It’s time to bring nuance back to political language

14 September 2017

It’s time to bring nuance back to political language

Photo credit: Aitoff (Pixabay) — CC0 public domain dedication

Everywhere online, political commentators use the terms “left” and “right” to describe various, often conflicting, movements. This trend is an unfortunate development, as it seems to be destroying the distinctions and subtleties that make the political landscape — and the societies it reflects — so diverse. In short, we are losing our sense of nuance when it comes to the fine differences between political standpoints that should actually encourage the finding of common ground.

The term “left” is generally used to describe everything that could be called “socially progressive”, and which promote social equality or social justice. As a result this tends to cover communists, socialists, feminists, environmentalists, LGBT+ activists, atheists, ethnic and racial activists, and many more. I once remarked that “‘left’ now seems to mean some vaguely-socialist quasi-libertarian progressive-authoritarianism”, due to its use as a pejorative for a wide number of political leanings.

What these groups have in common is that they want social change through state regulation action, but the extent and type of regulation varies enormously. The “feminist ideology” is not one that promotes the nationalising of private industries — although, as with most ideologies, they can be mixed and matched (many communists may be environmentalists, and many atheists may be socialists).

By contrast, the term “right” is generally used to describe everything that could be called either “socially conservative”, “economically liberal”, or “libertarian”. This is especially confusing because some elements of “the right” want minimal state regulation on the whole (libertarians), while others want minimal state regulation of the economy (economic liberals), and others want state regulation to prevent social change (social conservatives).

As a result, this tends to include far more conflicting ideologies than the term “left” — it can be applied to people who want to use the state to enforce religious principles, and people who want the state to stay out of religious matters; people who want maximum individual freedom, and people who only want economic freedom.

Further, the term “liberal” is used, generally synonymously with the term “left” as it is currently used. In North America (and to some degree elsewhere), “liberal” typically refers to social progressives, in the vein of the Canadian Liberal Party.

But it can also be used in the sense of “classical liberal”, which is more akin to libertarianism — an ideology that promotes maximum individual civil, cultural, economic, political and social freedom. This is the sense in which it used in the United Kingdom, where it is generally associated with the Liberal Democrats, a libertarian political party.

Confusingly, I recently came across ‘liberal’ being used as a seemingly pejorative adjective for socially progressive members of the US Democratic Party — ‘liberal Democrats’. I did a double-take, before realising that the author was an American and that the content of their comment indicated they themselves were more likely to be a libertarian!

By contrast, “Liberal” (big-L) in Australia generally refers to the Liberal Party, a socially conservative, economically liberal political party. Australia also has a Liberal Democratic Party, which is in the same vein as the British party.

If we look at politics with such limited notions, we miss the common ground. There are left-libertarians, who promote both individual freedoms and social equality, and can be useful allies to classical liberals/right-libertarians — Green parties, while tending to be economically left, often have similar policies to classical liberals concerning recreational drug use, same-sex marriage, privacy rights and subsidies for private industries.

Likewise, feminists, LGBT+ activists, and ethnic and racial activists do not necessarily want the state to increase regulation of the private sector, but to ensure that the state does not discriminate in its treatment of individuals and groups — that the state, where it does regulate, regulates equally.

By continuing to use and promote these indiscriminate labels, we maintain opposing camps that do not reflect both the diversity and commonality of many ideologies lumped in among them. We are amalgamating diverse political views that may have very little in common, while denying the similarities that can help to build consensus.

“The left” and “the right” aren’t two monstrous blocs that are diametrically opposed; they are labels we continue to misapply that deny the complexities and intricacies of the political landscape. Instead, we should be acknowledging, understanding and observing the nuances that exist.