Tom Owolade and Robbie Travers
As evident from an increasing number of young people, much of left wing politics has become a tainted pursuit, bereft of the intellectual credibility and value it once held. Many sections are in decay because many people identifying as leftwing have ceased embodying the values of universalism, rational thought and secularism. Enlightenment values are falling into disfavor. Through notable and seismic cultural shifts, parts of the left, following from a tradition of post-modernism(and Marxism), have placed a worrying emphasis on power structures over liberal values. Similarly, due in part to multiculturalism and increased globalisation, cultural relativism has replaced universalist principles. Because of this, many young Leftists now incubate campus censorship, irrationalism, and the subsequent disfigurement of moral clarity. Sadly, this trend only shows signs of strengthening. A lot of the Left-with aid from post-colonial theory, identity politics and anti-Zionism- now stand against the very values its predecessors fought for.
These changes are accelerating across society, especially in institutions of higher learning. With this in mind, it is essential to reassert the values that underpin many of our freedoms-values abandoned, besmirched and often mischaracterised as oppressive. The truth is that most of these ideals are emancipatory; such as the fundamental right to discuss ideas, challenge regressive beliefs, and pursue objective truth. All three of these rights are threatened, and these threats are coming from within the left.
Three ideological trends have intersected to create reactionary cultures gaining ascendancy within the Left: identity politics, post-colonial thinking and anti-Zionism. According to these three frameworks, evaluating power is more important than exhibiting principles, and solidarity to victims is more important than valuing rights. Addressing power and grievance is their binding lens; rather than articulating principles and expressing indivisible rights. Leftwing identity has shifted from Paine and Mill to Foucault and Chomsky.
Identity politics values viewpoints on the basis of the identity of those who make them, not on the arguments’ merits. Its intention is to give a voice to the downtrodden, embolden their identity, emphasise their worth by privileging their viewpoint above rational argument and people of power. It is a form of empathy. It is also inimical to individual liberty and rationalism, and being so, it discounts something more ennobling than exclusive truth: the capacity to think independently and rationally.
We do not deny that, in many instances, those who speak on issues or hold opinions may be blind to certain social problems that doesn’t affect them directly. A man’s view on abortion may be compromised by his lack of intimacy with the issue, or a white person’s understanding of racism may be partial, relative to that of a POC. However, this doesn’t mean a person’s identity gives him or her exclusive access to the truth. And this is what is implied by privileging the views of group of people above another. This is a view that has a censorious edge. If you’re a man and you want to discuss abortion with another man at a high-ranking university, you can’t, because you’re a man. If you want to advance a viewpoint that threatens the “mental safety” of students, you can’t, because the mental safety of student, which in itself is speciously defined, is more important than the unfettered discussion of ideas. This stifles discussion from the outset and is a tool for protecting those who don’t wish to be questioned, rather than protecting those who have vulnerabilities.
Accusing someone of bigotry is a common feature of this discourse-racism, islamophobia, transphobia. These labels are sometimes a reaction to perceived and at times correct victimhood, but a culture of victimhood is exploiting the shaming nature of these words to silence those who raise genuine concerns. In discussing ideas, it would be more productive to tell someone why they are wrong and you are right, in an understandable way with rational argument, rather than through screaming and defamation. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t make allegations of racism, anti-Muslim prejudice or sexism when they are appropriate, but far too often they are misused for ideological ends. The most arresting implication, though, is the attack on individuality. Identity politics chills the ability to think independently; one’s viewpoint is made A priori by his/her identity. Freethinkers, those who challenge prevailing ideas, are deemed nihilists who wish to sully the utopia by spreading bigotry. If you’re a woman and you believe abortion is wrong, your nature is challenged. Similarly if you’re muslim and defend Israel. This points to the determinacy of identity: views have ceased having autonomy and, correspondingly, people have ceased being autonomous.
Identity politics also has a discordant relationship with rationalism. In a stratified media, diversification of opinion is important and it’s also important to treat minorities with dignity and respect, by giving them a space and offering them a platform. This shouldn’t, however, dictate how we value statements and engage in discourse. It is, of course, important to diversify and give platforms to women talking about women related issues, or a POC talking about a race issue. However, offering a platform shouldn’t be at the expense of rationalism, nor does it have to be. Arguments should be measured by whether they are valid or sound, not on the basis of whether the proponent has a particular genitalia or skin-colour.
Identity politics seeks to embolden minority voices and delegitimise views which are seen as an affront to their dignity, yet, in its confrontational approach to liberalism, it does the direct opposite. Identity politics is an affront to a minority person’s ability to think and discuss freely as an individual, with reason and without pious sentimentality. It is illiberal and irrational in effect and it’s vitally important it’s resisted.
