Lefties are often criticised for being regressive. I’m going to address the most common criticisms against us so-called ‘regressive lefties’: (1) that lefties are ‘against’ freedom of speech in that they tolerate views that conform with progressive thought but shun, ban and label those to voice non-conformist thought; (2) that lefties silence opposition; (3)that lefties are actually the racists and bigots of society, in that they preach inclusivity but give special treatment to certain groups in society such as women and ethnic minorities, thereby discriminating on the basis of race or gender rather than an individual’s merit, character and quality of ideas, and lastly that; (4) meritocracy is better than affirmative action.
So let’s break this down:
- Free Speech
One of the most significant criticisms of contemporary left-winged discourse is that we’re ‘against’ freedom of speech, in that we permit discourse that conforms with progressive thought, but any dissenting opinion is shunned. Lefties are also criticised for being regressive because we arbitrarily label those who don’t agree with us as misogynists, racists, bigots, xenophobes and the list goes on.
This idea that lefties are ‘against’ free speech is just simply untrue. We are well aware of the importance of free speech, we know that free speech is essential for the realisation of truth which comes from the free flow and exchange of ideas; we know that free speech is essential for democracy and for self-determination. However, free speech is, and has never been an absolute principle. It is widely accepted and recognised that curbing free speech is necessary in certain circumstances, particularly in order to protect people from harm that can result from certain forms of speech. Australian society already has laws that curb free speech such as our anti-vilification, defamation, privacy, broadcasting and censorship laws et al.
The thing is, while free speech is important to society it can be just as harmful, especially when the harms are felt by certain groups and minorities in society who have been systematically and institutionally oppressed throughout history and in society today, particularly vulnerable groups such as the LGBTI community, women, ethnic minorities and so on. Harmful speech directed at minorities can further isolate, alienate and disenfranchise those who are already on the margins of society.
So, while it may be perceived by some that lefties are ‘against’ free speech, what is really happening is that to the extent that forms of free speech have the very real potential to harm individuals, we err on the side of restricting that speech to mitigate such harms, in order to create a more inclusive society for all.
Let’s break this down further:
2. Silencing Dissenting Opinions
Firstly, this criticism assumes that any dissenting opinion, or anyone who voices non-conformist views are not racist, misogynistic, bigoted or xenophobic. Very often those who are publicly condemned for their ‘dissenting opinions’ are in fact sprouting hate speech under law, or sprouting extremely hateful speech under the court of public opinion. This criticism also assumes that any dissenting opinion or anyone who voices non-conformist opinions should not be banned from voicing that opinion, yet we as a society are already prepared to ban certain forms of speech under our laws that serve to harm individuals and groups in society.
However, is there a culture of ‘silencing’ by lefties? It is not uncommon to hear of the banning of certain speakers from talking at universities by special interest groups who disagree with the views held by such speakers.We saw this last year when Univeristy of Manchester’s Student Union banned Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at a debate. Even more recently it was announced that Villanova University cancelled an event that Yiannopoulos was supposed to be speaking at, due to left-wing oppostition.
Also, it is not uncommon for comments and statuses on social media to be arbitrarily labelled as racist or bigoted for being unpopular opinions – to some extent we do see this happening with the views of the Pauline Hanson’s, Katie Hopkin’s and Donald Trump’s of the world (Again, doesn’t change the fact that they could be). Similarly, it is not uncommon to hear of people losing their jobs for tweeting and posting Facebook statuses that offend some people.
Having said that, it is not entirely true that lefties are just ‘silencing’ opposition, very often dissenting opinions are not silenced but just met with protest. And rightfully so. We saw this when students from Brunel University collectively and quite literally stood up and turned their backs on Katie Hopkins when she began speaking at a debate. The students didn’t stop Hopkins from speaking, but demonstrated that they didn’t like what she had to say.
If in fact this culture of silencing exists, it is a very worrisome trend that could have serious implications for free speech and could prevent meaningful debate in society.
3. ‘Regressive lefties’ are the bigots/racists
Another criticism of lefties is that we preach inclusiveness and tolerance but only apply this to women and ethnic minorities in society. Lefties are also accused of being racist and bigoted because of schemes such as affirmative action that give preferential treatment to women or members of minority groups rather than on an individual’s merit, quality of ideas or content of character.
Firstly, this criticism ignores the empirical realities that the systematic oppression of women and ethnic minorities makes it extremely difficult for vulnerable groups to even break into social structures, completely ignoring the need of such affirmative action policies to break down such difficulties. This criticism also assumes that all groups in society are on a level playing field and anyone can just enter into our social structures – jobs, politics, access to education, healthcare, welfare, you name it. But this is not the case, our social structures are still dominated by those with privilege. Let’s not forget who are really the ones that have been isolated and excluded from society throughout the ages.
Australian society throughout history and in contemporary times is undeniably based on a social structure that has and is dominated by the powerful voice of those with privilege, specifically white, straight, cis males, who haven’t had to fight for basic civil liberties like other minorities. Privileged peoples are the beneficiaries of a social structure that favours them, whether they want to deny their privilege or not.
It is said, that ‘privilege implies exclusion from privilege,’ and we see this in the systematic oppression of vulnerable and minority groups- We see the systematic oppression of women and minority groups in their lack of representation in parliament and in the workplace. We see the systematic oppression of women, in our child support and social welfare schemes that largely fail to acknowledge the unpaid work of mothers in child rearing, making it very difficult for women who are the primary carers of children in our society to enter or return to the workplace, thereby perpetuating the gender pay gap.
4. But meritocracies would be ‘fairer’ for all
Meritocracies can only do so much in providing opportunities for all in a society where there is a dominant group and where minorities have been and still are systematically oppressed. We can’t talk about being a meritocratic society if certain groups can’t even enter into social structures. Affirmative action is necessary to break down the barriers and for women and vulnerable groups to become included in society’s social structures. How can we have an inclusive society if our discourse is dominated by those with privilege and if the voices of the most vulnerable groups in society are not adequately represented in our law making bodies or other social structures? How can we have an inclusive society if it is difficult for women with children to re-enter the workforce? And so on.
Up until the time that groups in society are on a level playing field where no group is systematically oppressed or as close to not being systematically oppressed, then can the notions of meritocracy come into play.
Lefties are not being racist or bigoted for ensuring a more inclusive society for all, and if a position is reserved for a member of a vulnerable group over one that would usually go to a white, straight, cis male – then for equality moving forward, this would be necessary. Necessary up until society becomes a more inclusive society and certain minorities are no longer systematically oppressed.
For those who still think affirmative action is racist and bigoted- check your privilege.
Featured Image: Zac Quitzau Facebook: Zac’s Doodles
Written by Noelle Martin. This article or a version of this article may appear in Macquarie Street Magazine.