Please note that this essay is an expanded and modified version of my response comment to the superb and must-read essay The Decay of the Left and The Need to Reaffirm Liberalism by Robbie Travers & Tom Owolade.
I know what my values are: they are those of secular humanism — freedom of expression, social justice, women’s rights, the pursuit of equality for all, democracy, the pursuit of fair justice and ethics, separation of religion and state, the pursuit and championing of science, art, knowledge, and more — basically, all liberal values I thought were championed by the Left. However, now and more and more, I am not so sure, leading me to feel very alone amongst my peers.
I try to wrestle and deal with the above, by deciding that I have abandoned the whole political spectrum of Left or Right, and I urge others to do so as well. Instead, I say I am “issue-based.” Ask me about a particular issue — be it international politics, domestic politics, free speech, women’s reproductive rights, discrimination in society, guns and violence, poverty and homelessness, religion, etc. — and I will tell you my opinions and views. If you were to then plot these answers onto a graph of the political-spectrum, they would likely mostly cluster around the left. However, other views would not, and I more and more have started to spread out all over this so-called spectrum (or at times, seemingly cannot find a spot to plot it on), because of the very issues and problems highlighted with the current Left. It goes without saying as well, that the secular liberal values I champion aren’t part of the Right-wing, either. Needless to say, voting days are tough.
In the end, it feels lonely. Many times as well, I feel the strong social-pressure to self-censor my views when I know I am about to express the “wrong” or controversial view, especially since I’m in the public eye (somewhat) as a comedian and actor.
I think a huge part of the problem to begin with, is that people are so attached to their chosen, perceived, and proclaimed spot on this so-called political spectrum. This is true for both the Left and Right, and so perhaps it is more a problem with how humans think, and their deeply-rooted need to belong and conform to a group — specifically, whichever they perceive to be the ‘correct’ or ‘cool’ group.
For example, and we’ll talk about leftists here, both because that is the subject of the piece I was first responding to, and also because it is mainly leftists and fellow liberals & humanists I’m addressing; it seems it’s become an important part of someone’s identity — often throughout one’s entire life — to be a ‘leftist’. Therefore, when confronted with a particular issue of debate, their brain goes on a sort of autopilot mode, where instead of truly analyzing a particular issue or question at hand, they enter into “groupthink”: they ask themselves, “What does the Left say is the correct view on this? What do the current Left’s gurus (Chomsky, etc.) say about this?”
Even if they read articles for research — and so many people will readily discuss even the most complicated geopolitical issues, as though they were experts, having read just a few articles (or mayyybe a couple of books, oooh la la) — they often will do so from only the perspective of their groups and gurus. In effect, they have already decided the verdict on the particular issue, so they aren’t truly reading in a way that might cause them to question or doubt their adopted views.
As much as we must try to examine our own biases and search for objectivity and fairness, we must also be careful not to confuse adopting and championing the majority view of the ‘other’ or the perceived ‘downtrodden’, as meaning we have successfully shed our biases and have found objective and true justice.
Additionally, we must speak about history — and here I mean, the lack of its study. I’m truly shocked and saddened by the fact that people seem to show so little interest in really delving and researching into the full and complicated history of certain issues. This is especially true of the entire Israel-Palestine debate and current anti-Zionist movement. The declared Leftist dogma of Israel as an evil, white, Western, colonialist, state is simply not true. I’m sorry its history doesn’t fit into that model — and it often doesn’t for many other issues — but it just doesn’t. At all. That doesn’t stop people from continually hammering the square peg into the round hole and declaring that it fits, regardless. If anyone actually reads and examines the history from many sources, including contemporary sources, data collected at the time, etc., they will begin to see why the current crisis isn’t as simple to solve and discuss as easily and readily as they feel it is. And yes, agreed, certainly not all anti-Zionists are antisemites, but by and large, they have mostly become so for reasons well outlined in the piece above and as well as many others highlighting their Israel-only blinders and double standards.
