The Left has cultivated an image of viciousness and intolerance. This needs to change

When the Left operates with bad faith, it damages its own cause

It is something that has been niggling away at me for some time, indeed a reason I started this site. Why do so many conversations these days end in an argument, smears, lies and bitterness? Why does this happen particularly online? Why are tribes forming where once there were simple disagreements? I think I may be stumbling toward an answer.

Now please, forgive me if this has been blindingly obvious to everyone else and I’m late to the party. But it seems to me that we have no desire to believe that our opponents are arguing in good faith. We assume ill of them, we figure malign intention on their part and, above all, we believe they must be bad people.

I don’t see how any debate, discussion or argument can bear any fruit if this good faith is absent. The reason I offer the pages of this blog out to anyone who wishes to write for it is because I want people to give an unpopular opinion in an environment that encourages them to think freely and have the best assumed of them. If you give an ‘off the party line’ opinion, you have, by definition, thought it through, because the backlash wouldn’t be worth it unless you believed it to be so. Again I offer – if you have an unpopular opinion, get in touch.

The viciousness of much public discourse these days can be attributed to a lack of good faith. Left wingers assume Conservatives are evil and sadistic, Tories assume Corbynistas want state control over which trousers you’re allowed to wear that day, and so on and so forth.

But that is to provide a balance that I’m sure isn’t a fair one. I hate to come across all Lefty-bashing here, but it seems to be well documented that the Left is increasingly savage and hostile to its opponents. Dissent is deemed intolerable and impure to so many on that side of the spectrum. Providing me with examples of it happening the other way round are fine, if you want to waste your time. I don’t claim it is only one way, it definitely happens both ways – I merely offer a note of caution to those who claim themselves to be ‘kinder, gentler‘ people. Is your bar really going to be the cowardly and deflecting phrase, ‘yeh well they do the same thing to us’? I sincerely hope not. If it is, you offer no virtue that separates you from your opponents.

Let me just make that completely clear – I do not claim this is solely a Left wing problem. But it is one that should feel more urgent to those on the Left.

The Left is the wing that I should naturally be on. I try to have opinions on every issue individually, but inevitably there will be overarching principles that will inform my outlook. Most of those tend to be ‘liberal’. But I cannot count myself as among the modern Left. Elements of both wings may share the attributes of hostility, nastiness and downright rudeness, but the Right makes little outright claim to be the opposite. It is the Left that self-declares its occupation of the grounds of ‘kinder, gentler politics‘, ‘reason and science‘, ‘data-led policy’. And yet it simply isn’t so. And therefore there is a hypocrisy that cannot be tolerated by anyone with half a brain or a conscience.

If it were indeed ‘kind and gentle’, it would not assume ill-intention of its opponents or shout and scream at them. If it were a lover of ‘reason and science’, it would not shout down those who question, for instance, new gender orthodoxies, but would engage based on research. If it were ‘data-led’, it would not engage in spurious, politically driven nonsense that clearly defies the data.

The obsession with the word ‘hate’, a word my mother told me not to use unless in extreme circumstances, is now so all-pervasive that mere disagreement is now deemed hate. Disagree with gay marriage? You hate gays. Hate them. All of them. Disagree with abortion? You hate women. Vote Tory? You hate the poor. Concerned about Islamic terrorism? You hate Muslims. Want immigration to be slowed down a little? You hate immigrants. No nuance, no discussion, just straight to the extreme. Straight to the sliming and the smearing.

When even the CiF pages of the Guardian are filled with those on the Left denouncing that newspaper for straying even a tiny bit off the party line, you get a sense that something isn’t quite right. It was savaged in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader (the paper having backed Yvette Cooper – sounds crazy now, doesn’t it?). Things have rarely been better since.

I am an occasional listener to Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up‘ podcast, among others. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. He believes free will is not a fundamentally defensible concept. I believe it is central to our being. There are plenty more disagreements I could point out. But I believe he is honest, a man of integrity and fully believes every word he says, and therefore worth listening to. That is all I would ever ask of a person – its a reason I will never listen to the likes of Milo Yiannopolous or Katie Hopkins, because I simply do not accept that they really believe in what they’re saying. They’re professional trolls who feed their children and their lifestyles on the money they make from upsetting the Lefties who will consistently rise to their bait. They are not serious people. I don’t believe they should be stopped from speaking publicly, but I won’t be listening when they do.

