#46: We Need to Move Beyond the Left/Right Paradigm

There have been plenty of attempts to redefine the Left/Right paradigm that still seems to reign supreme in most people’s minds, especially in journalism.

Originally established in the French National Assembly in 1789, it divided parliamentarians between those in support of the French Revolution on the left, and the supporters of the Establishment on the right. It is a seating arrangement from more than 230 years ago. It makes sense to simplify matters when it comes to seating, as you have to place people in a room, and where one person sits, nobody else can sit. This was my first lesson as an altar boy, and it makes sense when it comes to such matters.

But aren’t political ideas more complicated than seating plans?

If you generalize the seating, it becomes immediately clear that it is a very situational problem. If the division is between disruption/revolution on the one side, and conserving/establishment, depending on the political party, what is “left” and what is “right” cannot be considered stable. If the establishment follows Socialist ideas, are supporters of Socialism suddenly right-wingers? If both Socialists/Communists and National Socialists on one side stood against Social Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals on the other in the Weimar Republic, are those in favor of disruption all on the “left”, and those in favor of democracy all on the “right”?

Is everybody who is not on the side of the Socialists on the “right”? Social Democrats have suffered for decades under being labeled failed revolutionaries – and sometimes seem to surrender to the stereotypes themselves rather than to defend their moderation in defense of democracy against disruptive radicalism. Similarly, what do Conservatives who defend democracy have in common with Fascists and National Socialists? This simply makes no sense.

We currently see a vivid demonstration of the outright idiocy of such labels:

  • Those “resisting” Coronavirus prevention measures fall visibly into a variety of political camps. Recent demonstrations in Berlin illustrated that clearly: Alternatives, Hippies, LGBTQ advocates, concerned democracy defenders, so-called sovereign citizens, as well as outright Neo-Nazis joined in a happy commingling. In the US, social protests of any spectrum seem to merely pay lip service (if at all) to protective regulations.
  • Putin has shown support for both right-wing and left-wing extremist parties in the recent decades. He is seen as an inspiration for both.
  • China’s communist leadership is cow-towed by everybody expecting political and economic favor, notwithstanding its civil rights abuses.
  • Antisemitism has flourished on both the “left” and the “right” recently under the label of “criticizing Israel”, a very transparent attempt to single out the Jewish state as the alleged source of all evil in the world (this becomes clear by being a sin of omission: the same “critics” remain silent on China, Turkey, Russia, or any other state (every single one!) that has ever incorporated territory originally not their own).

There are countless more examples, and there air several attempts at solving the classification problem by thinking in quadrants rather than two sides only (typically, by drawing an axis of totalitarianism vs. libertarianism, and another of individualism vs. groupishness).

It is disappointing to see the old and outdated paradigm still abound. Either we are not learning anything, or old ideas simply die hard…

#45: Benefit of the Doubt

It is probably human nature to be tribalistic, to be focused on supporting “your” side or team. This can sometimes limit our ability to cooperate with the “other” side. It also creates a false dichotomy, in which we can think only about two sides to any issue, even though there may be more.

One way to overcome this dangerous divide is to remind ourselves that even if we disagree with someone else, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Division works by painting an extreme difference, between only two choices, one absolutely correct and the other absolutely wrong; and additionally, painting those believing in the first choice as good, and the other as bad or even evil.

Trying to understand someone we do not agree with does not need to endanger our moral compass. It may question our own facts and assumptions – but that is a necessary process. The believe in an either-or, in the dichotomy of good versus evil is in itself the very problem plaguing our society. People are not all good. People are not all bad.

We need to fight against actions that create avoidable suffering, but we need to give people the benefit of the doubt even in those cases where we think that they may be causing harm. People’s motivations can be complex. They may actually mean to do the right thing, even if it ends up being the wrong thing. The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intention” is quite applicable here: in too many cases, people may feel locked into a path that they may feel they have to take, even if it is wrong, even if they know it is wrong. Moral dilemmas are nothing new in human history, and all our literature and culture is full of such stories. Oedipus does everything to avoid killing his father, and yet ends up doing so. Utopian communities have always aimed at building a better world, and always ended up building hell on Earth. People know they need to communicate with each other to fight climate change, but they also need to use the very technology that is contributing to the destruction of our habitat.