I, too, cannot understand the Left’s current silence and hypocritical stance on many of the world’s atrocities. If a non-Western state, government, group or religion, is engaged systemic violence, murder, human rights abuses, and discrimination, should it not matter? Should it not matter as much? It seems this is what the Left is indeed saying. Take Syria for example. Iraq. Iran. Saudi Arabia. Pakistan. Bangladesh. Nigeria. China. I wish I didn’t have to say it, but the list does go on and on.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree, double-majoring in History and International Studies – The Middle East, and I get that not everyone should be required to do a full degree in a given subject before expressing their views; but that said, I’m shocked by how little research and examining they have done before feeling confident enough to comment and declare their opinions on topics. And once declared, it seems they will rarely change their mind, no matter how much evidence is given to the contrary.
In effect, it seems that most people aren’t seeking the honest truth or justice in a given situation; people seem to be simply asking, “What is the correct, proper, and socially acceptable view to have on this topic, according to the majority opinion or leadership of my chosen group?”
This is dangerous of course, because such people abandon all forms of actual free thinking, and will aggressively squash debate that tries to actually engage in legitimate questioning and discussion. They will then brand any dissenting opinions or even questions with terrible, socially-ostracizing insults, such as ‘racist’, ‘x-or-y-phobic’, etc. — which can have real consequences on a person’s life and career — thus shutting down debate and warding off any future debate.
As for universal values, they don’t believe in any, or even the seeking of those universal values of justice and freedom (as much as that’s even possible). Relativism is instead championed, and this is of course so dangerous, because it means we cannot truly question and fight certain abuses without being branded a sort of “cultural imperialist.”
We must absolutely pursue universal values of justice and we should not turn a blind eye to abuses just because they are accepted by a particular society, or even the very group and people being abused. It shouldn’t have to be restated, but those who are abused are often taught to accept the system of abuse. The same goes for long-held traditions and customs.
Longevity does not make something true or just.
For example, slavery was a longstanding tradition, and many black slaves were taught and therefore adopted the belief that their lot was ordained from god. Had we all believed in cultural relativism at the time, we would have never successfully gotten rid of slavery. People would have argued (as they did) that this was their society’s right and part of their particular system of justice, and those from the ‘outside’ had no business seeking to change their way of life. The same goes for women’s rights both in the past and today — indeed, in recent polls carried out in non-Western countries, many women stated thatthey believe it is their fault and perfectly acceptable to be physically abused by their husbands when they do something wrong.
Of course, none of what I’m saying should be news to the Left. These were supposed to be their values and concerns. I think in truth, many Leftists are hypocritically silent about certain things, because they are feeling a sort of cognitive dissonance.
They do know the practice and abuse by non-Westerners is wrong, but don’t know what to do about it. It’s easier then to shove the issues aside, repress them, downplay them, and not think and talk about them. They are afraid that speaking out against such things would make them a Western cultural colonialist. Moreover, they worry that such criticism could cause people to abandon some of their important causes. For example, take a look at the relative silence of Leftists regarding, say, the high rate of honour killings in Palestine. In this case, they would feel uneasy about both criticizing a non-Western society, as well as the fear that doing so would make them anti-Palestinian and bring negative attention to the Palestinian people. And of course, the Palestinians are one of the top issues — if not the top one — held most precious by the Left (or so they claim, anyway — their actions show otherwise). Hence the silence regarding Hamas’s atrocities — and I’m not even talking here about attacks on Israelis, but how they run society and treat fellow Palestinians in Gaza. Likewise the Left’s silence regarding virulent homophobia and the abuse of gays in Muslim countries, and the sanctioning of this very abuse by Islamic texts, teachings and imams.
