Leftism, polarisation, and the Australian election

Peter Thomson

The long line of cars stretched out of sight back towards the main road; we’d been waiting to be admitted to Burning Seed (Australia’s answer to Burning Man) for several hours now, and we were almost at the entrance. My friend and I had driven for more than twelve hours to get there and now the sun was setting. It had been several years since I’d last been to a Burning Seed, but I was excited to return. On my very first visit, as we drove through the front gate, every attendee (or Burner) had waved and yelled ‘welcome home’ to our car! As we’d pitched our tent, we had returned the favour and joined in by welcoming each new car home as it rolled through the paddock. It was an afternoon I’ll remember forever.

With these memories in my mind, we arrived at the front gate where we rolled down our windows and presented our tickets. Instead of being waved through like the cars before us, we were told to pull over for a ‘welcoming ceremony’. I asked if we could just proceed with the other cars, as we were exhausted and still needed to put up our tent and find our friends before it was dark. We were told we could not, and so we pulled over to stand with an assembled group of about a dozen other male attendees by a large gong. Other cars continued to be waved through, but occasionally, a car filled with males would be directed to pull over as well. The welcoming ceremony ended up being a recitation of the Burn’s behaviour policy, which we had already learned by heart through an online quiz which was required to purchase our tickets. It was as large a difference in welcome as I could have possibly expected, and it was the last time I would attend a Burning Seed.

At the time, I shrugged off the incident as an over-enthusiastic and jaded individual, an outlier, but the indignity of it stuck with me. I started to notice similar things happening throughout the Western left more broadly. The widely held belief that certain groups faced systemic disadvantage was quickly incorporating the idea that this disadvantage was caused by the actions of homogenously self-interested oppressor groups. Males oppress females, white people oppress people of colour, cisgendered people oppress nonbinary people, etcetera. Worryingly, in broader youth culture, these theories were not only being adopted, but seen as the primary frame of social analysis. People were increasingly administering ad hoc justice to individuals for perceived group guilt.

As I had learned during my time at university, some of these more carefully framed and articulated theories are brilliant: they detail the ways in which ostensibly benign norms for a majority can result in terrible outcomes for minority groups. What may appear to work from the majority perspective can be terribly unsuited to people with diverse needs, abilities, and backgrounds. To play devil’s advocate for these theories, when conducted voluntarily I believe a lot of this material has useful and incisive things to say about the state of the world. I think I have become a better person for having read them. However, the key word is ‘voluntarily’. Since this type of majority privilege provides part of – but not most of – a person’s success in life, the insinuation that a person has corruptly obtained their station or is actively oppressive is understandably offensive.

I must admit, during my activist years I behaved in exactly the way I’m criticising now. I preferred to believe that I had a superior moral mindset, that I had somehow divined the truth of the universe. I felt like all of history was a rising wave and hoped that I would help it to rise. Looking back, I can’t imagine a more fascistic way of thinking: I regarded anyone who differed in opinion with me as foolish. If they were more aware, they would share my perspectives, I believed. The turning point for me came one day while I was browsing YouTube. I saw a provocatively titled video and clicked it. The speaker, who I had never heard before, was Jordan B Peterson: my life changed forever. In the video, Peterson railed against what he termed ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’, blaming the mentality for inflaming tensions in the universities and in society more broadly. I paused. At that time if you had asked me, I would have called myself exactly a fan of Foucault and Derrida, as well as an admirer of Marx and Gramsci. At university, these theories had been presented in such a positive light that I had never stopped to think that they could be fallacious or harmful. I had instead preferred to think of myself as a ‘bright’, someone who had ‘figured it out’. I read more of the postmodernists and realised that some parts of their work, upon which later assumptions are based, are critically flawed. I read more Communist history and reeled in horror at the impact of large scale planned economic and cultural initiatives. I interrogated my own beliefs and realised that they were much less about helping the world, and much more about aggrandising myself than I had let myself believe.

Luckily in my moment of political turmoil, I received some excellent advice from Dr Peterson which would guide me politically for the next few years: ‘clean up your room’. I had been suffering from depression, anxiety and PTSD for several years. My work as a journalist, which included covering plane crashes in Southeast Asia, had been extremely confronting, and upon returning home, many of my social connections had collapsed. Looking back, it’s clear I was using politics as a type of salve. I could project my anger and frustration at my own life and situation on others by imagining their political beliefs were selfish, and that my refutation of them was heroic. What people don’t realise about Peterson’s advice to clean your room, is that it also means rolling back your engagement with the world to the space around you. I stopped getting into useless political fights and cleaned up the space around me. I started focussing on what I could be doing right instead of what other people were doing incorrectly. I started to exercise, eat and sleep properly. My mental health and relationships improved out of sight.

As time passed and I felt better, I started to explore all the ideas I’d previously considered taboo. I devoured Peterson’s two books, then discovered Gad Saad, Camille Paglia, Thomas Sowell, and finally Jonathon Haidt. While trying to figure out why conservatives were so weird, Haidt (himself a liberal) and his colleagues were seeking to understand human moral and political behaviour. What Haidt and his colleagues found however was that rather than being weird, conservatives were just different – and surprisingly, in several key moral categories it was liberals who had a lack of sensitivity. A statistical analysis of thousands of responses to moral statements found a strong clustering of moral concern in five key dimensions. These dimensions are Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. Where individuals sit in the five dimensions is strongly indicative of their political stance. Progressive people generally have very strong moral intuitions regarding care and fairness, but weaker impulses towards the loyalty, authority and sanctity dimensions. Conservatives, on the other hand, care relatively equally about all five moral dimensions, registering less importance than progressives on harm and fairness, but more importance on loyalty, authority and sanctity (see image A).

