The Regressive Left

On the 5th of February, 2017 a protest was held in the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Unfortunately, the protest turned violent as fires were started and buildings were vandalized. It was thus quite inevitably and officially classified as a riot. The protest was organized by a far-left group against an event that involved a talk by the editor of Brietbart, Milo Yiannopolous. The battle between the proponents and of “safe space” and “trigger-warning” cultures on one hand and free-speech fundamentalists on the other entered the front and centre of the American psyche. The especially ironic fact about this protest was that it was held on the same campus as the Free Speech Movement (FSM), which was also a student protest in the academic year 1964-65. One senses from this that, perhaps the left is no longer classically liberal. The reason why Liberalism has long been associated with the Left was because of the Social Liberalism that took over in the mid-19th century. It changed however, from judging people on the basis of their character to judging them on the basis of certain immutable characteristics such as skin colour or sexuality. This shift that Liberalism made to Progressivism placed greater emphasis on collectivism as opposed to Classical Liberalism that focuses on the individual. However, recent developments make it clear that this progressivism of the Left seems to impede upon true progress. The problem is extreme political correctness that impedes upon having any real exchange of ideas or an honest debate. This culture of “offense-taking” is not only restricted to American College Campuses but has entered our everyday lexicon. Having the wrong opinion is enough to besmirch reputation or end a career. What makes this almost authoritarian is that it deals with subjective offensiveness. Labelling someone a “sexist”, “racist” or a “bigot” immediately invalidates any of their opinions or arguments regardless of their merit. The inability of movements on the Left like Radical Third- Wave Feminism to engage in open debate renders them intellectually void. The election of Donald Trump was essentially a rejection of the identity politics of the Left.

The term “Regressive Left” was coined by British anti-Islamism activist Maajid Nawaz who used the term in 2012 in his memoir “Radical: My journey out of Islamic Extremism.” He is the co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank based in London that seeks to challenge Islamist ideology. His aim was to reform Islamic ideology into a tolerant and truly progressive Islam in tune with modern society and basic liberal values. The Southern Poverty Law Centre labelled Nawaz an “anti-Muslim extremist” and an “Islamophobe .”  In reality, Nawaz is a former Islamic radical who has devoted his life to reforming Islam and reconciling it with the values of the modern world. In his words, “Today’s active, organised left is no longer liberal. A liberal will always prioritise free speech over offence. This behaviour of censorship on the organised left, post factual behaviour, violence being seen as an option and prioritising group identity over individual rights isn’t liberal.”

The Left’s hostility toward free-speech has affected the entertainment industry as well. The worst affected has of course been comedy. I, personally have to be careful about what jokes I post on social networks lest it offends particular section of people. But this hostility is not restricted to humour but extends to ideas as well. To restrain language is to restrain thought and to control what people think is the very definition of totalitarianism. Instead of  rejecting a person’s point of view as inherently “sexist” or “racist” and deplatforming them, it would be better advised to sit down and explain to the person why you think the person has gone wrong and having an honest debate and exchanging ideas. This is important for university campuses as that is where ideas are meant to discussed and challenged. The Left seems to have forgotten that free speech, and specifically offensive free speech, is an engine of progress. Not only that, but an engine of progressive progress. The right to say things that make people uncomfortable is what gave us homosexual rights and marriage. It is what gave women the right to vote. It is also what brought about an end to slavery. They have forgotten that what got liberalism this far is the license to offend.  Speaking out for true tolerance is often met with intolerance. The Modern Left loves diversity in skin colour, just not diversity in thought. Defending these liberal principles has now become a conservative position. Is it now the conservative position to truly be liberal? In the words of George Orwell, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

The author, Aditya Kumar, is a student of Political Science at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.


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