends up being close to the definition provided by Maajid Nawiz. The regressive left end up supporting reactionary thinking and values in promoting social equality, whether by supporting postmodernism or defending homophobic and misogynistic tendencies among specific religious groups in the name of cultural relativism. This is significant for the task of the left, at least in the social sphere, is to divorce political correctness and identity politics from the influences of post-structuralism and relativism.
Certain terms in languages are derogatory epithets towards certain groups, these terms can be known to be discriminatory. Educating the population of the connotations of these words is the role political correctness ought to play in political discourse. Political correctness is a pedagogical tool the left should be using to ensure that language, and any subsequent behaviour that follows from using language a certain way, does not cause systemic harm to the welfare of groups in society. Colloquially political correctness simply means encouraging people to be respectful of others who differ from themselves in some way by breeding tolerance and encouraging empathy to be developed towards discriminated groups. Political correctness counters bigotry by humanising the dehumanised.
For the sake of clarification, political correctness is not a tool that enforces people to be respectful to others. There can be very good reasons why people ought to ridicule and disrespect others. Such ridicule may be levied against discriminated groups. The Qur’an is no doubt a homophobic and misogynistic document, detesting those bigotries will inevitably lead to harsh criticisms of Islam. Denouncing all Muslims as being backward, though, is bigotry considering some Muslims will hold liberal values. Affirming Christian values simultaneously is downright hypocritical considering the “tolerance” it has shown to women and homosexuals down the years.
Harshly criticising and offending discriminated groups isn’t necessarily pandering to bigotry. Such criticisms are pandering to bigotry if done in such a manner to appeal to people’s ignorance and prejudices about Muslims, in other words the criticisms are the result of irrational and illogical views about the group. Bigotry may be fostered by criticism even if the critic had no intention to exploit bigotry, again political correctness can be a useful tool to educate speakers that they must be wary that a poor choice of words could have unintended toxic consequences. Criticism of those who ignore advice when it turns out the advice is correct is a perfectly legitimate use of free speech.
The use of Islam in this piece is deliberate. Criticising mainstream currents within Islam is exactly the sort of thing the left should be doing, just like the left should be criticising conservative Christian values on a consistent basis. Rejecting the influences of post-structuralism and cultural relativism is integral to allowing the left to do this.
By rejecting cultural relativism, the left has no reason to accept Islamic values on their own terms, but on the lefts. The process of rational thought is the insurance policy the left has to ensure they remain fair to whatever is the subject of analysis. Rational thought requires checks to exist to ensure that the biases of the thinker do not determine the truth of a proposition. That is not to say the biases does not exist nor that they have no influence on discovering truth. All intellectual activity has a subjective element to it; the key is that the subjective element exists simply because we are human. Subjectivity does not determine truth; objective truth emerges from subjective processes.
Poststructuralism challenges us by highlighting assumptions we either do not see or do not want to see. The trouble with post-structuralism is that it cannot establish the truth, in the objective sense, of the assumptions lurking behind our criticism and appraisal of Islam. Ultimately what is the source of truth that harshly criticising Islamic cultural tendencies represents an oppression of their way of life? Is it grounded in a reality that can be measured using empirical methods, or constructed by zealous academics looking for societal institutions to overturn? Rejecting post-structuralism allows the left to ignore those concerns, we will try to empirically verify that injustice happens. Even though the probability of tolerating prejudice increases, so the totalitarian thought processes being infused into our discourse start becoming minimised. Likewise, it will be harder for reactionary forces to oppose the existence of such discrimination when solid evidence points heavily towards it rather than postmodern social constructs. They won’t be opposing social constructs that could be imagined by over enthusiastic academics, but hard evidence. Rationality lacks value in politics currently, but that’s because reasoned discourse is not granting hope that stagnated incomes in the Western world will begin to rise.
The use of post-structuralism in feminist discourse has been deeply troubling. The fusion of it with the demands and aims of identity politics has created a section of the feminist movement that contradicts the desire for inclusivity, an essential characteristic of a socially equal environment. A common characteristic of some feminists is to insist that men can have little valuable input in the affairs of women, some radical feminists even go so far to deny that men can be feminists. Of course, on sensitive matters a man will never be able to fully empathise with the concerns women face, likewise men have no right to make decisions for women. Men would be foolish to think they know better than women on matters relating to women, that doesn’t imply men can’t have any valuable contribution. It also shouldn’t be implied that men attempting to help women is part of a social structure that just reinforces the privileges men have over women.
Such thought patterns undermine the entire feminist movement because the negativity of some feminists towards the role men can play in the movement is exclusionary. Men aren’t encouraged to empathise with the concerns with women because those attempts can be construed as men asserting their privilege. The rejection some men face is likely to foster resentment towards the whole feminist movement including the parts that are open to the men taking part. Ironically this resentment is likely to lead to forces that enhance male privilege, because men have less reason to sympathise with the concerns women face. Making unnecessary enemies is never a good strategy to achieving a worthwhile goal.
Likewise, similar thought patterns exist when talking about racial and cultural matters. We get a scenario where identity politics focusses less on trying to solve the difficulties certain groups in society face. Instead identity party ends up focussing on who exclusively has the right to claim what issues their group faces. Alternative perspectives from outsiders end up getting rejected out of hand since they have not had to face the discrimination that others have, even though outsiders may be able to point to similarities with problems other faces. This approach to identity politics enforces the idea that the concerns a group faces is unique to that group; the postmodern way of thinking can easily turn this uniqueness into a social construct. The fact the troubles are unique isn’t problematic, it is the fact that only those affected by the unique troubles are qualified to tackle them. Social equality emerges from tolerance; this corrupt form of identity politics encourages social fragmentation instead.
Some of these criticisms in this piece have been aired by the right already, but they’ve seized this as an opportunity to undermine the entire motivation lurking behind these troublesome concerns. The left desire social equality simply because it should be an inalienable right that everyone should have the same access to the rights and liberties granted to everyone else; which is not the case when LGBT partners cannot marry one another on legal grounds, or black people must sit at the back of the bus, or minority groups cannot vote due to efforts making it incredibly difficult for them to get to polling booths. The right sense that confusing the problems caused by postmodernism with the desire to achieve social equality is a successful strategy to undermine the latter. The emergence of the alt-right and the populist right in the Western world reflects that they are successfully exploiting a weakness, a weakness that shouldn’t exist if the left stuck true to its roots.
The left need to take aim at the real culprit for all this nonsense, postmodernism. The left need to reject postmodernism outright as a philosophy because its sole purpose is to act as a left-wing reactionary force fighting against the virtue of reason. Postmodernism is the reason why the values of the left in the social sphere are losing their influence, it is the reason why certain sections of our young population are becoming increasingly authoritarian. It is the reason why we can’t distinguish between offensive, but valid, criticism and discrimination. It is the reason why the left is becoming socially exclusive to those who don’t share its social constructs, undermining the very aim of achieving social equality. It is also the reason the left is being self-indulgent in other areas; the left has a “sophisticated” set of tools to justify taking the blind approach to other people’s concerns. There’s nothing like alienation to make you feel special. It’s time the left began to assert the values of reason, liberty and equality.