Post-colonial thinking, on other hand, tries to address the concepts of victimhood and power more directly. It has influenced anti-globalists and anti-imperialists, critical race theorists and anti-Zionists. It tries to analyse and address the evil wrought against minority groups by the west. It offers a robust rebuttal to eurocentricism and orientalism, it is rebellion against a reading of western history that it feels is one-sided and tendentious. But, in exclusively emphasising western oppression, it denies primary agency for any act of oppression not practiced by the west. In over-emphasising western failings as a way of countering western triumphalism, it disregards something equally important: objective truth. This stunts any coherent defence of liberalism-as liberalism rests on universalism. Post-colonial thinking foments hostility to western values such as ‘universalism’, which it views as hegemonic, and it does this in an academically unscrupulous manner.
Post-colonial thinking is established on the premise that the actions of Western or European “imperialist” nations deserve more attention than the third world and global south. This emphasis on western evil is a reaction to what they perceive to be the whitewashing of history. They start from the premise of trying to address an inequality, trying to counter the triumphalism and ‘eurocentricism’ evident in some parts of academia. But, In emphasising the imperialism of Britain, something important and necessary, they forget to mention Islamic imperialism, or any other imperialism. They should mention as many as possible. Because in doing so our common humanity is emphasised, and in focusing solely on the west, the idea that the west is uniquely evil is implied. It isn’t uniquely evil. And oppression, though present in western history through slavery, massacres and terror, doesn’t mean it’s unique to the west. Irrespective of their noble attention, focusing exclusively on the west implies it does. We mustn’t view the European colonial world as some form of paradise, in which wars were never a feature, persecution was a fiction and oppression was non-existent. Taking off rose-tinted glasses and seeing that cultures had both positive and negative effects is an important component of any self-critical society. Self-criticism must not, however, manifest into self-loathing. One clarifies the misuse of values we hold dear, the other distorts and degrades the values we hold dear.
This sins of past centuries are worth remembering, but the fact that imperialism had massive casualties shouldn’t determine how we morally value current western states. To paraphrase Pascal Bruckner, French public intellectual, western states shouldn’t be paralysed by the tyranny of colonial guilt, nor in our view should individuals be allowed moral high ground by raising the sins of one’s ancestors. This is fallacious, as it associates the sins of one individual with another individual who isn’t culpable in committing that sin. In other words, it is guilt by association. This is an assault on history, evidence is pruned for ideology. Solving problems and addressing grievances demands fidelity to the truth. But, given their disregard for objective truth, in trying address a wrong, the Left actually exacerbates cultural division and furnishes conspiratorial thinking.
The victimology bred by post-colonialism is dishonest and directly inimical to progressive values. If you insist on your victimhood and the victimhood of delineated minority groups, above discussing ideas freely, and at the expense of western values because of western oppression, your analytical framework tears with gnawing bias and you abdicate emancipatory principles: individual liberty, freedom of speech and an egalitarian ethos, all of which have incalculably aided civil and legal legislation granting minorities equality. Post-colonial lefties have, on the other hand, aided “safe spaces”, banning Brendan O’Neill and trigger warnings. The politics of liberty and universalism is more productive the politics of victimhood and difference. Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass were invested in modulating the US constitution to encompass minorities; Many critical post-colonial lefties reject the values of the US constitution outright as a tool for oppression and hegemony. This difference, if it continues to widen, will make liberty-derived arguments isolated within groups that ought to affirm it. It will make liberalism heresy and threaten the hard-won rights that constitute free nations.
Anti-Zionism attacks Israel because Palestinians are the victims and Israel are the victimisers. And protecting the victims, the Palestinians, is more important than accepting, in many instances, that Israel has a right to defend itself. This dialectic is binding, unchanging and crucial to understanding the psyche of anti-Zionists. Because victimisers are western, it follows from anti-imperialist lefties that this conflict should attract our greater moral indignation. Criticism of any state is important. Democratic states are marked by their capacity to welcome criticism and welcome debate. We, and many of our friends, are critical of the settlements in the West Bank, and believe it to be counterproductive to the peace process. But, Israel as a society attracts bile way beyond specific criticisms. Criticism is well and good, but the language and tone of criticism levelled against Israel is animated by something deeper. From the BDS movement, to anti-Zionist groups in British universities, hostility to Israel is boiling. Hatred of Israel is in fact a microcosm of how many anti-imperialists analyse Middle Eastern conflict; they’re motivated more by animosity to Israel than solidarity to Palestinians. Hostility to western states, and it’s apparent imperialists ambition, is focussed above fidelity to objective human rights abuses. Assad wasn’t met with protests, large scale derision, calls for boycotts, when he massacred Palestinian in Yarmouk. This criticism of double standards is usually met with an accusation of whataboutery; you’re trying to distract from Israeli’ human rights abuses. But this is an appeal to anyone that democratic states in complex conflicts should not be judged with greater moral outrage than dictatorships killing promiscuously. The use of whataboutery suggests moral equivalence where there is naught and it nullifies an understanding of intention and an understanding of the nature of the conflict. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are not met with calls for boycotts. Iranian and Saudi Arabian individual are not met with bigotry because of their nationality, from university students to members of parliament. As the former head of human rights watch, Robert Bernstein, noted: moral clarity is an important aspect in evaluating Middle Eastern conflicts. And when you emphasise the evils of a democracy in a region riven with dictatorships you destroy moral clarity beyond repair. When complex conflicts are reduced to oppression and killings and massacres and genocide, it ceases being a natural case of applying principles. It becomes a theatre of hysteria. When the only democracy in the Middle East, with the highest living standard, and best relation with minorities, is viewed more unfavourably than North Korea and Saudi Arabia, this is unintelligible to anyone with a firm grounding in morality and progressive values. The anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist left, through systematic demonisation, have contributed to this dysfunction of ethics and principles.
