The tyranny of words
The battle of ideology will always be fought by censorship and propaganda
It has been a while since the west has faced such a deep crisis of political identity. In what seems to be a first, at least in most of our lives, liberalism and democracy are under threat. But so far, the systems seem to be holding.
In the US, the judicial branch is countering what it deems as illegal and unconstitutional executive orders. In the UK, the Supreme Court is ensuring, step by step, that the Brexit process is within legal bounds after an advisory referendum. The left, in France, is organizing to unify its voter base around a candidate to counter right wing movements, as is the trend in Germany.
This makes it difficult to make the claim that democracy, in the west, is in danger. Under stress, yes, but not yet in danger.
The fear, being stoked, is largely contingent on whether or not populist leaders choose to use their powers to undermine democratic institutions. So far, this is not that case. These populist leaders are coming to power as a result of genuine voter fears, fears that they do not trust the “establishment” or “the left” or “democrats” with. After all, desperate times do require desperate measures, and it seems that progressives have yet to either acknowledge the legitimacy of this fear, or have failed to enact manifestos that do anything about them.
Ideology under fire
With the ship of democracy holding, it is the progressive movement that seems to be faltering. Populist leaders are rising on extreme promises that counter internationalism, movement of people, and to a certain extent, liberal ideals of freedom of the press, and at times challenging the system of checks and balances.
Assisting them in this endeavour is the easily exploitable pitfalls of the progressive movement, their “internationalist dualities”.
The modern history of “bastions of liberalism”, such as the US, are full of examples of failed interventionism. This presents the greatest fuel for out of field political players who enter the scene as attackers of the institution. An institution which, under democrats and republicans alike, has created a plethora of nightmare foreign military involvement situations.
Although this helps legitimize the views of populists and their supporters. It remains possible to explain (not justify) why progressives have not been as actively vocal in speaking out against these interventionist policies as they have been in speaking out against the current administration.
On the one hand, bad foreign policy doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to domestic values. Values of liberalism are built around individualism and diversity. With that it’s easy to see how one can disassociate themselves from their government, and while not condoning its activities, still be grateful to it for maintaining their individuality. That is to say that invading Iraq, launching drone strikes, and being involved in regime change intervention does not impact one’s ability to be an open and accepting person. Insulation is driven further by city driven economic isolationism. The idea of meritocracy, that your economic salvation lays in career progression, is a mirage that will surely keep your cognitive capacity fully occupied, and away from activism.
This has all changed. One can understand why, now, the progressive movement has mobilised more than ever against the elected president. After all, Trump represents a direct threat to these domestic progressive and liberal values. His populism is built on conformity and collectivism, us vs. them, singularity as opposed to plurality.
This conflict of values is exactly what makes this political “crisis” ideological at the core. With this, the shift of public political discourse, and to a certain level political discourse at the institutional level, has become both mundane and extreme. Mundane in its appeal to simplified discourse, and extreme in the existential threat it perceives from those on “the other side”.
Action and intent
Facing such a harsh ideological challenge and existential threat, the language that progressives are using to discuss politics has changed dramatically. Engagement with arguments has been replaced with heuristics used to quickly determine whether or not someone else belongs or not—the easiest way of doing this is through language.
And there is indeed a certain tyranny that comes with language in a political context. It is almost always safe to assume that someone who speaks against values of inclusion will act, if not personally, politically, to further that agenda, making it easy for them to be grouped in the monolith of “the other side”. As such, someone displaying the slightest of deviation from a value based status quo, even if to more closely examine those values, is labelled as a saboteur. The party line IS the line.
The first victim of this is debate, the idea to identify that a person’s words are not, nor do they have to be their final position. Here, we see the tired rational of, "how am I to engage with someone with such opposing values?" This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of this debate is now happening in an online space, a space which makes it easier to dehumanize another person as opposed to a discussion taking place over a pint, or even around an awkward family dinner table. Additionally, with us having more control of our “cyber space” it becomes easier for us to possessively determine and police what is or is not acceptable behaviour. Anything outside our value norm is blocked out, in this way even the space for discourse is slowly contracting.
Humour, as well, suffers as a victim and becomes a politicised medium. The policing of what is or isn’t funny on the lines of values is nothing new. Last year, a graphic, suggesting in jest, to “relocate” Israel into the US sparked outrage in the UK with claims of anti-Semitism. The graphic was seen as existentially challenging the legitimacy of the state of Israel, and thus ruled offensive instead of satirical. Similarly today, we continue to see the policing of any language, or symbol (think Halloween costumes), that is deemed offensive, be it in a humorous intent or otherwise.
With values becoming more important than facts, propaganda begins to rise. False “racial attacks” have been on the rise along with hate crime. Fake or “alternative” news has also spiralled out of control in an effort to discredit the other.
Indivisibility of causes
With an entrenchment in an existential battle over ideology, values become an identity marker. In-group out-group dynamics intensify, group polarization takes hold, and it becomes more important to identify with the party colours than to preserve individuality.
This collectivistic approach merges real issues into a monochrome. Refugees, illegal immigrants, womens' rights, sexual rights, civil rights, and economic rights, suddenly all fall under one banner. And in that consolidation, the finesse needed to tackle each with its own constructive and unique terms is lost in the flurry of defensive mobility.
To counter this, progressives have leaned on intersectionalism.