The same goes for the Left’s hypocritical silence, lack of criticism and outright hostility to any criticism regarding the religion of Islam. We handle Islam and its practitioners with kid-gloves in a way that we do not with any other religionand its practitioners. Criticizing, attacking, and mocking Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Bhuddism, Mormonism, Scientology, etc. is all socially acceptable — and rightfully so. But attempt to criticize Islam and you are called a ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobe.’ I suspect this is due to several reasons: 1) Many of us in the West see Muslims as ‘non-white’ and therefore any valid criticism of the faith makes Leftists uncomfortable for the reasons already highlighted above. 2) Islam is seen by many as an ‘Eastern’ faith, and not only are Eastern religions and traditions romanticized by Westerners, they are not to be criticized by Westerners, because — yep, once again, the ol’ ‘cultural imperialist’ or just simply ‘racist’ card; 3) We have internalized and accepted the very blasphemy laws outlined in Islam that prohibit questioning, criticism, and ridicule. Why? We’re afraid to say it, but it’s because we fear violent repercussions, because doing so has and does lead to attacks by believers.
Recently, for example, I was at a burlesque show. One of the acts featured dancers dressed as nuns, who then undressed; the finale featured the main dancer humping the bible and a wooden cross being rubbed back and forth over her crotch. Everyone cheered and clapped. I fully support their right to do this act, and I fully support almost anything as long as it does not incite to harm and violence; but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if a dancer did this with the Qur’an and the star & crescent symbol representing Islam — or even just a drawing of them. I don’t think we even have to wonder, and the truth is, we can all predict the likely terrible results. Notwithstanding the probable ensuing violence and threats of violence, fellow proclaimed liberals and secularists would criticize the dancers for needlessly ‘provoking’ and offending Muslims — the dancers would also be branded ‘racists’ and ‘Islamophobes’.
The irony, as many have mentioned, is that by tiptoeing around Islam quietly, and not treating it the same way we do with other faiths and practices, we actually betray what has been termed the ‘the racism of low expectations’. It is as if the whole world is saying: “Yeah, okay, you Jews/Christians/Mormons/Hindus/etc. can be made fun of and criticized, but I can’t do that with Muslims. Why? Oh, come on, you know why. Because, well, no, don’t make me say it — well, because, um — they’re different, okay? They can’t handle it. They can’t handle being offended. And we can. We’re all grownups and they’re wild children who can’t control themselves. Offend them, and they’ll go apeshit with violence.” This point has been illustrated so well by this now-infamous cartoon by The Onion. Is this double standard not pathetic? Is this not racist to its believers? Is it not the height of condescension and patronizing, colonial behavior and attitudes? Is it not horrendous that we allow this to continue, and turn our back on the very real and brave Muslim reformers as well as ex-Muslims who plead with us to take off the kid-gloves and have real, honest, and open discussions and debate about legitimate problems and concerns with the religion and its doctrines? And yes, we do turn our backs on them every time we are silent or ban them from even speaking.
Cultural relativism is dangerous, harmful, unjust, and has big ramifications especially for immigrant children who are raised in the West, but aren’t allowed the Western freedoms, rights, education, and benefits their passports are supposed to afford them. But in the name of ‘tolerance’ and political correctness, we are silent when it comes to non-Western traditions and customs. How many girls have to be pulled out of school and shipped off to an arranged, coerced marriage before we can even have a conversation about this? How much domestic abuse, honor crimes, honor killings, FGM’s have to be carried out before we can start to talk about them without the fear of being branded a ‘racist’? Do we honestly expect it to just magically disappear if we are quiet about it? Is not offending people worth more than the suffering of our fellow humans? Silence will and has only increased the rates of such abuses.
We cannot allow such a two-tier system of justice, and I don’t think the Left even realizes it’s promoting this, but that’s precisely what is happening thanks to their championing of cultural relativism.
We must not be afraid of having uncomfortable discussions and debates. We have been brave enough to do so before, and that is the only way we have been able to achieve the secular and progressive rights we have today. We must not lie, coddle people, and silence and bend the truth simply because it offends people. The price of freedom means that sometimes we are offended. It is simply part of living in a pluralistic, secular, democratic, progressive society. It is also just simply part of being an adult. One of my all-time favorite comedy bits, by Steve Hughes, addresses this brilliantly and hilariously.
