Why the Left Isn’t Nice Enough, Part III: The Perfect Is the Enemy of Everything

Why the Left Isn’t Nice Enough, Part III: The Perfect Is the Enemy of Everything October 26, 2020

Prior installments in this series: When You Cancel the Abyss, the Abyss Also Cancels You and Kmart Utopia.

So! I described where I’m coming from in my last. Now comes what I consider the first of the four important problems with the modern Left. That problem is black-and-white thinking—not a difficult concept, but I want to be exact about what I mean, so let’s dig in a little.

A friend of mine pointed out a few months ago in conversation that most left-wing politics revolve around avoiding harm. The reasons leftists object to things like capitalism, sexism, racism, colonialism, and so forth is that they hurt and exploit people. The left-wing ideal is to not do that. This is great! “This political system doesn’t hurt people” sounds ideal, and even if no system could actually achieve that, it’s a good goal to aim for.

But this outlook comes with a drawback: when you think of politics as entirely about avoiding harm, every shade of political difference makes your opponents not just wrong, but dangerous. That’s a problem, because it’s next to impossible to have a society where people don’t disagree. About the only way to do that is to violently suppress all disagreement. And endorsing a government that’s “oops, all violence” in the name of avoiding harm is—well, they’ll make memes about you.

The point here is not that some kinds of harm are okay. (That’s the opposite of what the word “harm” means.) You just need to be able to prioritize. Which concerns are the most urgent, and which ones can wait? If a cop is beating a cancer patient, it’s reasonable to put stopping the cop first and then give the cancer patient chemo. Which concerns interfere with each other? If you’re trying to help an addict, there’s a genuine problem of balancing what’s best for them with their right to autonomy. Are you literally at war with fascists? Churchill’s imperialism is horrible, and you should say as much, but it’s legitimate to side with Churchill for at least as long as it takes to get rid of Hitler. Ranking things as less or more important doesn’t make you a cynic or an appeaser. It makes you a grown-up.

This is why—I’m gonna say it—the incrementalists are right and the revolutionaries are wrong.1 The latter say incrementalism is just compromise and gets no results; well, have you noticed anything about the alt-right lately? Any results that have incrementally changed in the last thirty years? The right plays this game well because they know how to set priorities, forge alliances, compromise, and wait for things. Or look at the progress of LGBTQ rights since Stonewall. Demanding everything all at once because anything less leaves some injustices in place is not principled: it’s myopic. Its real-world consequences are that you get none of what you want and have no effect on the Overton window.2 And both of those things mean the harms you’re opposing are not lessened in any way. It sacrifices, in the name of principle, the people the principle is meant to serve.

It’s partly this that makes definite ideals important. It’s only on the basis of a clear philosophy that you can decide when and how to compromise without losing your vision.

But there’s another kind of binary thinking we need to talk about …

Continued in Will the Real Idiot Please Stand Up.

1Usually. There are circumstances, especially when dealing with fascists, when nothing but a revolution will serve. The point is, “all of them” are not those circumstances.

2The “Overton window” is a name for the range of ideas that are acceptable in the mainstream (the “window of discourse” is another term for it). E.g., in the McCarthy era, Communism was outside the Overton window but FDR’s New Deal welfare programs were not. Or today, while racist ideas are gaining more and more traction, explicitly racist sentiments are still taboo.

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