Noting that those who stand to lose the most from this ideological battle are minorities, the term has moved from its original conceptions of social categorization along the lines of different disadvantages ex. black female to be used as an umbrella term for anyone who might suffer from this attack on values. The problem with this is that although minorities suffer from the same system, the way they will suffer, and the intensity is different. Intersectionality then becomes another call to rally stating that “all must go” from the Occupation of Palestine to police brutality, and as opposed to having an indivisible people, we end up also suffering an indivisibility of causes.
This indivisibility of causes has also spread across boundaries and across politics into the realm of business. The Woman’s March was a global event, both a display of how deep this ideological battle has struck, but also an indication of the general population’s inability to fight local battles based on local issues.
Here, American centricity has proved to be true. It took the election of the current US president to mobilise the world. This is both because of the global role the US has played since the end of the Second World War as the bedrock of liberalism, but also a testament to the power of media and how disengaged the electorate is with notions of nationalism.
Internationally, away from social mobilisation, governments as a whole are being put to the test as well. Even if the ideological threat may not be present in their midst, they must determine, under the watchful eye of their people, how best to take forward their relationship with the US. Do they “swallow their pride” and deal with being labelled as the government that chose appeasement? Or do they take a strong stance and risk economic detriments? The UK government has chosen a side, and on Monday Canada, what is being presented as the last bastion of liberalism, will be pushed more to decide.
The ideological battle has not seen the business world unscathed. Businesses, after testing the waters, are no longer shying from taking what seem as political stances. Several companies have come out against some of the president’s executive orders.
It has been strange watching those on the “liberal side” cheer as more and more business take “a stand”. Similar to their previous silence on foreign intervention, it seems that they are willing to accept the endorsement of companies that have dodged taxes, used sweat shops, have questionable privacy policies, cause fluctuations in labour and rent markets, and have even been complicit in causing the biggest economic meltdown of our lifetime. This all goes without mentioning the fact that corporations depend on the public image to create revenue and therefore have it in their best interest to manipulate their image.
Non system change
With the majority of movement, for now, focused on presenting the correct values, and ostracising the wrong ones, there has been significant effort made in tackling the system that has led us to this ideological impasse. And until this value based extremism starts being funnelled into progressive and productive ideas of change we will continue to see this entrenchment ebb and flow.
Worse off, the “institution”, which is holding the democracy together right now, will feel no pressure to refine itself.
It’s important to remember here that these intersectional causes that are now being rallied around existed before this ideological threat. Black Lives matter was a movement founded under a Black president. Women’s rights for access to sexual health care and the removal of things as archaic as the tampon tax were happening before Trump was sworn in. Ordinances that impact low income minority groups were still being passed. The Orlando nightclub shooting still happened. And the companies that are now endorsing progressive values are still the ones anxiously worried about the adoption of national minimum wage standards at 15$ an hour.
By making this an ideological fight, those seeking to impact change are making it clear to those in power, private or public, that they will be satisfied enough with band aid solutions that do no more than virtue signal. Furthermore, they also encourage companies and political organization to adopt value based objectives as opposed to institutional change.
The number of minorities on company boards does little to change a culture that has kept minorities down for decades. The number of body positive ads does little in addressing the lack of sex and relationship education in schools across the US and the propagation of “rape culture”. It is not that those are not good indicators of progress but they are band-aid solutions, propaganda that seeks to mislead and dupe the audience into believing that their values are being regarded when the extent of that regard goes no further than the self-service it renders.
The take away
In times of ideological strife, it is founded to take language as a tyrannical threat; words do turn into action. But more dangerous are words that are driven under the breath and then exhaled in the privacy of a voting booth. It is this that has lead us to the existential threat that minorities now face.
This points to the importance of upholding ideals of tolerance and freedom of speech, even if just for the purpose of self-preservation. This, by no means translates into the acceptance of a narrative that conflict your ideological beliefs, but at a minimum, it means heeding the genuine fears of your fellow citizens and understanding why those fears exist as opposed to dismissing them as unfounded.
For example, in Europe a clear majority in 10 countries support a “Muslim ban”, and even though this contradicts progressive ideals it’s preposterous to accept that it will be constructive to engage in an existential battle with a clear majority.
A more constructive route would be learning how to control the narrative, not by discrediting it, but by better understanding the other sides values and presenting persuasive progressive counter solutions. These solutions are easier to craft by leaning back on individualism as opposed to creating value based monoliths which make it far more difficult to approach those on the other side and present solution in a context that benefits all.
Advocates of change should also be weary when selecting who they see as allies, and seek to limit the hypocrisies that arise from treating domestic issues in a different light than those with international repercussions.
Finally, it’s important to be conscious of the space we are using to have these discussions in. entering a typing battle with an anonymous person on the other side of the world to prove yourself correct is doubtful to make any difference. And removing those with opposing views surely won’t.
The alternative value proposition provides a serious threat, there is no argument there, but ultimately, it is the behaviour exhibited under pressure that will define a group seeking change and not the values they ascribe to themselves. And if the progressive movement refuses to engage in what are indeed progressive solutions to an ideological issue, they must soon realise that the battle for ideology is one that will be fought to its conclusion, the extinction of one side, and over the last years a fight to the death doesn’t look promising for progressives.
Support Reformer on Patreon
Reformer depends on subscriptions to produce its content. Become a Patron from as little as $1 a month and benefit from exclusive patron perks.