Anti-Zionism is also both an umbrella for protecting individual anti-Zionists, and it contributes to anti-Zionism through its zealotry. This is not to say all avowed anti-Zionists are anti-Semitic. Many individuals are critical of Israel with equal conviction in the way they’re critical of other Middle East states, and It is unfair to smear all those who are highly critical of Israel as anti-semites. However, the rhetoric surrounding Israel, in many anti-imperialist sections of the left, is becoming more and more associated with anti-semitism and racist tropes. Modern day anti-semitism manifests itself by projecting all racist tropes associated with traditional anti-semitism unto Israel. The idea, for example, of Israel having a fondness for infanticide; controlling the US and western states through powerful lobbies; being a uniquely evil and voracious state. These tropes feature in many pro-palestinian marches (though they should be correctly called anti-Israel marches), and on twitter, where pictures of dead children are spread and used to intimidate supporters of Israel.
Because of anti-globalists and anti-Zionists, the only state in the Middle East with a flourishing press, independent judiciary and functioning parliament-all things progressives should rally for-is treated as a pariah state. Whereas, relative to this, criticism of theocracies and dictatorship is minimal and passing. (Saudi Arabia only criticised because it is an ally of the west). The disfigurement of moral clarity is, therefore, seen most clearly in many lefties relationship with Israel.
We fear some parts of the left are in irreversible decline, and have therefore created a rough manifesto, hopefully binding centre left and centre thinkers and activists alike. The list is as follows:
– Supporting freedom of speech without the qualification of ‘responsibility’, or “duty not to be offended, and the implied correlative right not to offend”; or any acquiescence to Blasphemy Law. Noting that this right must be found in all institutions of education, against the TERF-hunters and privilege checkers.
– Being consistent in denouncing far right politics, whether it be far-right white nationalists or liberty-hating Islamists; this entails rejecting multiculturalism; the view that all cultures, with their embedded values, have to respected on an equal footing. The need to respect cultural difference, it is argued, is more important than the need for assimilation. In short, it is a realisation of cultural relativism. It is clear that pluralism, rule of law and liberty (all of which are universal values, but best embodied by the west) are not morally equivalent to the regressive values existing in some minority cultures. Implying that they are makes it impossible to make a coherent case for challenging malignant values in minority communities. If they’re the same, and the values best embodied by the west are not qualitatively superior to the reactionary values of some minority communities, on what basis can we challenge honour killings and child marriage?. The values developed in the west over centuries, and which can certainly be developed in other minority cultures, is better because it enriches freedom and enshrines equality.
-Making Zionism a positive rather than negative word. Zionism is the belief that Jews should have a sovereign state, guaranteeing their continued existence, and a haven from persecution and terror. Anti-Zionism denies a persecuted people the right to have this state. This is absurd, and something that is often equated with criticising Israel’s policy. Zionism is a diverse movement, and as we’ve said: supporting a state’s existence doesn’t mean you forego the right to criticise it. However, challenging those who defame the only functioning democracy in the Middle East-often with apologia for supremacist, anti-semitic regimes- is absolutely mandatory.
Increasing parts of the Left have ceased being left-wing. The parts which follow identity politics, post-colonial thinking and anti-Zionism to a zealous degree. They were initially considered a fringe, because zealotry isn’t associated with the tradition of Mill and Paine. But these zealots- social justice warriors, anti-globalists, critical race theorists and anti-Zionists- are creepily forming the nucleus of left wing identity. Correcting inequality is something noble. But, when it is at the expense of individual liberty and universal rights, it’s effects are devastating. In trying to right these wrongs, they have recycled arguments traditionally associated with the cultural right; the toxicity of ideas and debate; the vulnerability of humans; the violability of rights; and the corresponding need for paternalism. The ability to think like a rational individual who dissents from orthodoxy has ceased being praiseworthy. All we have left is privilege-checking and safe spaces.