Another woke Stuff columnist feverishly denouncing claims of cancel culture as little more than the reactionary echo of racist bigot mysoginists…
Denunications of cancel culture undermine fair protest, lack empathy, and miss the point. They are also routinely made, without irony, by those who rail against the press. Donald Trump is a good example.
What role has the political left played in helping create some of the changes to the current way politics is debated? Below is a short five-minute speech I contributed to a panel discussion at an event hosted last week by Diplosphere, entitled: “Living in the Age of Outrage”. The questions posed for speakers at the event included the following: “• Has political correctness gone too far? Where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and discrimination? In an age of extremes, where is middle ground gone? Can we listen to the other side?”
We live in incredible times, and the subject of our discussion tonight is a huge one with many aspects to explore. One crucial element in understanding where we currently are at is to comprehend how the “political left” has evolved in recent decades.
To start with it’s worth thinking about what we mean by “the political left”. When I talk to my students, I’m always interested to hear what “leftwing” and “rightwing” means to them. Here’s some of the words and phrases that I get repeated back to me as being leftwing: anti-racism, diversity, gender, censorship, cancel culture, boycotts, LGTBQ+ rights, political correctness, identity politics, environment and peace.
It’s interesting that their definitions of leftwing are quite different to traditional ones. They don’t talk so much about working class, economic inequality, poverty, trade unions, collective struggle, universalism, etc.
I think this illustrates how the political left has indeed evolved over recent decades. The leftwing parties, activists and politicians are now quite different to what they were for most of the twentieth century.
A short version of what has happened on the left is the following:
From the 1970s and 1980s, the forces of the political left – especially the political parties – transformed into more middle class vehicles. The highly educated took over the NZ Labour Party as members, activists and MPs. And unions declined as a social force.
The left also started to lose the debates on economics, everywhere. In NZ this meant the introduction of neoliberal economic reforms, in our case by the Fourth Labour Government.
Those on the left generally gave up on economics, and chose to focus from this time more on non-economic issues: social issues, foreign policy, post-materialism, and what is often called the “culture wars” – involving personal morality and behaviour. Hence, since then the left has become more associated with cultural issues, gender, ethnicity. They don’t focus so much on class anymore or talk so much about the issues that they’re interested in.
In a sense, the left has swung from one extreme in the 20th century, whereby everything was about economics and class (and other important issues around gender and ethnicity were not given their due focus) to one where the focus is mostly on non-economic issues.
In a sense you could say that the “political right” won the “economic debates” of the 1980s and onwards – setting up an economy that we’ve still got, that is structured in favour of wealth, business and elites. Meanwhile, the “political left” have won the “social debates”, largely setting the agenda on issues of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and culture.
The modern version of the left – what some might call the “woke left”, the “liberal left” or the “middle class left” – clearly has some very different ways of pursuing political change. Largely it’s an elite top-down model of politics, reflective of the left being made up of the highly-educated stratum of society. They confidently believe that they know best.
This leftwing elite approach is very compatible with a more censorious approach to politics. Whereas the traditional left has been the force in society that is most favourable to “free speech” and towards mass participation in politics, it’s now quite the opposite. Traditionally it was forces of the right and the Establishment that clamped down on political expression and activity. Historically, the left has championed the rights of the oppressed or marginalised to organise, to communicate politics, in order to win human rights and political gains. And this is why it’s somewhat surprising that increasingly the left want either the state or society to put limits on political debate and expression.
The rise of “culture wars” has been incredibly important for the political atmosphere that we are now in. Quite simply it doesn’t lend itself to debate and discussion, or finding middle ground. Instead, it’s more polarising – it lends itself to the labelling of opponents as racists, sexists, or in the case of Hilary Clinton, talking about the masses as “deplorables”. So, there’s a strong strain of sneering from many on the left – especially against those that are seen as socially backward. The old slogan of: “The personal is political” now underpins the focus on how to fix the problems of the world.
The logical consequence for many on the left is take an approach of “language policing” and concern for “cultural etiquette” in an almost Victorian way. Again this is rather topsy-turvy – as it used to be conservative or rightwing side of politics that was concerned with policing people’s behaviour, and looking down on the less educated and enlightened.
The contemporary left also has a newfound mistrust in the ability of society to make the right decisions or to understand the world. In an elitist way, many on the progressive side of politics view the public as being too uneducated or lacking enlightenment. Hence, the view of gender or ethnic inequality or oppressions is often understood as something to do with personal behaviour and “bad ideas” (racism, sexism, homophobia) – rather than in a structural sense (as the left used to see these things).
In this climate it’s not surprising therefore that there is now much heightened sensitivity about “misinformation” – with this idea that the public are easily led.
Of course, the misinformation issue is an important one that we should take seriously. But sometimes there is too much emphasis in the debate on the almost-conspiratorial idea that disinformation is coming from foreign, rogue sources like Russian internet bots etc. What’s often missing from the debate is a concentration on the propaganda and lies originating from government departments, politicians and the Beehive. What needs more focus is the fact that New Zealand now has many more public relations practitioners than journalists.
In conclusion, I think when the political left swings back towards class politics and mass participation, away from its overly-obsessed orientation to “culture wars”, we are likely to see a very different type of political debate and landscape – and one that is more democratically healthy and progressive.
…this can only mean one thing!