GraphA(Image A)

There is a tendency on both the right and left to assume that the attitudes espoused by our political opponents are insincere. However, the research by Haidt and his colleagues seems to indicate most people are acting in accordance with their natural and genuine political beliefs. And herein lies the problem. A right-wing person might look at a left-wing rally against animal cruelty and wonder why these people exhibit so much concern about animal care and fairness. Likewise, a left-wing person at the rally might take little issue with symbolically burning the Australian flag in protest of the country’s live export laws, failing to understand the loyalty, authority, and sanctity significance of the flag to conservatives. As Haidt writes, ‘Morality binds and blinds us’; it fosters a sense of group identity and shared vision. However, it can also rob us of our ability to understand the moral motivations of others which leads to the divisive assumption that ‘a person couldn’t genuinely think that’.

Unfortunately, for those of us like myself with sympathy for left-wing causes, Haidt’s research also uncovered one particularly uncomfortable finding. Participants were asked to answer the study’s questionnaire as though they belonged to a different political alignment. The results were then compared to the real aggregated responses of that group. Centrists were the most able to accurately predict the moral weight placed by both progressives and conservatives on certain issues. Conservatives placed slightly behind centrists in their accuracy. The least accurate group, by a significant margin, were the progressives (see image B). While respondents of all political alignments tended to overestimate the moral pillars which contravened their own position, this trend was most pronounced amongst progressives. Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. There has never been a more important time for some left-wing ideas to be implemented. There are changes that need to be made regarding climate change, pollution, waste, employment and welfare, though the extent to which things need to be changed is arguable. At the same time, many of the key constituents of these policies are unable to accurately perceive the moral nature of their political opponents. I believe that this propensity for misattribution was what once drove my counterproductive political engagement, but also the incidents which would sour my own attitude towards left politics generally.

GraphB(Image B)

In Australia, it was a foregone conclusion that years of consistent government instability, including leadership changes, mass resignations and scandals would remove the conservative Morrison government from office. These predictions were wrong. Australia’s May election would see Morrison not only avoid defeat but form a majority government. Just as in the UK and USA to name but a few examples, a conservative movement had seized victory from an unexpecting, moralistic, and prematurely victorious left. There has never been a more important time for the left to reach out to moderates and moderate conservatives to win elections. There has also never been a more potent and effective campaign to reduce support and sympathy for left-wing causes than is currently being run by left-wing partisans themselves. The inability to appreciate differing intuitive moral compasses, combined with the careless propagation and distortion of certain progressive theories in the public sphere, has created a political centrifugal force in the heart of the left. This perfect storm has normalised discrimination and aggression against entire swathes of the population due to their immutable characteristics at a time when it has never been more important for the left to garner mass appeal.

I started to write this article before the Australian election, certain that our left Labor party would win government. I had meant to suggest that if ever the left’s political capital should run out, we might take a different and more respectful tact. Now it seems clear that in many respects, that capital has already run dry. I think back to Burning Seed, the first time I’d experienced that something was going woefully wrong in left culture. I think of all the subsequent times I’ve been abused, insulted and unfriended for daring to engage with the ‘taboo’ ideas of Jordan Peterson, Gad Saad, Camille Paglia, or Thomas Sowell. I imagine how many people across the country this has happened to, how many times a day on every day of the Australian election campaign and for years before it. And I wonder how different the results would have been if that were not the case.

If you can’t advocate for left-wing policies and ideals without resorting to discrimination, violence, or aggression, take a break from politics. Go and clean your room. Not in a condescending way, but a pragmatic one; focus on improving your life to the point where you don’t feel the need to lash out or villainise others. If other people are anything like I was at my darkest, political activism is less about others than it is about themselves. You have an obligation when claiming to represent important ideas or vulnerable people to only participate as far as you are effective. We have an overabundance of political warriors skilled in ‘rallying the base’ when what we desperately need are political ambassadors who are willing to build understanding and popularise crucial and positive left-wing policy.

Every interaction in our lives has vast, unseen, rippling consequences, both positive and negative. The humiliating incident at Burning Seed set in motion a chain of events that would upend my dogmatic left-wing thinking. Every time we paint our ideological opponents as bad actors, as maliciously motivated, as homogenous representations of their group, we risk ostracising those people politically. There’s a reason that sign twirlers outside pizzerias aren’t allowed to tell passers-by to fuck themselves: it would be bad for business. It is crucially important that progressive Australia gets its sales pitch together. As with all political perspectives, there are absolute gems in left-wing thought that are vital for our continued prosperity and survival. However, these gems will remain hidden unless we can convince enough of our fellow citizens to consider and vote for them. This will not happen, I fear, if the process of forming consensus and coming together politically is hindered by instinctive tribalisation in the face of aggression, expedient misrepresentation and violence.