Mr Harris has recently been in the middle of some controversy, which you can read for yourself, or better yet listen to his discussion of it. It is far too long and detailed to go through here, but suffice to say, he has been attacked by many on the Left for a particular podcast. His most recent opponent, Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, took a completely bad-faith interpretation of the podcast and would not back down from his position despite plenty of evidence to show that he ought to. He could still have disagreed, but still have assumed good faith on behalf of his opponent. He steadfastly refused to do so.

I was struck by the end of one the podcasts in this controversy, and it made me realise just what a problem this is for the Left more so than the Right.

A listener contacted Sam to ask: “You come off cosy with those on the Right, and then when a blowout like the one with Ezra Klein comes, it seems you can’t have the same warmth of relations and good spirit with a straight up Liberal”.

Sam explains why this misses the point spectacularly (I have shortened the monologue to sum up the key parts – highlights are all mine):

“I, as you know, disagree with Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro [two men the writer had highlighted as Right wing examples] about many, many things…but the point here is not disagreement, it is slanderous misinterpretation. And that almost always comes at me from the Left…With Ben, I made a joke on our podcast together and Ben came away not realising that it was a joke, and so misrepresented my views elsewhere. I reached out to Ben by email: “Ben, you’ve got me all wrong. That was a joke”. What did he do?…He apologised immediately, he regretted misrepresenting me.

“Same with Jordan Peterson when he got on Dave Rubin’s show. He said the opposite of one of my core beliefs. It is the centre of the bullseye for me intellectually, and he was getting it wrong. So I wrote to Jordan, with whom I had a painful collision on the podcast, and I said “Jordan, you’ve got me completely wrong. You’re misstating my views.” What did Jordan do? An instantaneous apology. He said ‘Sorry, I guess I have to read your books so I know what I’m talking about when we have our public events.”

“That is a difference that cannot be exaggerated. Peterson and Shapiro and I will go on to disagree about many things, it could be very heated…but there is a world of difference between bad faith misrepresentations and honest engagement with a person’s ideas.”

This guy’s whole experience of disagreeing with people on the Left is disheartening in the extreme. His experience of disagreeing with people on the Right is worlds apart from that, and is the way things should be. This is only one example of course, but I highly doubt this is not typical. My question to the Left would be, do you really want to concede the ground of honest, reasonable debate to the Right? When protesters can storm a lecture given by Jacob Rees-Mogg and he comes out as the level-headed, reasonable one, does that not set off an alarm bell? You’re conceding this ground to your opponents and it will be hard to wrest it back.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine had this to say:

I’m not a fan of the term ‘SJWs’ (at this point it just comes across as a pejorative), but the point is made all the same. You get an insight into why more and more find themselves moving away from the Left and going elsewhere. There is no longer much tolerance or respect over there. It’s shocking to see otherwise lovely, intelligent people spit bile over those with whom they disagree, rather than simply have the disagreement.

They seek to destroy, to burn, to have fired, to shun, to have removed from social media, to silence, to shut down anyone who will dare defy them. It is savage and bloodthirsty, as stomach churning to watch as it is to see a lion tear up a gazelle.

 

This assumption that ‘they must think that because they are bad people or have malign intentions’ is so unhealthy. If you can’t believe your opponent is arguing in good faith (unless they’ve clearly and repeatedly demonstrated otherwise – again, see Hopkins, Yiannopolous, Klein), then not only are you doing them a disservice, you are doing yourself one as well.

The image that leads this piece is of students protesting Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury in the US. He was invited to speak by conservatives in the college and was due to debate a professor who was planning to challenge him hard. He was not just going to speak freely – he was going to have a robust dialogue with somebody who totally opposed him and his ideas. But then the idiots started to shout him down as he spoke. Then what happened?

“When Murray and Stanger finished their dialogue [having moved to a secret place], they found themselves surrounded by protesters. The protesters—some of whom were wearing masks and may not have been Middlebury students—began pushing them. When Stanger tried to shield Murray, according a Middlebury spokesman, a protester grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.

“Murray, Stanger and their escorts made it to a waiting car, but the protesters “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood,” according to The New York Times. One took a large traffic sign, attached to a concrete base, and placed it in front of the car to prevent it from leaving.

“Finally, Murray and Stanger got away. They had planned to eat dinner at a local restaurant, but, upon learning that the protesters planned to disrupt their meal, left town altogether. Stanger later went to the hospital, where she received a neck brace. “

Kinder and gentler, apparently. Hardly. This was a vicious attack on someone who was going to debate on their side. Complete insanity, and what happens when you refuse to engage in good faith argument.

