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2 October 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:50pm

How to criticise the left

Thanks to the internet, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us.

By Richard Wallace

If you use Twitter a lot, you may have wondered exactly how to criticise large parts of the left without sounding like a bigot, a racist, or worst of all Richard Dawkins. 

The legacy of what the internet calls “identity politics” is that the lived experience of an individual now not only informs a given debate, as well it should, but dominates it, leaving no room for dissent.

Coupled with the binary nature of the internet, in which layered ideas are pounded flat by the limitations of the format, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us. There are no in-betweens.   

For instance, even advocates of political correctness (as I am) often concede that the use of inclusionary language can potentially be wrongheaded or clumsy. Yet anyone caught contravening the latest iteration of an increasingly esoteric cant is blacklisted as a witch, a heretic, a mansplainer, a “whorephobe”, Richard Littlejohn, or a similarly unflattering slur.

It leads to a question: is this hectoring attitude towards cultural shibboleths likely to alienate well-meaning middle-grounders from ever truly engaging with the ideas?

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Not that engagement is always the objective. The development of stylesheets to define a person’s credentials is also a defensive weapon – if someone lacks the argumentative tools to tackle an idea, they can discredit the person having the idea instead. It’s an excuse for emotional, rather than critical, thinking. “Why,” a leftist might ask today, “should I engage with Peter Hitchens on immigration or drug law, when he’s a Tory/racist/space alien?”  Twitter is lousy with people who know the answer before they’ve asked the question.

Equally the internet is a great way of insulating yourself against challenging ideas, and you can even become something of a left-wing darling among choirs of like-minded peers. But no matter your cachet within the hierarchy of progressiveness, will you ever be qualified to reliably discuss Beethoven if you’ve only ever listened to the Dead Kennedys? 

The reason I feel the need to analogise is that creativity is required to express ideas in an age where words and ideas can quickly become taboo. Try having a grown-up conversation about freedom of speech or immigration or austerity without the debate quickly descending into a face-off around each word’s representative categorical implications. Unironic use of the words free speech mark you as a libertarian, your stance on immigration makes you either pro or anti racism, and what you think about austerity implies whether or not class privilege courses inexorably through your veins. I am using this garish italicisation as is customary for non-integrated foreign words, because at this point they may as well be: these words have no longer have any original or literal meaning but represent only a wider cultural idea, like saying plus ca change or c’est la vie. 

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Without doubt, this is a result of use, misuse and overuse, the sucking until flavourless the sour and sweet confectionary of political rhetoric. Powerful, provocative words cannot enjoy unlimited transplantations in and out of their intended context. Soon, the context will stop sticking, like worn-out velcro. We risk devaluing useful globules of language by repurposing them so often not as useful signifiers but as brands for the ideologically impure. 

This problem is by no means limited to the left – just look at how similarly right-wing parodies of social liberals miss the point of trigger warnings and safe spaces, warping the words beyond their intended uses – but the unifying factor of this context-free approach to language is that it makes criticism impossible without invoking some real or imagined transgression.

Think about when Charlie Hebdo recently published cartoons of Aylan Kurdi. The cartoons were many things – tasteless, offensive, upsetting – but instead the controversial magazine was accused of making fun of a young boy’s death. A cursory Google translation of the captions and an ounce of critical analysis confirms that this interpretation simply wasn’t true – but try typing that online without looking like you endorse Charlie Hebdo’s repugnant sketches. Like so much else, the answers to our questions of cultural morality exist in the spaces, where they can’t produce retweet-grabbing soundbites.

Maybe we should give up expecting balance in any criticism of the far left, the far right, or anyone. But we should always try to remember one of the things that separates us humans from pigs – chiefly, the ability to analyze a piece of communication critically. Tempting though it may be to allow emotions alone to decide our allegiances, mindlessly trotting in hundred-strong herds to whoever is offering the biggest pail of swill, we have the power to understand the world – and its language – objectively. We have the power to analyse and critique and discuss, beyond the scope of our base instincts. It’s a controversial thought these days, but perhaps if we remembered it more often, political discourse on the internet and beyond wouldn’t feel so much like Lord of the Flies.