Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

A Call to Moderation (When Left is Right…When Left is Wrong)

Progressive, liberal, leftist – some of the words that one might use to describe me. I do acknowledge that my perspectives tend left-of-centre, but I always considered myself a moderate. I believe conservative policies have a time and place, but that society should always strive to develop (i.e. progress) and that means rejecting some tradition.

In my fear and frustration, aroused by the state of our national discourse, I began writing publicly to share my thoughts on various matters. As a non-confrontational introvert with social anxiety and a panic disorder, writing has been my go-to for years to deal with things, because even if I felt compelled to join a protest march I am, frankly, ill-equipped to do so.

The liberal perspective does dominate the media – at least the media that I consume – so it comes as little surprise to me that liberal terminology would dominate my writing on complex political topics. It further did not help matters that many of the individuals espousing ideas with which I disagreed happened to fall on the conservative side of the spectrum. Rejecting conservative terminology in favour of the liberal became one more subtle dig, one more form of implicit protest to ideologies that I opposed.

At the end of the day though, I do not hate people. Any people. I hate certain ideas and I especially the hate the expression of some of those ideas – the apex of this being expressions that result in harm to others. Life is hard enough without us getting in one another’s way.

That includes the liberal camp though. The left has extreme views just as the right, some of which run contrary to the principles of that perspective. I want to write honestly about some of that today.

Political correctness is the first thing that comes to mind. Look, I love civility. I would love to live in a world where people respect one another and never express anything that offends or upsets anyone else. That will never happen though – ever. One cannot know the journey of every other person to know how they will perceive what one expresses. People will take offence to things until the end of time.

What we cannot do is police language and behaviour to the point of paralysis. We invent euphemisms for things that seem to controversial or sensitive, the way “overweight” or “heavy” came to stand in for “fat”. We did not want people to feel shame or hurt when regarding their size. The thing is, over time, “overweight” and “heavy” take on the same meaning that “fat” once had. We have not killed the idea, just the words available to describe it.

This is true in the areas of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, and orientation – to name a few. Descriptive words associated with these characteristics do not need to trigger anyone automatically.

Yes, we have situations where individuals call into question those characteristics for no apparent reason. “Black man arrested in convenient store robbery”. Is it important that we know the individual was black? That he was a man even? Certainly if a suspect was sought in connection with the crime those characteristics would be useful.

To do away with terminology in polite conversation altogether though is egregious. He isn’t “short”, he is “vertically challenged”. If x + 5 = 12, then x = 7. If we decide that x is offensive and change it to d + 5 = 12, then d = 7. If someone is sensitive about being short, he or she is still short. Describing that person as short is factual. If we know that person is sensitive, we can do our best to avoid the matter and we can, as individuals, offer apologies if offence is given. Attempting to persuade everyone to change their language as relates to shortness to combat this problem – the people who were sensitive to it will remain sensitive, those who care not for giving offence will continue to do so (even embracing the old language as part of their effort to give offence), and the rest will grapple with inscrutable and ever-changing social rules governing how to interact.

When we treat the language we make a minimal impact. The connotations of words do not disappear by changing the words used, it merely shifts the connotation to the new words. We need to challenge the connotations directly. Words evolve over time, but they have fixed definitions – without those, language loses all utility. Even if we are discussing various perspectives on one issue, the objective reality of that issue and the meanings associated with the words we use do not change.

How do I mean? Here is an example that I have used frequently in my writing on objective reality. Imagine that you and I are standing on a road and a train goes ripping by on some parallel tracks. We both observe a passenger on the train through one of the windows, and you say, “My! He is travelling fast!”, to which I respond, “He wasn’t moving at all”.

Naturally, we are both correct in this situation because we are describing an objective reality in relative terms. You provided the passenger’s speed relative to the ground, being equal to that of the train. I took his speed relative to the train. Either way, we are both talking about a passenger sitting on a train. So long as we are not inventing reality, those various perspectives on the matter are fine.