Much like yesterday’s post, I’m trying to help. I’m trying to show you how this looks to those outside your bubble. My main source of news and comment is the Guardian, but I venture to the Spectator as well, the Telegraph, the Independent, Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday. I listen to people like Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jordan Peterson as well as Owen Jones, Polly Toynbee and Gary Younge to name very few in my attempts to have as rounded a viewpoint as possible.

When you go to the places outside the bubble, you see so many people who are natural Lefties but who have either been shunned or can’t bear to be a part of it anymore. If you don’t care, then fine, that’s not a problem. I won’t tell you what you shouldn’t or shouldn’t care about. But if you keep wondering why you’re losing elections or not being listened to or not being taken seriously, you have to start listening to the other side, and not whilst seething at the temerity of these people to dare defy the social norms.

I had a fantastic knockabout debate on Facebook with a small group of friends before the EU referendum. I will keep coming back to this time as a perfect example of peers treating each other with respect and dignity, because whilst we fundamentally disagreed, the basis of the whole discussion was that each of us was arguing in good faith. Without that, it could not have happened. We were all sincere and honest, and nobody insulted or attacked anyone else.

It really can be like that. But one side has to make the first move. Lefties – please let it be you.

The Leader of the Opposition has got a point on Russia – In Defence of Jeremy Corbyn

Any moves towards a conflict with Russia must be resisted at every step

Last week, I was laid up with a horrible bug for about 5 days. It was not pleasant and I am still getting my energy back. I’m afraid I just didn’t have the capacity to be writing, hence the lack of new posts last week, but it did give me a chance to reflect on some new ideas, which hopefully I can bring you soon. This is a short one to get back into the swing of things.

One of the things I did on Wednesday, whilst lying on the couch, all wrapped up feeling sorry for myself, was watch PMQs. It was due to be followed by the Salisbury Statement, and so I watched it all the way through, from Corbyn’s questions (usually a dull affair), through the questions from Ian Blackford of the SNP (usually sharper and more pointed, but he only gets two), to the backbenchers’ questions, asking about everything from foreign policy to local village fêtes. It was typically rather dull.

Once this had finished (strangely promptly – amazing how much quicker things go when you don’t keep interrupting to tell members to be succinct, isn’t it Mr. Speaker?), it was on to the Salisbury Statement.

I didn’t find much to disagree with from the Prime Minister’s statement. The assumptions that have been made seem reasonable – it was either direct involvement from the Russian state, or negligence on its part – the response was on the harsher end of fairly standard and she delivered it with strength and finesse. I’m not a fan of the Prime Minister, but she did her job.

The response came from Mr. Corbyn. It was clunky and delivered poorly – unnecessarily partisan in places for me, but he is the Leader of the Opposition, so you can’t exactly say he isn’t doing his job. He has an unfortunate tone about him, comes across as aggressive when he needn’t be, and timid where he should be pushing. I personally wouldn’t like to see him as Prime Minister, and based on sessions like this, I think I’m vindicated.

But the gist of his message was that we shouldn’t be pushing hard and getting ourselves on the path to conflict. Which is absolutely right. Whilst I would support the initial round of sanctions and expulsions (which is proportionate), we shouldn’t be getting ourselves into a tangle with Russia. They are a heck of a lot more ruthless and dirty than we would be prepared to openly be, so an open ended dispute would only lead to our humiliation.

I felt really sorry for Mr. Corbyn, as he had to sit there whilst the opposing benches looked upon him with anger and the benches behind him looked upon him with scorn and contempt. Labour MP after Labour MP rose to agree with the PM, some reading out questions that contained active hostility to their own leader. This is, of course, up to them, and I’m certainly not calling for them to simply all fall in line behind a leader that most of them obviously hate. But it isn’t like he’d just opposed everything the PM had said – he was broadly in agreement, with a note of caution.

Comparisons with Iraq are inevitable, sometimes fair and sometimes not. The lesson of Iraq has got to be learned by politicians – we won’t put up with this call to war with manipulation and grandiose threats. But we also can’t just judge every potential military action by the same standard – some wars will be worth fighting. We can’t just write off any PM who comes to the House with a plan for military action, even if Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are all unmitigated disasters. They each need to be judged on their own merits.

But Corbyn has been right on these things more often than not. And if anyone is agitating for anything remotely resembling a war with Russia, they must be resisted at every turn. This is foolish nonsense that would continue our policy of extreme folly towards Russia that we’ve followed for decades. He has more of a right to hold his head high in the Commons than any of the MPs who stood to defy him, many of whom sidled proudly into the lobbies to back stupid and disastrous wars.