If we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we truly listen to the other side, we display strength, not weakness. It is true strength to veer out of your bubble, to try to learn and understand what is alien to us; it is also true strength to change one’s mind if something convinces you that you have been wrong in the past. The longer we live, the more we will find where we have been wrong in the past. This happens all the time, and as much as we – hopefully – give ourselves room for growth, we should give it to others. Not without reason is judgement reserved to the Eternal in all religions.

#44: There is Too Much “Now” Today

We live in a society governed by the demands of today, of the now, of the immediate. This is, of course, not a new observation. For decades now, cultural theorists have described the decline of traditional values, of belonging, and an increasing frustration with the speed of technological and societal change. But it appears that these lessons have not only not been learned, but that we seem to have leaned in to this atmosphere of constant change and embraced it whole-heartedly.

Accepting reality is healthy, of course. We need to be mentally prepared for a life of constantly changing parameters, and ignoring such changes is not helpful. But that does not mean that we should simply give in without a fight, and lose our minds in the process.

One of the primary problems of today seems to be the loss of history. There is not just a decline in knowledge about history (which is bad enough) but even more so a decline in the awareness of history. We live in the ever-present “now”, in the ever-changing “now”, which has decreed that history would be useless, because the present would be so much different and no lessons – allegedly – could possibly be learned from it. At the same time, we are told that we are moving towards a better future, but that future will also just be an ever-expanding “now”, just a “now” that has forgotten and invalidated the past “now” because it will equally not care about history.

Even worse, it seems, is the more recent development that even the belief in a better future seems to be declining. Sure, social problems are being addressed, and so-called progressive movements claim to bring about change for the better in this regard; but is that really progressivism? Fighting social ills does not need a claimed future orientation, it needs just as much historical awareness, as much as knowledge about the suffering in the now. Progressivism used to be so much more – a future with a vision for human development, togetherness, space, technology, science etc. But that is too often disregarded as dreaming that distracts from the now. But we must be building our future in the now. We must plan big again to eradicate disease, slavery, extreme poverty, dictatorships, ameliorate climate change, save our environment, go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, right now.

Without such big goals, we cannot proceed in the now. We need to dream big. But we cannot do that without an awareness of history, of the historical moment we are in, of the challenges to humanity in the past. We need history to tell us about mistakes we may be making right now, and to also let us know when we are making progress.

If we cannot put our current situation in a historical context, we will always despair, and whatever ails us personally and societally right now will only seem so much more unsolvable. Without being aware of the demons of the past, we may not recognize them when they are return. Without serious historical grounding, we will not be able to distinguish between the very many problems we are facing. We seem to be living in a time of both complete moral relativism, and an inability to recognize nuance. We either see no problem, or every problem we see gets elevated to the most absurd degree.

The “now” removes the humility we need that can only come from historical grounding. Historical awareness lets us know where we (as people) are doing better or worse than in the past; it also tells us to be careful assuming we have all the answers – for we don’t, as the future will tell us soon enough.

#43: “Worst Persons” in the World: Hate is the New Normal

I still remember Keith Olbermann’s sometimes ironic, sometimes dead-serious takedowns of politicians and people in the public eye. His show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBNC (2003-11) started, supposedly, as a parody of the style of Bill O’Reilly’s show “The O’Reilly Factor” (1996-2017), then on Fox News. While Olbermann never achieved the brilliance which Stephen Colbert displayed in his all-out O’Reilly parody on the “Colbert Report” (2005-14, sorely missed!), he perfectly captured the tone not just of his time, but even more so of the time we’re graced (or cursed?) to live in.