That may sound all well and good – the problem is that we have lost the ability to agree on reality. Abortion: medical removal of an unwanted zygote or the murder of a baby? Those are not perspectives on one reality. One of those perspectives is, at minimum, hyperbole. This is where we rely on science to make a determination for us that is verifiable, reproducible, and reliable. Science, too, evolves over time, but that method provides the best perspective on things for which we can ask. The process involves objective observation of the natural world in a way that satisfies the verifiable, reproducible, and reliable conditions.

Social media is great for networking and keeping in touch, but it has also proved a wonderful way to create echo chambers and facilitate the sharing of inexpert opinions in the guise of fact. Both sides are guilty of that – like thinkers tend to network and share sources. The “other side” has its own sources. Both distrust those sources because private interest compromises it in some way. The private interest of our own side has the benefit of the same justifications we give our opinions.

Does that mean that everyone is right? Does that mean everyone is wrong? It means everyone has valid points, and that everyone is some degree of wrong. The vehement opposition to everything from the other side is unforgivable though. I have yet to meet the person with whom I agree 100% of the time. As I acquire new information my own perspectives change, so it would be right to say that I do not agree with myself 100% of the time. At what degree of disagreement should I reject everything about a person? They have the same inexpert opinion on everything as I do.

For that matter, we have to understand the distinction between expert and omniscient. Our experts in their respective fields represent our best understanding of that aspect of life at that point in time. To point at any fallible point and discredit the entire position is wrong. New information, new observations, and new studies will continue to guide their understanding as well, but by making the direct scientific inquiry of the subject they are positioned best to offer an expert perspective on the matter.

That we, at least in part, have lost the ability to trust that expertise, is a shame. The climate change community largely supports the existence of climate change, and as a man-made phenomenon owing to carbon dioxide emissions. Opponents and deniers point to falsified data distributed to those members of the community as the culprit for that understanding. Personally, I refuse to be that cynical – I have to believe that members of the community, in their scientific inquiry of the matter, would have verified the data rather than proceed on assumption (as I do when I discuss these topics).

Rather, my question as the layperson participating in speculative conversations with other laypersons concerned with the politics of our society is, “Why are we, as laypersons, not simply incorporating that into our conversation?” Outside the scientific community directly involved in the inquiry, we all speculate about it. I have not seen the actual data and cannot vouch for it – I take the scientific community at their word. I suspect those who argue the fabrication side do as well. Where did this idea of data fabrication originate? Can we verify it?

No – we would rather divide into believers and deniers. We argue two sets of facts based on perception of what is an increasing number of realities. The planet is warming or it is not. If warming, humans are the primary contributor or they are not. Maybe both are true taken relative to distinct, fixed points of reference. If so, we clarify that.

We cannot discuss Islam in this country. Muslims living in the United States do face a considerable amount of discrimination and profiling for no reason. However (brace yourself Liberal friends), we cannot overlook the extent to which bad practices are part of the Muslim faith. No, they are not all jihadists. No, they do not all disrespect or otherwise disparage women. Some/many/most are wonderful human beings. This is not about Muslims as individual human beings. We do need to acknowledge some of the cultural practices and beliefs and how they impact our society though.

Just as the Right often retort, “What about radical Islam?” when I write about Christian fundamentalists, I imagine some of the Left reading this were thinking, “What about the Christian fundamentalists?” What about the Crusades? What about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What about WMDs that do not exist? What about the Iran-Contra Affair? What about Israel? What about, what about, what about?

I have no problem with any of those what about questions. They are valid. The United States does need to square with its role in the Middle East and predominantly Arab nations. Those nations also have a history that exceeds any intervention from a single world power.

