I recently read this post on the Conservative Teachers website. The writer of the post, Anthony Radice, describes a political left that has abandoned morality in favour of relativism. Where once the left was fired up by the difference between justice and injustice, now the central notion is tolerance, and, in the name of tolerance, nothing is objectively wrong. In practice this does not lead to greater tolerance, it simply obstructs debate about what is right and wrong:
“Political correctness has arisen precisely because of the philosophical vacuum created by the intellectual dominance of relativism. In the absence of objective truth, conformism becomes essential. We must all agree to think alike, because without this groupthink we will be forced to confront the essential nihilism to which Western culture has been reduced. In other words, relativism presents us with a choice between conformity and chaos.”
I do think much of the left has lost its moral vocabulary and that this has led to a diminished capacity for genuine debate. For much of the left it is impossible to argue that a war for is unjust, unjustified or mistaken. It has to be illegal. For much of the left it is now impossible to argue that behaviour is objectively racist or sexist, only that it caused offence. For much of the left it is now impossible to argue that a given distribution of wealth is unfair, only that it results from neo-liberalism.
All these slogans simply obstruct actual debate. They serve to allow condemnation without coherent argument. It is impossible to prove that a military action that has resulted in no prosecutions is not illegal. It is impossible to prove that one’s behaviour would offend nobody, even somebody who was being completely unreasonable. It is impossible to prove that one’s policies are not neo-liberal, when there is no coherent definition for the term provided by those who use it most. And while much of the left have only been too delighted to seize upon the opportunity to express disapproval without actually having to show that it is deserved, it means that there is no longer a shared language on the left for talking about injustice.
And this process of slogans replacing debate is not stopping. Any economic policy (other than one of bankrupting the country) can be condemned as austerity. Any defence policy (other than one of surrender to any and all enemies) can be condemned as imperialism or colonialism. Recently, we’ve started to see how free speech can be condemned as micro-aggression or equality of opportunity can be condemned as privilege. And literally anything, and I do mean anything, that any left-winger objects to, can be condemned for showing one to be a Tory, or being indistinguishable from Tories.
And this is not even the worst of it yet. In the absence of any coherent arguments about what it is right or wrong to do, we end up relegating morality to the realm of feelings. One doesn’t do good by making the world a better place, but by feeling most strongly about the world. Whether it’s fake compassion or fake outrage, much of the left feels very strongly about everything but does nothing other than share their feelings. Why talk about the details of policy any more? The right policy is simply one that allows one to be most upset about anyone who advocates an alternative.
But I don’t think this is the end of the story. This is because outrage in the absence of coherent arguments eventually burns itself out, usually when it becomes the object of ridicule. Slogans quickly become clichés and clichés become embarrassing. And it is not actually the political right that get most bemused by the lack of debate, it is the greater mass of people who are on the left of politics who eventually get round to asking: “But what can we actually do to change things?”. Adolescent politics is simply not sustainable in the long term, and eventually the left will grow out of it. And when it does, the first priority will be a discussion of values.