Is Left. Is Good?

Is Left. Is Good?

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Amanda Liem responds to Honi Soit’s article about ‘problematic favs’


This leads to conversational environments that are less about a battle of ideas than about a moral absolutist trying to convert their ‘problematic fave’ to accept the absolutes.

If you, like me, walk down Eastern Avenue quite regularly, you must know that it’s physically impossible to not have experienced an attempted conversion at least once.

You know who they are: the smiling group of students sitting tight under their little gazebos, club named emblazoned on their matching tee-shirts; and should they be lucky, entrapping first years into hour long lectures on their club’s beliefs.

They are well-meaning people honestly. They’re committed to their beliefs and are hoping to save you from eternal damnation and whatnot. I respect that.

I wasn’t talking about religious evangelicals though.

There is a growing movement, especially on the left, that there is a need to save political non-believers from the fiery pits of ignorance. Ajay Sivanathan and Subeta Vimalarajahin’s article in Honi Soit, ‘Our Problematic Faves’ exemplifies this well.

Their idea is that there is a group of people in our lives who are ‘problematic faves’: friends and family with less than politically perfect (read: not left-wing) ideologies. The duty of the left is to engage them in meaningful conversations with the aim of ‘changing the views of the problematic.’

Essentially, they’re calling for a political evangelical movement.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the ‘problematic fave’ of many many people. I’m that one friend described in hushed terms as ‘centre right’; I’m that one friend who doesn’t attend fee-deregulation protests; I’m that one friend who actually liked the last budget.

It’s normal. I do go to the University of Sydney and it was expected that my ideas would be in the minority.

Normality doesn’t the change the fact, however, that I find my ideas being called ‘problematic’ rather insulting. I find it even more insulting that I’m now being told that I need to be converted to ‘good politics’.

I ain’t no sinner. I don’t need to be saved.

I agree that more dialogue is needed between the left and the right, but calling ideas that do not conform to the leftist norm, ‘problematic’ is a step in the wrong direction.

By branding non-left ideas as ‘problematic’, (and by extension, all left ideas as good) the article is essentially reducing the incredibly complex left-right debate to ‘is left, is good’. They are in essence, promoting moral absolutism.

So what is moral absolutism?

Moral absolutism is the belief that there are absolute standards by which right or wrong can be judged from. Like many things, it’s not a problem limited to any certain group on the political spectrum, but it is most visible in the rhetoric of the left.

I admit that there are some moral absolutes: killing someone is obviously bad; feeding a homeless person is obviously good. Moral absolutism is different though. What moral absolutism say is that there is always an absolute right or wrong regardless of context.

Moral absolutists ignore all of this and say that every debate can be resolved (and their side is inherently correct).

And therein lies the problem.

The nature of debate is that there are some topics that can probably never be resolved. It’s debates like: Should freedom of speech include the freedom to offend? What role should government play in our lives? Can the right to privacy be compatible with protecting public safety?

These are debates where there are no moral absolutes, where right or wrong cannot be easily decided upon. These debates are about competing principles, different perceptions of the world and different value systems.  They are debatable and will continue to be debatable because each person is unique and approaches them from their own unique set of experiences.

Moral absolutists ignore all of this and say that every debate can be resolved (and their side is inherently correct).

By saying every debate can be resolved three things happen:

  1. Debates are resolved before they’re actually resolved (if something is considered to be right, what’s the point arguing about it?).
  2. Because they will not accept that the other side could be right, the moral absolutist automatically dismisses ideas that contradict their absolutes.
  3. The moral absolutist attempts to convince the other side to accept the absolutes too.

All of this leads to conversational environments that are less about a battle of ideas than about a moral absolutist trying to convert their ‘problematic fave’ to accept the absolutes. They lead to a breakdown of debate.

That is what the Honi article was promoting- not meaningful dialogue, but the conversion of non-conformists.

But, these are ideas that are debatable and should still be debated?! Though they’ll probably never be resolved, it is through debating them that the left and the right can develop their ideas for the benefit of society.

Promotion of moral absolutism ends this debate, and it’s bad for both the left and the right. Even worse, it simplifies the debate into a list of rights and wrongs. You get no feel for the actual complexity of the debate, the nuances of each argument and how both sides fit in with each other. All you get is a list of premature conclusions and people who only know what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ not why.

This is not an over exaggeration. I recently overheard a conversation about a union board candidate’s support for voluntary student unionism that went something like this:

Girl: ‘He supports Voluntary Student Unionism. That’s not alright’

Boy: ‘Why’s that not alright?’

Girl: (shrugs), ‘It’s not alright’.

It is undeniable moral absolutism is creeping into the public sphere and its influences are being felt. For the sake of progress and debate, we cannot let its spread continue.

The paradox in my argument though is by opposing moral absolutism I accept that there is a possibility that the moral absolutists could be right.

Maybe they are; but until this debate can be resolved, then the debate should and must go on.


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