My point: we cannot insulate populations from judgement or discussion because of the wrongs perpetrated against members of those populations. We should not be afraid to discuss Islamic beliefs or practices that harm other people, just as we should not be afraid (indeed, are not) to discuss beliefs and practices that harm Muslims. Arab people are not the problem. Muslims are not the problem. Some Muslim practices are contrary to our societal values.

The same is true across the board. I consider myself a feminist. I believe that men and women are equal, or should be anyway. Straight away, the word “feminist” puts off a number of people, often on the Right, because they associate feminist with a specific perspective.

“Modern feminism is toxic, a virus.” Yes, some of those people are chauvinists and misogynists who hate women. We need to deal with them. Some of them are people who believe that men and women should be equal, but that the self-identified feminists get carried away with that mission. The feminists are not righteous proponents of gender equality, but people so blinded by one aspect of equality and so zealous in its pursuit that they will infringe on the equality of others.

I am not suggesting that feminists are wrong to feel outrage at the things they do. I am definitely suggesting that a feminist should take caution not to feel so outraged that one’s response to those things is counter intuitive to the principles one is attempting to defend.

As an example, many feminists take issue with the gender pay gap. Some have argued that a gender pay gap does not exist, because if the data analysis controls for multiple variables it will reveal that characteristics other than gender are what represent the actual pay gap. This response tends to infuriate feminists who look at women earning less than men. The return volley is one of anger at misogynists deeply embedded into a patriarchal system attempting to downplay this real concern.

What if, though, we instead took that as valid response? Okay, the data suggests that gender is not a primary cause for the pay gap, but rather these characteristics are. Agreeableness, for example. Men who are more agreeable will earn less than women who are not, for example. It happens that agreeableness correlates more with women than with men though, so we are left with a perspective of a gender pay gap. Let us now investigate this agreeableness factor. Why does it discriminate against women? Are women naturally more agreeable, or does society impose a gender role, an expectation of agreeableness on women that results in this pay gap?

Keep the lines of dialogue open and flowing. Embrace both the logic and emotion of the matter, use them as checks and balances on one another.

This is what the Right means by identity politics. We determined that women are not equal and we defend women, we insulate them from things and aggressively pursue anyone perceived to be against them. Then we have intersectional feminism because gender is not the only aspect of discrimination. For black women, for example, racism is part of the misogyny experience and vice versa. Now we police action perceived against women and against blacks, except that some people are more intersectional than others and so they sometimes wind up fighting one another. A statement made in defence of a black woman may defend the woman but not the black, or vice versa.

The whole thing gets more and more convoluted. At the end of the day, what all decent people on both sides of the aisle want is equality for people. Who we oppose are people who infringe on the rights of people. The issue for women is not men. The issue for blacks is not non-blacks. The issue for women is some individuals. The issue for blacks is some individuals.

And we rarely get to combat those individuals’ harmful actions because we become preoccupied with policing language. We refuse to let this person or that person speak because they spew “hate speech”. I give this in quotes because while sometimes it is legitimate hate speech, sometimes it merely does not fit the narrative. That does not give anyone the right to stop the speech though, even in the cases of hate speech. Inciting violence crosses the line, but anything short of that is a protected right.

That does not mean condone everything one hears. Allowing a person to speak is not the same as agreeing with that person, just as one can disagree with an idea without hating the person. Straight talk – in the pursuit of progress, free speech, and equality, the Left has done a tremendous job of stopping dialogue and silencing dissenters.

I know, I know – “Why do we have to be civil if they are not?” Part of it should be painfully obvious: your ideological opponents do not care about political correctness in speech but they know it will infuriate you. The lack of civility is not a lack of civility in their personality (chances are you speak with these people in person at least occasionally and do not even realise it, the conversation being perfectly reasonable and friendly), but in speech alone. They want conservative political solutions implemented and while you are busy demanding apologies for their statements, they achieve those solutions. When they demand an apology in faux outrage, the Left will stop and put together the apology.