The recent push in universities, especially, to censor and ban anyone who might make us feel even remotely ‘uncomfortable’, and challenge our preconceived notions, is frightening and Orwellian. It is also the very antithesis of liberalism and progressivism, despite all justifications and claims to the contrary. Sometimes I feel like I have to literally pinch myself and ask if I didn’t just wake up and walk onto the set of 1984.
We must absolutely not be tolerant of intolerance. Our freedom to practice religion or any way of life cannot and must not trump our human-rights laws. We are allowing them to. We are allowing people to make a mockery of our hard-fought rights and freedoms by turning our language of tolerance and equality on its head.
We must not be afraid to criticize wrongdoing from any group, and we must be as outspoken and critical of abuses wherever we see them.
We must simply express the truth as we see it, no matter where it’s coming from. Therefore, we must not be afraid to express views that may be shared by, gasp, the ‘wrong side’. For example, I find so many Leftists identify themselves more accurately as ‘non-rightwing’; they see themselves more in opposition to something, rather than clearly having views for something. Therefore, they are terrified of sharing a view that the Right might have. I’ll break this down into a simple analogy: if tomorrow, the Left’s most hated duo in recent history, Bush & Cheney, declared, “We absolutely love the color yellow. It’s just so happy and sunny,” a bunch of leftists who loved yellow would be experiencing emotional turmoil, saying, “How could I have been so wrong about yellow? I don’t like yellow, anymore! I like blue!” This example is ridiculous, of course, but I have seen the exact type of ‘logic’ used in debate. Someone will argue a position that might actually be true, but rather than be countered with an argument showing evidence to the contrary, a Leftist will yell, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what the right-wing politician X said! How can you be saying the same thing?!’
Again, I find it scary that so many people seem not to be searching for honest truths, but are mostly concerned with having and especially showing that they have the current, accepted ‘correct’ views — again, as dictated by their leadership and groupthink. I call it the “Leftist K-Mart Package Deal” — you can meet one self-proclaimed Leftist, and literally know everything they think about most issues, such as: Israel is evil and a colonialist state; the West is always wrong and responsible for the evils of the world; Chomsky is to be revered and anything he writes is canon law; if you criticize Islam, you are Islamophobic; the non-Western, developing world is languishing behind the developed Western world due to the West’s actions, and where there are any social, cultural, and governmental problems, it is only because of the actions and legacy of Western colonialism; the Eastern and older societies and religions are to be romanticized and lauded for their ancient wisdom; and so on the ‘package deal’ goes regarding racism, women’s rights, the US government, etc.
Look, I even happen to agree with them on many issues, especially social ones, but each issue was individually examined, and I also continue to examine them and read evidence and research from all sides of the issue. It would therefore be okay for me to change my views on some issues, or even just sit in the muddy waters of ‘grey areas’ and work to figure out a decision — but I feel this isn’t the case for most people, because they are so concerned with keeping their group label. Human beings are/should be more complexed individuals and not as monolithic. Of course, it is entirely possible for someone to examine each issue on its own and still come up with each of the views listed in the above ‘package deal’, but most of the time I find it’s due to a herd mentality rather than individual examination.
It’s also just frankly more interesting and fun, when I meet people who can express an outlying view and engage in honest and lively discussion — and actually consider each idea and admit when a counterargument has made them reconsider their position on a given issue.
The only way society can and has always truly progressed, is when we were able to freely and openly debate, question, reconsider — and mock — our ideas, systems, and beliefs.
Much of the Left seems to be unquestioningly dogmatic about their views. It’s cause for great concern, especially considering the fact that the right-wing is pretty much doing the same thing. As pointed out, the irony is, the Left seems to be adopting the very behaviors and views for which they have traditionally and rightfully criticized the Right.
Where does that leave the rest of us? Those of us who do believe in at least the search for universal values of freedom, progress, justice and ethics?