The Left has become so preoccupied with fighting online battles, it is losing the real world war.
Comedian Jazz Twemlow examines his complicated relationship with progressive politics.
In the past two years, the Left (who, since WW2, have been on an incremental winning streak) have experienced some stunning rebukes. Brexit and the US election of a human collage of rejected Mike Myers characters aren’t necessarily a sign of direct aversion to left wing values, but they are a rather damning evaluation of the left’s ability to present themselves through narratives that connect with the “average voter”. It seems, given the choice between whatever it is the left stand for and the pink goo from Ghostbusters II, the average voter would rather choose the latter.
“But why should we have to connect with the average voter? They’re just a bunch of dumb racis…”
Yeah, ok stop. That. That there is why you lost. Outrage: once the spark that ignited revolutions, is increasingly becoming a form of tedious online social currency that’s seen the left become a tribalistic, one-note herd who’ve forgotten nuance, complexity, and most importantly, sympathy. What a waste of such a powerful tool: imagine Yoda using The Force to alphabetise his spoons. It seems outrage and taking offence, usually the Bible-driven province of the right, has swapped sides, and it’s making the left about as effective as a sword made out of waffles.
I’m not denying that what many of us get outraged by is intrinsically bad, even evil (hello… actual Nazis), but it’s this preoccupation with, and often deliberate seeking out of, things to be offended by that is new and tactically self-destructive, especially as it seems to preclude any and all possibility of establishing meaningful dialogue with those somewhere in the middle we need to be understanding of, at least in terms of the systemic mechanisms that drive them to vote the way they do. This isn’t to dismiss the mission of identity politics, but merely to point out that it is a far more vocal faction of the left than, say, those tweeting outrage about subsidised education and offshore tax evasion and how this directly affects everyday citizens.
When the Brexit campaign was in full swing, all I could see in my little bubble of like-minded friends on Facebook was repeated guffawing at the “racist idiots” who were considering voting Leave, ignoring completely the legitimate structural and economic problems which plague the EU, not to mention the hopelessness that had befallen a UK ravaged by neocons, soluble, it seemed, only through embracing full autonomy.
Similarly, during the presidential campaign, the internet was saturated by multiple, widely shared think pieces focusing on Trump’s misogyny. Anyone that attempted to explain why they might vote for him were comfortably, and immediately be shouted down and dismissed as a sexist, or racist, or ableist. And vote for him they did: 63 million hate-filled bigots apparently, their seething Nazism hitherto undetected. Odd that.
After Brexit, the same “racist idiots” who wanted a system that had them in mind took their needs into account suddenly became “the disaffected working class” when they voted for Corbyn. Weird. Racist one minute, just looking for someone who’ll fight for them the next. Which is it? (Please don’t answer that, it is a very rhetorical question).
Herein lies the problem: they weren’t an army of “ists” (I’m sure many of them were), but making that the only thing we were allowed to talk about (attempt to try to “understand” the enemy, and you too could be branded an “ist” sympathiser) meant we were robbed of the opportunity to identify voters’ true motivations. Any potential for argument, discussion, or nuance, was entirely shut down as a simple-minded gold rush of heaping scorn swept the internet. The left were so distracted by what they felt they should be enraged by, and were so quick to dismiss the other side, that they missed two crucial opportunities to bring about the very political landscape that would solve the problems they were wailing about.
Also, what do you stand to gain by dismissing anyone? They still get to vote alongside you on election day. It’s not as if laughing at someone means they no longer get to have a say. Ha ha! Now that we’ve laughed at the Australians who voted for One Nation, they all get taken to a politics-proof padded cube. All you’re doing through dismissive mockery is fanning the flames of tribalism through a refusal to actually (rather than visibly) be the better person by embracing moral humility.
The hyper-focus on identifying enemies, focusing so much on what they were against also meant that little to no effort was put into providing a counter-offer to the right, who somehow managed to seize an anti-establishment vibe, normally the undisputed stomping ground of the left. Voters were therefore presented with a choice between an uncertain, but at least different, future, and… nothing.
The pathology of the left at the moment is therefore best defined as a disparity between proactively attempting to bring about a better society (which it could totally do) and merely wanting to be seen to be attempting this. Unfortunately, social media makes the latter extremely easy. In a world of 140 characters and clickbait headlines, we’re shunted towards outrage and shock as this is easy to express in short, sharp bursts (or, on the right, untruths and convenient alternative facts, as the truth is harder to unpack).
Denouncing Trump’s voters as vile racists is a simple thought and easy to share, while offering a long-winded, more nuanced opinion about the social structures and socio-political context that made Trump appealing would have been tedious, unsexy, and unshareable. Social media is like the cinema; you want snackable popcorn to go with your movie, not a 28-course, well-considered degustation. “Watch this comedian destroy racist Trump supporter” will always get more retweets than “Watch this expert slowly unpack the motivations behind voting for Trump.” The left, for all its their supposed love of science, has have been seduced by mediums that favour emotion over complexity. There’s certainly nothing very scientific about yelling that 63 million Americans are racists, but it feels good.
Social media is an opiate, convincing you that widespread validation of your opinion is somehow proof that you’ve done something good, whereas it’s really just an indication that your opinion has reached those who already agree and that you’ve further reinforced the biases of your increasingly monotonous echo chamber.