We have been antagonising Russia for too long, and it is fighting back. What possible reason could we have for a conflict with Russia? What national interest could it possibly serve to do so? Our policy towards it is ludicrous, and the sooner we realise that the better.

I may come back to this in greater depth at some point, but the likes of Peter Hitchens, Melanie McDonagh and others have already written about this subject far more eloquently than I could, so I’ll leave it there for now. Suffice to say that Corbyn is being attacked in a way that is completely over the top and worrying for a functioning democracy. I’m glad he’s not the Prime Minister, but he’s not wrong about this.

The predictability of opinion – what makes people interesting

What makes a person interesting? Can I predict your opinion? Yes? Then you’re not interesting.

 

Let’s take an issue to start with: gay marriage.

You’re in favour? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-choice’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re in favour of ‘gun control’
  • You read the Guardian
  • You hate the Daily Mail
  • You’re broadly pro mass immigration
  • You voted Remain
  • You, shall we say, ‘display negativity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re in favour of legalising marijuana
  • You don’t want any private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re in favour of proportional representation of some kind
  • You would abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly right wing
  • You are against the death penalty, even for heinous criminals

Oh I do beg your pardon, you’re against gay marriage? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-life’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re against ‘gun control’
  • You read the Telegraph or the Mail
  • You hate the Guardian
  • You’re broadly anti mass immigration
  • You voted Leave
  • You, shall we say, ‘display positivity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re against legalising marijuana
  • You don’t mind private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You don’t want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re against proportional representation of some kind
  • You would not abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly left wing
  • You would favour the death penalty for heinous criminals

 

Now, these things are all very different issues. Some of them are moral questions, some political, some social. Some would reasonably require a lot of thought to come to a solid conclusion. And yet, with most people, just knowing their position on one of these things is a solid predictor of their opinions on the rest. Why should this be? I question how much anyone really understands the issues they have taken such a line on.

The neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris sums it up best: “Knowing one person’s opinion on any political issue allows you to reliably predict their opinion on other issues. This shouldn’t happen because these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s view on guns be predictive of his view on climate change, or immigration or abortion, it shouldn’t be but it is. This is a sign that people are joining tribes and groups, it is not a sign of clear thinking.”

Having a conversation with such a person is, for the most part fruitless and dull. It will inexorably end in subject changing, whataboutery and appeals to emotion, because they don’t understand enough about the issue. If their opinions are predictable, they are not interesting. The briefest trawl through Twitter will tell you this. Such people are not interested in listening, changing their mind, or accurately capturing their opponent’s position.

Listening to some professional women’s rights activist sound off about gun control is painful, particularly when they come up against someone who knows the facts, the stats and can back up a pro-gun position. Similarly, watching a right wing businessman chat on about immigration or ‘the lies about climate change’ can be made to look idiotic by a scientist with a full grasp of the facts.

You can tell instantly when a person clearly doesn’t read or even acknowledge anything on the opposing side. It’s painfully obvious when a Guardian reading Corbynista has never even seen the Telegraph, glanced at the Mail on Sunday or picked up a copy of the Spectator. It renders their arguments incomplete and turns them into an intensely vacuous shell. You’re not arguing the issue – you’re defending the tribe. I use an example from the Left here, simply because that’s what I experience most, and the Left is the side that claims dominion over fact, logic and reason. But if you can’t make your opponent’s case for them, you don’t understand it well enough. So how can you claim you understand yours? And where does yours come from?

Some of this is understandable. A high level belief that ‘big government’ is bad and that individual freedom is paramount will inevitably lead to a grouping of some issues under the same banner, because any misgivings at that lower level would be overcome by an overarching principle, in much the same way that the US constitution overrules many smaller changes in law because it is the overarching agreement that American citizens have with one another.

But what is really fascinating is when you come across a person whose views on some issues deviate from their home crowd. These people are much more interesting to listen to, because the only way they will have come to this deviant view is by thinking carefully and forming a solid conclusion. To express it in public would have required a complete conviction in their process and their argument.

It’s exciting, because when somebody puts a question to them, you have no idea what their response might be. But whatever comes, it will surely be well reasoned.

There are brilliant examples of these people from across the political spectrum. Liberals who voted Leave and vice versa is a good place to start looking. There are also shining examples of those dull, lifeless crowd followers all over the place as well.

