“…protecting the means of improving knowledge is more important than any particular piece of knowledge.” – David Deutsch, Surviving the Cosmos
By most measures, I am on the left. I’m in favor of the welfare state, stronger environmental regulations, income redistribution, and animal welfare laws. I think that white privilege is sometimes a useful concept, and trigger warnings can be helpful. Like most leftists, I’m concerned about racism, sexism, consumerism, and radical libertarianism. And because I care about these issues, I’m frustrated by the extent to which the modern left (also known as the authoritarian, control, or regressive left) has inadvertently sabotaged progressive causes.
By reacting to disagreements with hostility rather than cogent argument, modern leftists not only fail to persuade but actively make enemies. When invited speakers are harassed, intimidated, and shouted down on university campuses, Fox News gains legitimate fodder; when someone is called a sexist for suggesting that males and females are different, anti-feminists build sympathy; and when legitimate criticism of non-whites is met with allegations of racism, true racism gets obfuscated. The modern left, by getting outraged at any and all difference in political opinion, is hurting the causes it claims to cherish.
Unfortunately, this irony is generally lost on those embroiled in the fight against Western patriarchy. The modern left is so caught up in its own righteousness that they’ve failed to understand the importance of making a good impression. If modern leftists truly want to change the world (as they keep asserting), then the impression they make matters. Humans are quick to judge, and when undecided on an issue we often make up our minds by assessing the character of its proponents. This is an unfortunate fact of human nature, but it’s one which the modern left largely ignores. By prioritizing disdain over dialogue they’ve hobbled their ability to convince anyone not already in agreement.
When leftists eschew civil discourse in favor of outrage and groupthink, they do nobody a service, least of all themselves. In an effort to convince some modern leftists to change tack, I’d like to point out how their current approach to politics runs counter to their self-interest. I do this not as a conservative seeking to silence but as a liberal hoping to offer advice. To begin, then, let’s consider the reluctance of some leftists to engage with mainstream thought.
1. Be Willing to Engage
I sometimes wonder who, exactly, modern leftists hope to reach. They say they want to change hearts and minds but when presented with opportunities to do so, generally prefer to exclaim that “there’s no debate”, as if that were sufficient to settle any matter. But if swaths of society don’t already agree, then, actually, there is a debate, and by refusing to take part, the modern left relinquishes its say. Where disagreement runs rampant is often where we need debate most, so that we can hear the best (and worst) arguments before forming opinions.
Just imagine if Darwin, Einstein, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or modern climate scientists had decided that there was “no debate”, choosing instead to fume in contempt at the benighted masses. Scientific and moral progress would have been hamstrung. If you hope to change your culture, you must engage with it.
By reacting with disgust any time you hear a right-wing view, you can rid yourself of right-wing friends but you are unlikely to influence right-wing thought. When you attempt to shut down questionable speakers or shut out disagreement, you simply show the world that you wish to live in an ideologically homogeneous bubble. After all, people can always speak elsewhere. If you’re truly committed to promoting justice and feel that certain views stand in the way, you should welcome the opportunity to engage with them.
2. Listen and Understand
Of course, to engage with others we must first understand them. And this requires us to listen. As children this is one of the first lessons we’re taught: listen first, then reply. Few people doubt the utility of this approach to communication. Yet somehow, modern leftists appear to pride themselves on their inability to listen, often acting as if actually getting the point would contaminate their minds.
So let me say this: you are more than welcome to criticize the findings of science, the ideas of white men, social institutions, Western foreign policy, capitalism, and bigoted attitudes in our society. In fact, I encourage you to do so, because without criticism we cannot make progress. But if you want your criticism to carry any weight, you must make it clear that you understand the targets of your critique.
Before criticizing science, you should learn some science; before criticizing the free market, you should learn some economics; and before criticizing any individual, you should learn what they actually think. If you fail to listen, learn, and understand before you criticize, then you cannot expect people to take you seriously. If you go further, imputing racist or sexist motives without sufficient understanding, you can expect people to loathe you and whatever you stand for.
As Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People over 80 years ago, “If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long…” Perhaps the modern left read his advice out of context.
3. The Importance of Meaning
Modern leftists have a strange relationship with words. On the one hand, they are particular about the words people use, taking offence at the slightest misspeak. On the other, they can be quite lax with word choice, using terms like “white supremacist” and “Nazi” to refer to relatively benign individuals.
The meanings of words matter. By using words whose meaning grossly exaggerates perceived threats, you become like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. For instance, when you call someone like Jordan Peterson a Nazi, I’m left wondering: do you literally think he’s a Nazi, who would stand behind the extermination of minorities, the disabled, and others? If so, I can’t help but question your judgment. Or are you simply co-opting the grievous suffering of millions of people as a rhetorical flourish, to highlight the dangers of improper pronoun use? If so, I can’t help but question your flippant neglect of any sense of proportion. Either way you’ve just shown that you lack the nuance needed to discuss serious matters, and have ensured that few people not already in agreement will take you seriously. (For the record I write this as someone who disagrees with many of Jordan Peterson’s views).
4. It’s Okay to be Uncertain
Our institutions do a poor job of teaching the value of uncertainty. In politics, public school, or religion, if you consistently acknowledge uncertainty you’re unlikely to get into office, pass your exams, or win God’s favor. Many people go through life never realizing that to gain knowledge we must first admit the possibility of our own error. This is true regardless of political orientation.
One of the great gifts of a solid liberal education is that it teaches us how to question previously held assumptions. A good education instils mental tools by which we can parse the complexity of the world. And in doing so we regularly discover that affairs are more complex than they once seemed. By learning how to draw back, assess the world with a sober mind, and make sense of its patterns, we can escape many of the illusions that held our ancestors’ minds in bondage. But to do this we must first shed our dogmatism by admitting that we could be wrong. Unfortunately, some of our university departments are reliably making many students more, not less, dogmatic.
Most people have been wrong about most things most of the time. When dealing with complex political issues involving questions of economics, technology, governance, and human nature, it’s crucial that we acknowledge complexity and allow ourselves to change our minds.
If you enter a conversation unwilling to grant any possibility of your own error, you show that you have no interest in honest discussion. Although your peer group may applaud your reluctance to concede any ground, to the unconvinced you come across as a fundamentalist. If you hope to be taken seriously, you must be mature enough to engage in self-reflective discussion. Once you can do this, you’ll often be surprised to find your conversational partner follow suit.
5. Don’t Unfairly Stereotype
Every good communicator knows that criticism is best received on the heels of agreement or a compliment. If you show others that you respect them, they’ll strive to maintain that respect throughout your conversation. Conversely, if you open with relentless criticism and accusations, you’re unlikely to foster productive discourse, and, to the uninitiated, you’ll look like a mean-spirited bully.
For this reason, your habit of holding the whiteness or maleness of a person against them is unhelpful. By stereotyping white males as a source of great evil, and demanding that they acknowledge their inherent guilt, you do little to further your cause. Once you show hostility towards white men as a group, you give them license to ignore you – after all, if you already hold them in contempt then why should they care what you think?
If you truly think that white men have orchestrated the ills of the modern world, shouldn’t you seek to persuade them, rather than shout at them? Instead of holding their skin colour and sex – traits they cannot help – against them, why not try speaking to them as human beings, attempting to find the extent of your disagreements, then working to remedy them?
If the modern left genuinely cares about changing the world, it must be willing to engage with mainstream thought. Its current approach to politics – screaming obscenities from the sidelines, equating offense with physical violence, getting outraged over innocent remarks, and intimidating professors and serious intellectuals – is so repulsive that many leftists have joined hands with those on the right who understand the importance of freedom of speech. Surely, this is not the goal that campus protestors and Silicon Valley magnates have in mind when they oppose offensive speech.
Progress comes through speech, not silence. If people are wrong about the havoc wreaked by income inequality, the extent to which racism is a problem, or the role of female preferences in the gender wage gap, there are ways of correcting them. But if those who call foul are unwilling to engage in civil discussion, they should not expect to have a say.