Olbermann’s key segment was called “The Worst Person in the World”, in which he provided a regular, and predictable, personality assassination on live television. If you had never heard of “argumentum ad hominem”, an argument directed at the person rather than the issue (“argumentum ad rem”), here it was, celebrated with gusto. It captured the time perfectly. The administration of George W. Bush, as it had to survive its rocky start after a contested election victory, and then the attacks of September 11, 2001, was a frequent and convenient target. Olbermann, the perfect showman, seized the moment and provided regular attacks against the people who committed politics he did not agree with. This was something not seen before in such a drastic and caustic style, putting even O’Reilly (whose show I really did not care for) to shame. As an all-out celebration of vicious partisan commentary, the show was a success – but what may have then been a welcome outlier to some, seems to have become the norm now, not just in journalism but in everyday life. As a previous sports commentator, Olbermann seemed to have forgotten the saying that you may hate the game, but not the player.

(To not throw Olbermann under the bus completely: he also had moments of true profundity, and changed the discourse with his powerful defense of gay marriage by just stating, in its baffling and utterly revealing simplicity, that it is just about love, and the freedom to love who you want. He also calmed down the part of the nation that listened to him with endearing readings from James Thurber’s fables.)

But back to the point about argumentative style.

Everybody you don’t like is now the worst person in the world, everything you don’t like is the worst thing in the world, liking may exist, but disliking something or not caring for or about something is out. It’s either like it or hate it. Hate is the new normal, and declaring who you like or hate is expected in everyday discourse. At the same time, the idea of “liking something” has been turned into a consumerist and corporatist tool that has completely destroyed its original meaning. Can I really “like” a certain brand just as a “like” the comment somebody made?

This culture of constantly declaring your positionality is disturbing, as it removes all sense of productive ambiguity and expects everyone to blast out their opinion into the world every chance they get. Even more disturbingly, you are now supposed to have an opinion about everything, and are tied to this opinion forever. Maybe you liked brand A in the past, now you like brand B till something better comes along or you become nostalgic. Maybe you agreed with position X back then, now favor Y, and in the future tend to return to X or choose Z.

What happened to the idea of changing your mind? If information or societal circumstances change, should we not be allowed to adjust our positions? Is not an opinion something that should be a momentary snapshot of serious judgements made depending on the specific moment in history? Do we not change over time? Are our tastes and preferences supposed to be constant? I cringe every time when people are supposed to only like the style of music that was popular when they were growing up. How limiting. I guess I have been growing up then for several millennia, appreciating music since ancient Egyptian styles. I don’t believe in limiting our horizons.

The attack on other opinions is, of course, always waged in the name of democracy, on all sides. This is nothing new,. of course:

“For, to state the truth in few words, whatever parties, during that period, disturbed the republic under plausible pretexts, some, as if to defend the rights of the people, others, to make the authority of the senate as great as possible, all, though affecting concern for the public good, contended every one for his own interest. In such contests there was neither moderation nor limit; each party made a merciless use of its successes.” (Sallust, Conspiracy of Catilina, ch. 38)

Ironically, this pretense of democracy promotion directly feeds into consumerism and marketability. Only if you voice clear opinions and preferences can market analysts and pollsters make sense out of you. Thus we surrender our capacity for a truly democratic exchange of ideas – which necessitates our opinions to change from time to time – in order to succumb to commercial market pressures and to make a mockery of an honest marketplace of ideas.

Olbermann and O’Reilly eventually ended their respective engagements, whether voluntarily or not. O’Reilly fell due to personal failures, supposedly. For the eventual end of Olbermann’s show, I credit Ben Affleck’s brilliant Saturday Night Live skit, in which he took down a hapless landlord for discriminating against his cat, “Miss Precious Perfect.” Affleck revealed Olbermann’s pomposity, defanged, or rather, declawed it. Humor is always more seditious than righteous indignation, and Jon Stewart’s sobering critical voice sorely missed.

The legacy of this ad hominem style, sadly, seems to continue with – quite literally – a vengeance.

Aren’t we tired of it yet?