The opinion part of it is, why sacrifice a principle like civility because the Other does? Playing sports as a child, I participated in several games in which the other team cheated. One way of thinking about that is to begin cheating as well, to attempt to seize that advantage away from the opposition. Perhaps that does result in a win in that game, but then comes another game. Each season ends and heralds in the start of another season. Civility ensures continued participation; cheating results in lifetime bans.

And I know that some people look at behaviour today and think, “So when does this cheater get his lifetime ban?” It will come provided we do not abandon the rules. The Left insulated these pernicious individuals from prosecution by playing this political correctness game. Of course the ideological opposition will not turn over the Aces in their hand, because they are winning. Leftist outrage has hit an all-time high, allowing more and more implementation of conservative solutions.

If we had done a better job of pursuing equality from the start, we might have avoided all of this. The ideological gap widened, and then both sides took to disagreeing about it poorly.

This does not mean that everyone must get along. This does not mean that one has to be nice and civil to everyone. Your fear, insecurity, anger, despair, loyalty…all justified because they are how you respond to your perception of the world around you. I am not denying you any of that.

I am suggesting that we stop explaining ourselves to the other person and start paying attention to their explanation. Fight that reflex you have to disagree with a person based on a history of his or her saying things with which you disagree. It coloured your relationship and you are now looking to disagree with him or her. If someone you liked presented the idea, you might give him or her the benefit of the doubt – but not this opponent. The fuse and the tolerance is low. We begin to sacrifice values such as free speech and tolerance in the pursuit of justice for others, without actually delivering that justice.

Our means of communicating only serves to entrench people in positions already held. I agree that one should speak up, but how we speak up matters. And it is not that speaking up “does nothing” – any obstacle one can create to allowing another to be inhuman towards another should be constructed. Do so thoughtfully, with empathy and humanity. Remember that any person devoid of these things needs help, not pity, for they are delusional or hurt deeply and in greater need of humanity than anyone.

We can be our own leaders. Indeed, in America that is how we always intended it – a leader from the people, of the people, for the people, and by the people. Through our poor communication it became increasingly about those with economic means supporting our party’s ideology, then we contorted that divisiveness in to the cause of our division. We are fully capable of healing divisions without formal leadership by simply being human to one another.

We need more moderate voices of independent thought, dedicated to the scientific process, and willing to hear the opposition. We need to stop waiting for a government to lead us and lead our government – that is perhaps the greatest freedom of living in the United States. Through the clouds of divisiveness I hear the ringing of cooperation and collaboration. It only takes a little resolve to make it so.


2 Responses to “A Call to Moderation (When Left is Right…When Left is Wrong)”

  1. trixterblue

    I don’t agree with everything you have written, but I did enjoy reading this—especially the bit about the gender pay gap…but then the feminist in me thinks, okay…well maybe we should redefine traits like “agreeableness”. And I’m afraid I can’t be civil to people who belligerently value guns over people, take money from a terrorist organization like NRA, or who could condone ripping children from their families and putting them into—and I’m done with mincing words, as well—concentration camps.

    Still, you made many good points and I enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Keenan

      Thank you! I actually agree 100% with your response here. I do think, in the case of the gender pay gap, that we need to go back as a society and look at all those terms. You know, maybe women are not earning less on average than men because they are women, but they are earning less and we should seek to correct that.

      Same with the guns – I have no time for someone who values guns more than people. I do caution against assuming that anyone who supports gun ownership has that perspective though. I think that is where discourse starts to break down. Plenty of gun owners have a response more like, “This is a tragedy, but why are you trying to take my guns or place restrictions on that?” That turns into, “Why do you care more about guns than people?”, but really it’s more, “How do we go about solving this problem without restricting rights on responsible people?” Even more centred voices tend to look at the extreme versions of the opposing ideology and battle that.

      Civility for its own sake though, in the face of brash violations of human rights (like putting more value on guns than humans or the concentration camps) is not okay. I agree completely with you on those respects.



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