2. the roots of left and right thinkingLow impact living info, training, products & services

In the run-up to Christmas (or for non-Christians, the winter holiday period, if you prefer) I’m going to try to spread a little love with a series of articles looking at the growing polarisation of society along the left-right spectrum. I want to persuade as many of you as possible that positioning yourself on this spectrum is damaging to interpersonal relations, to communities, to political progress, probably to your mental health and definitely to the ambience of family gatherings – and to invite you to step off it.

In this series I’m going to cover:

  1. The meaning of the terms left and right
  2. The roots of left and right thinking
  3. Why the left vs right battle isn’t helpful
  4. Why left and right have more in common than you think
  5. How ‘new economy’ thinking can unite left and right

The last one will come out on Boxing Day, when you’re full of goodwill and mince pies (with a bit of luck), so that by the new year, you’ll be ready to embrace your left/right (delete as appropriate) work colleagues and family members in a new spirit of understanding of the underlying irrelevance of those terms. Then on Jan 2 I’ll post an article with ideas about how we can build a new kind of economy that will work for you, whether you consider yourself left or right, and that, handily, won’t contribute to ecological destruction or creating zillionaires who don’t allow proper toilet breaks for their workforces.

So, how do people end up in the ‘left’ or ‘right’ bracket? What are the roots of left and right ways of thinking?


Why do people who consider themselves ‘left-wing’ seem to embrace a raft of policies that appear unrelated? For example, if you’re on 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 abortion and gun control? It seems random, and left and right tend to view each other with an incomprehension that gets deeper each year. A question like this might come from the left: “How on earth can someone be against abortion, because it involves killing an insentient foetus, 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.

George Lakoff attempts to explain the contradictions in Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think. According to Lakoff, right / conservative and left / liberal politics represent diametrically opposed worldviews whose roots lie in the understanding of what families are for. 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.

Here’s 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.

First, the right-wing view of the family. The conservative family is definitely gendered. Single-parent families or same-sex parents are seen as inferior to families with a nurturing mother and a strict, dominant father – because there’s evil out there that kids need to be protected from, and there’s competition that kids need to win. It’s very important to teach kids right from wrong, and discipline. It’s behaviourist – punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour, so that they learn how to discipline themselves after they’ve left the family, to avoid punishment and failure. This is seen as the only way to instil 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 morals and self-discipline. Individuals need to work on that themselves – no-one is going to do it for them. 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 the pursuit of self-interest, such as taxation or government red tape. Our leaders should be moral, disciplined people – 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 left-wing view of the family is quite different. Liberal parents are equal, and both nurturing rather than disciplined. Not only are children nurtured – they’re 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 isn’t 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. Our leaders should be nurturing people who are honest, open, co-operative, empathic and who care about other people. Only then will we have a decent society filled with happy people – which is the ultimate goal, surely?

Both views, both ideologies, are constructed via the family itself, and especially via opinions 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. If it were possible to measure the total compassion, intelligence and integrity on left and right, I think they’d be about the same, although I’m also guessing that neither side would believe that.

Sometimes, strict discipline is appropriate in even the most nurturing of families.

Talking about building a new economy from the edges of this one (from communities, in other words) could be seen as a left-wing project, and the right could instinctively oppose it, because this new economy isn’t going to be capitalism, after all. But it’s not going to be statism either. I’m not interested in reform, or statism, or overthrowing. I just want to help build something useful. I can see as many problems in the approach of the left as I can the right, and I really wouldn’t label myself either (as my PoliticalCompass.org result confirms). Take Trump. If you’ve lived in a decaying industrial town all your life, and things are getting worse, and then someone comes along who’s clearly a narcissistic buffoon, but speaks like you, and is promising to use his power to bring back jobs to your town, and put more money in your pocket, you’re going to take notice. Then if he actually does it, I think you’d support Trump too.

If you think I’ve lost my mind at this point, I’d ask you again to put yourself in the position of someone in a blue-collar job, or worse – having just lost a blue-collar job, in a rust-belt town that was prosperous when you were a kid. Or, imagine you’re hanging on by your fingertips in a hard up, ex-industrial town in the midlands or the north of England. If money is a constant worry, and thousands of people are coming into your town from overseas to do your job for less money, I think you’d be opposed to that influx. And if wealthier people, for whom those people are waiters, drivers, cleaners, builders and nannies rather than competitors for jobs, call you racist, even though there’s just as much racism in the middle-class as in the working-class, if not more, then I think you’d vote for Brexit too. And then after centuries of not being listened to, when the main left party in your country says that you should vote again, because you didn’t understand the issues, you’d be angry, and would desert that party – which is exactly what happened. The fact that this confused the better-off, metropolitan left highlights their lack of empathy for or connection with people in working-class towns.

Talking of working-class towns, something happened to me as a boy that made me believe that people were intrinsically bad, and that we needed strong, centralised power to keep them in check. I was a young Hobbesian. I was about 7 years old, and I’d caught a hedgehog on some waste ground. I had it in an old paint can, and was taking it home to play with it, then let it go again. A group of slightly older boys intercepted me and took the can from me. I followed them to the local park, where (animal lovers, maybe skip the next couple of lines) they tipped the hedgehog out and played football with it. They kicked it to death for fun. Others gleefully joined in, and only one child (a boy who I heard grew up to be a zookeeper) tried to stop them. If I’d had a gun, I think I’d have shot them. I was disgusted by my fellow humans, and believed that human nature was fundamentally evil. But I was wrong. Those kids were damaged, not bad. The Black Country has been brutalised for centuries. The first victims of the British Empire were the British. My grandparents (and theirs) were mistreated, and responded with drinking and violence. This wasn’t at all unusual, and negatively affected subsequent generations.

The left vs right battle: 2. the roots of left and right thinking
People in working-class areas of Britain were the first to be brutalised by the British Empire.

Those kids hadn’t been socialised to have compassion and integrity. The problem isn’t people, or ‘human nature’. People are just fine, if they’re raised in functional families in functional communities. Most people want to leave the world a better place than they found it. But power corrupts, so I’m suggesting that we don’t allow power to centralise so much in the first place, to make sure that malign forces can’t influence it or seize it. A minority of people are selfish, greedy and ruthless, but they weren’t born that way. They were either raised dysfunctionally or corrupted by power. The problem is that in this system, those kinds of people will do very well, and reach positions of influence. In fact, the current system is biased in favour of those people. We need a new system that rewards good qualities rather than bad ones. It’s not enough to replace corrupt people at the top of the corporate or state hierarchy, because similar people will quickly replace them. People die, and companies come and go. The problem is the system itself.


Next week: why the left vs right battle isn’t helpful. Nature, democracy and community aren’t partisan issues. No-one sensible, of any political persuasion, speaks out against them. They’re essential for human well-being. We can all agree on that at least, even if we differ about what policies are required to protect them. But they’re being destroyed, and disunity wastes energy and prevents us from being able to do anything about it.

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