As someone who likes to credit myself with the wide spread use of the word ‘woke’ as a derisive term aimed at identity politics activists in NZ, I feel we need an urgent redefinition of the term as it looks likely to be the most over used insult in the 2020 election.
As a class lefty, I see identity as an important personal journey that leads you to politics but feel Identity Politics becomes terribly limited in gaining the democratic 51% as its most shrill advocates in the cancel culture landscape manage to make progress as alienating as a cold cup of vomit.
Class solidarity can gain 51%, Identity Politics risks pure temple over broad-church and you get endless schisms and little to show for it.
For most ultra woke activists, their starting point is all white people are racist, every man is a rapist and anyone supporting free speech is a uniform wearing Nazi.
There’s not much intellectual wriggle room there.
That virtue-signalling-middle-class-micro-aggression-policing-identifiably-Green-Party-militant-bike-riding-vegan-condescending-supporting-pronoun-Spinoff-subscriber in your social media feed screaming endlessly at you in the ubiquitous world of social media certainly thinks they are shouting truth to power, unfortunately it all ends up as a cacophony of self righteous struggle sessions alienating the vast chunk of voters who just want to know how they are paying for the roof over their heads and the food on their tables.
So that’s ‘Woke’. Identity Politics activists suffering the narcism of small difference and subjective triggering.
Politics in the social media age isn’t about values, it’s about subjective identity politics anger amidst a cacophony of wounds all vying for hierarchy. The actual political party and what they stand for policy wise is secondary to the person you resent. It’s a process of proxification where you dump all your hate on the identifiable activist of a party rather than the actual party itself.
Jacinda is not a woke cultist, but some who are identifiably supporting her on social media are.
You end up hating her supporters, not her. It’s a Sith mind trick Fox News and the Republicans have used most successfully with Trump. ‘Democrats hate you and look down on you’ is made powerful with daily reminders on social media of how true that is.
Covid anti-vaxxers are a perfect example of this. Most of the reason people are resistant is because we’ve collectively spent 12 months screaming at them how stupid they are. These people would prefer to catch Covid than admit people they resent are right.
The Right look for recruits, the Left look for traitors.
The real demarcation of power in western society is between the 1% rich and their 9% enablers vs the 90% rest of us. Splintering that down to tribal cultural elites robs us of the ability to create transformative change.
In 2010, the 388 richest individuals owned more wealth than half of the entire human population on Earth
By 2015, this number was reduced to only 62 individuals
In 2018, it was 42
In 2019, it was down to only 26 individuals who own more wealth than 3.8 billion people.
This isn’t a democracy, it’s fast becoming a feudal plutocracy on a burning planet.
The Identity Politics Left in NZ need to understand the enemy aren’t people who disagree with us or cling to sexist, racist or homophobic lies. The enemy are corporations and failed political systems that callously sacrifice people for profit which exacerbates the social injustice that fuels sexism, homophobia and racism.
Woke Identitarians will scream patriarchy, racism and sexism to explain our malaise but the truth is economics and the weaponisation of scarcity is designed to erode class solidarity so that those hegemonic structures remain.
The Wellington Twitteratti, many paid by Unions or NGOs alongside their Identity Politic acolytes and journalist courtiers, wallow in a smug arrogance while micro aggression policing anyone who doesn’t linguistically conform to woke doctrine which only further alienates those denied economic justice while championing a very middle class ‘social justice’.
This cancel culture has left the Left intellectually ill prepared to debate the failures of the free market economy and the solutions we must adopt to get out of this…
Campbell would have reminded us that the demonization of the Trump supporters who stormed the capital is a terrible mistake. He would have reminded us that racial injustice will only be solved with economic justice. He would have called on us to reach out to those who do not think like us, do not speak like us, are ridiculed by polite society, but who suffer the same economic marginalization. He knew that the disparities of wealth, loss of status and hope for the future, coupled with prolonged social dislocation, generated the poisoned solidarity that give rise to groups such as the Klan or the Proud Boys.
The cancel culture, a witch hunt by self-appointed moral arbiters of speech, has become the boutique activism of a liberal class that lacks the courage and the organizational skills to challenge the actual centers of power — the military-industrial complex, lethal militarized police, the prison system, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the intelligence agencies that make us the most spied upon, watched, photographed and monitored population in human history, the fossil fuel industry, and a political and economic system captured by oligarchic power.
It is much easier to turn from these overwhelming battles to take down hapless figures who make verbal gaffes, those who fail to speak in the approved language or embrace the approved attitudes of the liberal elites. These purity tests have reached absurd and self-defeating levels, including the inquisitional bloodlust by 150 staff members of The New York Times demanding that management, which had already investigated and dealt with what at most was poor judgment made by the veteran reporter Don McNeil when he repeated a racist slur in a discussion about race, force him out of the paper, which management reluctantly did.
…our enemy isn’t each other, it’s a system.
Every aspect of our existence is monetarised for big data to sell us more stuff we can’t afford. We are alienated and anesthetized by a consumer culture that keeps us neurotic and disconnected. Our work, our existence, every move we make are all built to suck money to a minority class that sits above us while under neoliberalism, globalization, financialization, and automation, our existence as individuals has only become more disposable all the while the woke dilute any resistance with a thousand bullshit distractions and cancellations.
Here’s Tom with the weather.
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