Sharing links that signal your values has the illusion of being constructive, while the problems remain unremedied. We’ve chosen piety over progress. It’s for this reason that satire, too, is becoming increasingly problematic, as a rant that “nails it” makes people feel good when they share it, and creates the impression that “That’s now been dealt with.” At its worst, social media permits a violent tribalism where thousands of lefties can, without irony, rejoice that someone was caught on camera getting punched.
With the simplicity of expression demanded by emerging mediums, along with the false assurance we’re making a contribution (and the corresponding boost to our egos), it’s no surprise that, online at least, the left has become preoccupied with calling out all the isms while losing huge ground in the real world: we’re fighting online battles and losing the real world war. The issue is therefore one of tactics.
For starters, for a movement supposedly against the 1%, there’s a worrying tendency to fawn over any bit of viral bunkum churned out by the richest Hollywood A-listers – hardly in line with the values we’re meant to be espousing. The left were traditionally champions of the working classes, yet we’ve somehow ended up in a very backward place where we gleefully jump on board whatever Matt Damon or Lenha Dunham are saying while simultaneously throwing regular people under a bus by labelling them deplorables. If Jimmy Kimmel or Trevor Noah are your spokespeople, don’t be surprised when you reach precisely none of the people you need to. Nothing quite says “out of touch elitists” like a movement that, through an internet-induced short attention span, can’t be bollocksed trying to understand disaffected voters and instead cling to millionnaire performing artists just because they bothered to plop out a sound bite. When nurses in the UK see their salaries drop 12% over the next decade, be sure to ride past them on a pennyfarthing, streaming the latest series of Girls, you in-touch, progressive fuckwit.
To reiterate, this isn’t about being right or wrong, it’s about being smart.
I’m sure what Meryl Streep says might be poignant, but then maybe make her your online poster child outside the election cycle. Leading up to an election, however, maybe it’s better to avoid labelling half the voting population as idiots and then exalting some of the most undeservedly rich people on earth, even if they’re saying something you agree with, yeah?
Secondly, we need to get better at providing a vision of what we’re for, not just what we’re against. If you only ever speak in antagonistic terms, it makes it very hard for anyone to know whether you’re worth aligning with. Yes, we’re against sexism, but that’s not a policy. How many jobs will that create? Will the cost of living rise? “Oh, I see, so women’s rights are less important than how much it costs to rent an apartme-”. Sorry, but yes. Yes, if you want people to vote for the parties you like, you’re going to have to start finding ways to translate what they stand for into terms that connect with regular people. You can’t run a country on not-sexism, or create jobs out of gender inclusive toilet logos. Yes these issues are important, and yes they gain traction online, but no, they’re not how you formulate an election-winning strategy. You certainly don’t dismiss those who don’t share those same concerns as deplorables. While Trump was talking about trade deals, creating jobs, draining the swamp, building walls, and boosting military, Hillary was waffling on about “Stronger Together”. What is that, a cult? What does that mean? I was for Hillary, and I honestly can’t tell you a single thing she stood for, except not being Trump, which is just another way of giving him free advertising. Saying you’re not someone, or better than someone, is just a way of making sure their name gets said twice as often.
Finally, we have to recognise that social media has the incredible ability to weaponise the worst parts of any movement, and to think that the left are somehow immune from this intoxicating influence is pure self-delusion. The right have been sucked into a world of alternative facts, arguments bolstered by links to blog posts, and aggressive swarms of frogs assaulting anything that triggers their fear of progressive unfamiliarity. But for the left we’ve all too enthusiastically become seduced by the outrage afforded to the self-righteous at the expense of being in any way relatable, constructive, or a viable choice for those wanting more security in their future.
It’s not good enough being on the right side of history across a range of civil rights issues. They are crucially important, but there are, I’m afraid, other concerns that need to be addressed with due care to average voters: you know… those other pesky human beings who you share the earth with.
The solutions are simple and are already yielding results. Jeremy Corbyn, simply by bothering to say he was there for everyone, rather than chucking half the population under a bus, saw great results. We need to remember those we’re fighting for, not just those that are popular to fight for online. We have a responsibility to all people, no matter their concerns, and we have to present ourselves in a way that’s morally humble and accessible. Social media is an incredibly useful tool and we need to use it to return to a more traditional model of protest. We could be using it to organise, to meet, to gather forces in order to spread awareness and educate, rather than breaking down into a series of individuals each fighting by ourselves by blasting off bite-size snacks of outrage: as an “us” we’re powerful, as a series of faux-angry (how much do you actually do about the things you claim to be angry about – my apologies to those who do) “mes” we’re useless.
Time and again studies have shown that social and cultural biases are broken down when people’s expectations are countered by real-life experiences. This means spending time with people who we disagree with.
I know you’re already feeling an uncomfortable itch as you think about no longer raging online: it’s your favourite toy, and it makes you feel good, and it gets you likes and responses. But you simply have to stop. You’re not helping. Evidently (yes, science) you’re making things worse. Be humble, yield your ego, and form a compassionate, humble “us” that’s grounded in a seeking of progress and equality for everyone, and speak in terms and mediums that are accessible, embracing heroes and role models that are indicative of your values, not famous people who are so far removed from those you’re meant to be fighting for you may as well build a sign saying “I’m for the working class” out of solid gold.
And yes, if you identify as left, you are for the working class, so get comfortable with that new responsibility if you didn’t know that that’s what you’re actually meant to be doing already. And if they don’t share your concerns about gender fluidity, educate, don’t shun.
Basically, for the tl;dr crowd: proudly yelling online about the world you want is preventing you from actually getting there. Try something different.
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