Is the Left Unprincipled?


In an article published earlier this year, Paul Sheehan was again lampooning the Left for its apparent hypocrisy in not attacking Muslims for their treatment of women. Sheehan is chief cheer leader in a growing din of voices pointing out the internal tensions in the Left.

For many on the progressive Left, our beliefs are instinctive. It is a pit-of-the-stomach thing. When arch conservatives, for instance, come out arguing other civilisations should be condemned for their treatment of women, we have a gut response. At some level we know this is dangerous stuff. But we stand like bunnies in the headlights not being able to explain our view.

In order to escape this tricky pincer movement, the Left is going to have to get much better at explaining what it believes and why. It is an opportunity that just might help the Left become relevant again.

Activists at the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm

Deep down, the progressive Left are a fundamentally democratic bunch. We have an instinctive belief that society can only be prosperous, peaceful and cohesive if we operate according to democratic norms. Many of us are not that good at telling you what those norms are so it is time we started making them a bit more explicit.

The first pillar of democratic freedom is that there are lots of ideas of the ‘good life.’ For some it is a pile of cash, for others it’s a football premiership, for others it’s the perfect artwork, and for others it’s being spiritual. Individual freedom is about being able to pursue what you think matters most.

The second pillar is that to have a society made up of lots of people pursuing their own bliss, there has to be a commitment to tolerance. Everyone has to be allowed to think and do what they like, as long as they do not hurt anyone else.

A free society is one where footy fanatics live next door to greenies, where religious conservatives live next door to swingers. Our freedom rests on the fact that we tolerate one another’s choices.

When Left liberals flounce about insisting we should respect Muslims or any other minority, we are not actually talking about the minority. We are talking about ourselves. We are talking about the society we want to aspire to. We are arguing that we all should aspire to the democratic value of treating people who hold different ideas as our equals.

The Left has lost the knack of arguing for democratic principles. We no longer say straight out what they are. Instead, sticking up for minorities has become the symbolic touch stone for our commitment to democratic values.

When a gaggle of middle-aged, ABC-watching Lefties stand up for gay rights, it is not because there is any likelihood of seeing them at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Their insistence on gay rights is symbolic of their commitment to the fundamental equality of all people.

When a mob of uni students get out and protest for Aboriginal rights, it is only marginally about Aboriginal people. Again, it has become the intuitive unspoken code. Standing up for Indigenous people is about demonstrating your beliefs about how Australian democracy should be.

Similarly, when latte-sipping twenty-somethings speak with reverence for other cultures, they are talking about themselves they are participating in a ritual that demonstrate their openness to other ideas; they are performing to their fellow latte-drinkers, and acknowledging their respect for difference and the possibility that there is something to learn from others.

When the progressive Left stands up for these groups, it is not just about the groups. It is about arguing that the great mass of middle Australia should conform to democratic values. How our society treats our minority groups is an embodiment of who we are.

The Left needs to cut through the fog and symbols and get very clear about whose behaviour is at issue bringing into sharp focus that what we’re on about is upholding democratic values and making sure our political leaders live up to those values. We want to see our political leaders respect the equality of all people, based on an acknowledgement that we share a fundamental humanity. We want our political leaders to be committed to tolerating many different ideas about how to live.

In this light, the gut response to the Sheehans of the world becomes a little clearer. When Right-wingers attack Islam’s treatment of women it has a particular politics. They are not writing with an acceptance of a shared humanity. They are not writing with an awareness that all societies, including ours, have their own internal power struggles and sometimes commit atrocities. They are using their attack as rhetoric to dehumanise whole civilisations painting whole communities as less moral, less human, less deserving of respect than ourselves.

It is our democratic character that is being eroded when we dehumanise people we disagree with. It is our freedom to hold diverse ideas that comes into question once we stop treating people with different ideas as our equals. When we stop upholding democratic norms, it is our democracy that is most at risk.

It is entirely appropriate for the Left to hold our leaders up to the highest democratic standards, because it is our democracy we are protecting. It is equally appropriate for us to reject our politicians’ de-humanisation of people who hold different ideas, because it is our democratic norms we are policing.

To survive and thrive, the Left needs to get much clearer about whose behaviour it is policing, and exactly what it is we are defending.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.