Spencer Caron ’20
I ask specifically about the Left because I personally enjoy the music, comedy, art, etc. created by those who self-identify as liberal, in addition to admiring the Left’s historical obligation to freedom of expression and tolerance. A dearth of conservative stand-up comedians exist, and because conservatism and religiosity are strongly correlated in the United States, the particularly deviant philosophy and literature—think Voltaire, Jack Kerouac, Michel Foucault, Virginia Wolf—of the last few-hundred years tend to arise out of the Left. I surely understand that these figures specific political allegiances differed, but these four artists all pushed boundaries and chafed against social norms, many of which set up by more conservative politics. Clearly, many of the above statements rest on generalizations, but think about the faculty make-up of a small, elite liberal arts school such as Holy Cross. From personal interaction, would you be willing to wager that your humanities professors are registered republicans?
If you accept, or at least tolerate, these assumptions, then I would like next to discuss my disappointment with the Left as it is widely understood today. First, many of the Left’s foremost thinkers have recently, or are currently, quietly packing their proverbial bags and looking for another broad intellectual group with which to associate. Or, in many cases, intellectuals are demanding that the left be returned to a previous form; these figures won’t necessarily leave the group, but they will be explicit about how the current orthodoxy does not reflect their personal beliefs. An analog of this phenomena would be the Christian who earnestly claims to believe in God and divine nature of his son Jesus Christ, but who feels that some of the acts of organized religion are abhorrent; this person identifies as a Christian while harboring ill opinions of the Church. A short list of such figures on the Left include the late Christopher Hitchens, neuroscientist Sam Harris, comedian Bill Maher, feminism scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, and many others. These figures reasons for leaving include, but are not limited to, the Left’s lack of intellectual bravery, proclivity for siding with an emotionally appealing argument even if this stance is not supported empirically, and a disdain for comedy that has the potential to offend.
For the progressive reader feeling frustrated and saying internally that this movement of the Left further left, i.e, towards a more progressive stance, is a largely positive shift, I offer the following to consider: is it possible that the Left is so intent on “purifying” its membership—ridding the movement of “problematic” folks—that more damage than good is actually being done? I am not arguing something as bold as the theory that the “Left’s lunacy” gave rise to Trump’s victory; the explanation of that unlikely event lies far outside my body of knowledge. What I do feel comfortable commenting on, however, is the seeming zeal with which members of the Left will call for a removal of another similarly-oriented person on the basis of one “problematic” comment. A striking instance of this phenomenon was on display a few years ago on “Real Time” with Bill Maher (who won’t perform stand-up on college campuses because college students “can’t take a joke”) when Sam Harris, outspoken critic of religion at large, specifically Islamic extremism, was called “gross and racist” by Ben Affleck for citing Pew Research data concerning support for Sharia law. One can watch the clip for context, but I can’t help but feel like Affleck, a great actor, but no great political scientist, is harming the political group to which he claims allegiance for hurling such vitriolic insults at Harris, a long time proponent of secular humanism.
Or, take an even more egregious instance of what I like to call “cancel culture” that is prevalent among fringe groups on both sides of the political spectrum, but that is especially popular on the Left of college campuses. Coleman Hughes, a black undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania who contributes to Quillette, Heterodox Academy, the Columbia Daily Spectator. In the last year, he has written at least four pieces that address race in a critical, but in my estimation, well-reasoned way. In the course of writing these articles, he details discovering entirely novel ideas, namely libertarianism and conservatism, upon arriving at college. His articles include some critique of what he calls “black culture.” My personal feelings aside, Hughes discusses the backlash he has witnessed in the comment section, including indictments of being a so-called “Uncle Tom” and no longer being a member of the “black community.” I would not hesitate to assume that among the white faculty at University of Pennsylvania, a minority of humanities professors would be willing to support Hughes’ free expression and objectively high-level writing ability, instead at least implicitly supporting the dissent, so as not to step out of line with progressive orthodoxy.
The above anecdotes do not necessarily point to an iron-law of behavior, but rather, consistent tendency of the the Left of coming across as chronically un-funny, and frequently intolerant of truly free discuouse; two reassons I believe public intellectuals such as Jordan Peterson have become so well-known. In an era where most Americans believe that the chasm between political parties are so wide that the other side can’t even hear their opponents speak, and various media are purposefully obfuscating truth, support for public figures who seem willing to sit down and have a conversation without reflexively labeling something as “toxic” or “problematic” is a natural by-product, not evidence of a orchestrated conservative resurgence. Peterson has engaged with intellectual opponents for two hours at a time, discussing religious belief, gender differences, sexual orientation, etc. This does not in any way validate Peterson’s opinions, but after honest reflection, I cannot think of many progressive intellectuals who host long form discussions with intellectual opposites and seriously engage with thorny issues. (NPR may serve as a counterexample to this point.)
To reiterate, the above musings should not be construed as somehow giving credit to the Right for being a bastion for tolerance or great ideas. Instead, I am expressing earnest disappointment with the intellectual tradition that historically defended free speech, wrote controversial and experimental literature and comedy, and poked fun at stuffy conservatives for not being any fun. If I were the hypothetical Chair of the Left, I wouldn’t let those ideals get away.
Photo Courtesy of Radcliffe Institute