Think of Farage – I could probably predict his opinion on everything. Similarly with Owen Jones. What fashionable lefty cause has he not jumped all over and furrowed his brow in that sincere way while appearing authoritative about it? It’s just so boring. He gave a perfect example of what I’m talking about during the referendum campaign when he penned a piece putting forward the case for a ‘left wing Leave’. This lasted all of 5 minutes before he retreated back into his herd, now consistently sounding off against Leave voters and Brexit itself.

Indeed, the whole tone of the piece should have foretold this. It opens with “at first, only a few dipped their toes in the water; then others, hesitantly, followed their lead, all the time looking at each other for reassurance.” Does this not show just how little he has really thought about it? He’s essentially saying ‘I’ll go if you go’. How courageous.

“The more leftwing opponents of the EU come out, the more momentum will gather pace and gain critical mass.”

“The case for Lexit grows ever stronger, and – at the very least – more of us need to start dipping our toes in the water.”

Except the second he dipped his toe, he saw it was freezing and promptly wrapped himself in a towel. Thanks mate, the rest of us who swam out into the deep are so grateful for this bravery now that the sharks are devouring us. Hope it was worth it.

True courage lies in expressing thoughts that you know full well will get you ostracised by your side. Others simply occupy their own space, not bothering to cultivate a base in a camp in the first place. I raise the example of Mr. Jones only because, having read his column for a while and getting bored of its predictability, I suddenly glimpsed a light shining through it. “This will get him into trouble – how exciting. How will he push through?” Alas, he didn’t, and his column has been as predictable as ever, ever since. It’s a real shame, because he is likeable, writes well and has a significant following.

On the other side of things, let’s take the Hitchens brothers as an example. Christopher, the darling of the Left – Peter, the darling of the Right. Neither, when you really look, deserves the title, nor would they want it.

Christopher, who sadly died in 2011, was one of the so called ‘Four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse’ alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (this was later expanded to be the 5 horsepeople, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the group). He exploded into public consciousness with his book ‘God is not Great: How religion poisons everything’ and was a vicious polemicist against religion. He was adored by students, atheists and left wingers.

But looking a little deeper, things aren’t as clear as they might be. He was an avid proponent of the Iraq War, never ever shying away from it. He blasted the Clintons (one of the most painful things about his death is not being able to see what he would have made of the 2016 presidential election), believed firmly in Israel’s right to exist (albeit with criticism of the Israeli government), thought that men should be the providers and breadwinners for their wives/partners and had serious reservations about abortion.

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.”

Well, quite.

His brother Peter has a similar style, yet finds himself on the opposite side of most things. As a Mail on Sunday columnist and self-declared Burkean Conservative, you may think you could predict him. He hates Tony Blair, strongly opposes drug legalisation, believes criminals should be punished with prison, would reinstate the death penalty if certain judicial criteria could be met, is a fervent Monarchist, opposes mass immigration and believes the UK should leave the EU.

So how, then, does such a person also find more hatred for the Conservative Party than any other? David Cameron is a ‘slippery HR man’, Thatcher ‘overrated’. He would renationalise the railways ‘immediately’, did not vote in the referendum (indeed does not vote in elections), believes the UK should stay in the Single Market, that there should be a strong welfare state, that the Iraq War was a disaster (not difficult now, but opposed it when it was unfashionable to do so in media circles), that Trident is a ridiculous and out of date weapon that we should rid ourselves of and that Jeremy Corbyn is a good thing for the Labour Party.

These are the kinds of people you always want on your side, but they can never predictably be so. Simon Jenkins, Germaine Greer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Murray (Matthew Parris recently said of him “[he] writes so well that when he is wrong he is dangerous.’) – these are the people you want to listen to. Not even necessarily to agree with them, but to see that they have thought clearly, express their view and sod the consequences. Some of the most interesting talks you can hear are broadsides against your firmly held beliefs, spoken by a heavyweight intellectual from the other side in firm and weighty tones. Who could fail to be stimulated by that? Dullards and cowards, that’s who.

The greatest joy is meeting someone in the flesh who can argue against your view with rigour and persuasion. A small group of us had a wonderful knockabout during the referendum campaign, a time that I look back on as a period that sharpened my thinking, forced me to back up what I thought and, in some cases, change my mind. They argued passionately for their side, and they could very well see what motivated my side.

That’s all disappearing. In this new world, tribes are king. There is simply no reasoning with most people. There is no ‘I disagree with you, but still like you and enjoy hearing your arguments.’

Well, screw it. I think what I think. Come at me. Let’s have it out. I promise you – it will be more fun than you think.