Let the Left's Angry Claims of Moral Superiority Once Again Turn to Reason

Last week I did something I never do. I posted on a comments thread.

Whether it is The Guardian or The Spectator, after I read an article I always browse the comments sections of an opinion piece. In truth, I do not know why. Yet, any sociologist would be interested in the mores of the online commenting community: insults are exchanged between regular contributors; the intelligence of the journalist is questioned; a heated discussion can go on for days yet produce no light. There is something ghoulish about this voyeurism. It is the intellectual equivalent of watching a car crash.    

After I posted, I immediately regretted it. The response my post would produce was predictable. So I tweeted: I had just been called scum. I made a cup of tea and went back to check the board. Not only had I been called scum but also morally devoid. I would like to say that a lesson had been learned but, even though it can can take a message seconds to travel the world, it is much harder to get an idea through two inches of human skull.

The incident was symptomatic of something upon which I have long had an underlying uneasy feeling: we have created an age of unreason.

Whether it be on gay rights, climate change, public services, the left wing case was evidence-based. It was reasonedAfter eight years of George W Bush in the White House, you may say that this is nothing new. Conservatism became not an ideology with intellectual hinterland but one which postured on issues as self-evidently “commonsensical”. Gut reaction was the basis for policy prescription. Sarah Palin became the poster-girl for this conservatism. Further back the success of Thatcherism was as much to its instinctive appeal as its intellectual anchoring. The left seemed different. Al Gore’s 2007 book, The Assault on Reason, was praised for its attack on this type of conservatism. Whether it be on gay rights, climate change, public services, the left wing case was evidence-based. It was reasoned.

I am not pretending that political debate used to be conducted with the worthiness of a Socratic dialogue. There was always pepper on the gloves. For all its good, social media has created an echo-chamber where beliefs are reinforced simply by their existence. Beliefs become unquestioned. Like a religious sect, the moral righteousness of the left-wing case is self-evident. Reason dies: it is unnecessary.

After the general election, a close friend of mine posted on Facebook that anyone who had voted Tory should be now considered his enemy. Of course, there was an element of catharsis, enhanced by the fact that expectations changed in that split second when John Curtice’s now famous exit poll was published. My friend was not alone. Here was the bewildered, democratic left calling out a section of the electorate for getting it wrong. The following protest in Parliament Square was a similar reaction: a picture of a group of protesters holding a banner proclaiming “STOP THE CUNTS” trended approvingly on Twitter. The name-calling has been deafening: Tories are “nasty” or even “evil”.

I have yet to read of a case of anyone spray-painting “scum” on a neighbour’s house for displaying a Tory window posterEvil is a strong word to call someone. Could the explanation be far simpler? Could it merely be that there is a disagreement?

It is possible to overstate the case. Although you would not realise it, Twitter is not as ubiquitous as its publicity suggests. Far more people did not attend the post-election protest than did attend it. I have yet to read of a case of anyone spray-painting “scum” on a neighbour’s house for displaying a Tory window poster.

Yet this attitude is apparent at the top of the Labour Party and left-wing commentariat. Having ceded the issue of economic credibility over five years, the Labour case in 2015 became that they were just a little nicer than David Cameron; when George Osborne presented his clever budget which replaced £12 billion worth of tax credits with a so-called “living wage” Polly Toynbee attacked him for his “contempt”. It is an angry response, mired in the denial that through theft, illusion and political cunning the Conservative Party has established its own political centre ground. Grandstanding merely obscures legitimate and important debate.

Political victors are those who put reason into emotionally evocative language. Until the left regains its sense of reason it will lose. And sadly, it will probably deserve to lose. The claim of moral superiority is satisfying but unconvincing. It is also undemocratic. One of the triumphs of democratic politics over the last generation has been that moral posturing has declined: gay people, once denounced as morally repugnant, are now accepted as (nearly) equal members of society; single mothers, once demonic figures to the right, are now treated with greater respect. In a nation of sixty million people - and a world of seven billion - can we accept that what is self-evidently moral for one person is not for another? Can we get back to reasoned debate that tackles basic premises rather than parading supposed moral worthiness?

I always thought that democracy was a peculiarly radical idea with its intellectual centre in the idea of pluralism. Yet, at the moment, this idea of difference is too radical for some on the uniform left.  

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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