Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Intolerance of diversity by people on the political left

I sat on a draft of this post for most of this month before finally deciding to post it, so no-one can accuse me of dashing it off in the heat of the moment. And as I note in what follows, I’ve been thinking about this issue for a good deal of time. In fact, I started writing on the blog about the ways that people use social media in the middle of 2017.

This episode started when the Christopher Hitchens account put a quote up on Sunday 11 August and it was retweeted by a Twitter contact of mine (we both follow each other), a man who used to be a Greens municipal councillor: "Every time you silence someone you make yourself a prisoner of your own actions because you deny yourself the right to hear something." The writer is dead now but quotes of his come from this account from time to time.

On the same day, I saw a tweet from a person who, like me, writes book reviews. She doesn't follow me but I follower her. Her tweet contained a link to an old story about Kashmir by a journalist named Matthew Clayfield, who used to be a Twitter contact of mine (at one time we both followed each other). I checked Matthew's profile and saw that he had blocked me. For the life of me I could not imagine what might have convinced him that blocking me was necessary. I will only disconnect from people if they use bad language or do something antisocial, and that isn’t my way of behaving on social media.

This episode underlined for me how bad social media is for the conduct of interpersonal relations. There is no time for nuance and people usually go in hard, using all their rhetorical skills to prosecute an argument, rather than modulating their language in order to remain within the bounds of reason or politeness. And there are no secondary markers available, as there are, for example, in face-to-face conversations: body language, vocalised inflection, facial expressions, pauses, and the kind of deliberate hedging that people use when they are with someone, even if they disagree with that person's ideas on a specific issue.

I don't see why it's necessary for people to have 100% of their views consoning with everyone they encounter online. Surely, we can tolerate diversity. And it's generally people on the left, like Matthew, who are least likely to tolerate diversity. They want everyone to think the same way as them and if they find someone who thinks differently, they often block.

Having lost Matthew, I then did a search for another journalist from whom I hadn’t seen much in recent weeks, who is named Royce Kurmelovs. He had written a couple of books and I now found that although he was mentioned a number of times on Twitter his account had disappeared. Then I checked for the account of Kurt Johnson, who I knew from university and a poetry circle that had been active there a decade earlier. Kurt had been visible from time to time at poetry readings around the traps in Sydney. I was relieved to see that Kurt still had his account active and that he had not blocked me, although, as previously, he wasn’t following me.

To do something positive for diversity, I decided to send a friend request on Facebook to a person I had unfriended some months before. This woman had actually been unnecessarily rude, which is why I made the decision I made. The night before, on 17 August, I had had a dinner party at my place to which a mutual friend had come, so the friend request was timely.

I had been thinking about these things for some time. In fact, I had even started a new post about how people on the left often recommend something, a book, say, along with an assertion that “everyone” should read it. For example, on 1 August at 1.13pm someone retweeted a tweet from a self-identified academic with 14,634 followers that read, “This is a powerful article, every Australian should read.” The tweet contained a link to a story on the website of the progressive magazine The Monthly titled, “The terrible truth of climate change.”

Let’s leave aside the scientific consensus about climate change: that it is real and that it is caused by human activity. But you see at play on the left all the time the kind of unhealthy homogenising instinct this person displayed. It links with the idea that part of the community – the part that self-identifies as being on the left – is ahead of history on a range of issues. The thinking goes that due to the successes of the post-war counterculture – the generation their parents had grown up in, or even that they, themselves, had grown up in – in terms of improvements in human rights everything that they, today, think, will therefore be an inevitable result of history (still, paradoxically, unfolding of course). For such people, the phrase “being on the right side of history” links in with this way of thinking. Hence the intolerance. They consider that because people in the future will inevitably think the same way as they do now, then your objection to something they say is a complete nonsense and not worth giving time to considering.

The thing that was so galling about what Matthew had done was his vaunted dedication to diversity. He had been busy travelling for as long as he had been a freelance journalist. Travelling to parts of the world that most people ignore and avoid, such as Kashmir. In fact, visiting hotspots had become a leitmotiv in his production, presumably on the basis that he thinks it incumbent on a white, Anglo journalist from a wealthy country to give attention to people the world usually ignores. How much more progressive can a journalist be than this? So, the lack of tolerance for diversity of opinion that is expressed by people like this is not merely ironic, it is profoundly hypocritical.

But it is typical for the political left. They have any amount of time to dedicate to listening to people who are different from themselves but none at all for people like themselves. How much more racist can you get than to say, “I will give time to people less fortunate than myself but I won’t give the time of day to my equals”? Well-meaning paternalism like this is behind the same selfish impulse that makes progressives unthinkingly criticise Israel and give blanket support to Palestinians.

Some people also think that in developing countries the governments alone are corrupt. If the people were given their own head, they think, then everyone would be honest and government would be run in the interests of the common people. But nothing could be further from the truth. Governments are made up of people, and the same corrupt institutions that operate today in places like China or Egypt would operate in the same way if you switched out all the personnel tomorrow and replaced them with fresh faces.

Progressives who harbour fantasies about the goodness of the common folk are infantilising the people they pretend to support. If you want good results you have to at least treat people like adults who are capable of deciding their own future. If you treat adults like children they will think you are insane and at the very least take advantage of your misplaced goodwill.

Rereading this post I am mindful that it is a bit of a grab-bag of things. But it’s not just a case of sour grapes (although there is an element of that). In fact, I have been meaning for a long time to write a post on this subject. The incident with Matthew was just the last straw. 


marcellous said...


There is food for thought in your perorative fourth- to second-last paragraphs, though mostly to try to work out why I disagree with them.

Going back first a couple of paragraphs: Is "diversity" such a virtue? It is a necessity because we have to deal with each other and differing views, but there will also always be a difficulty - if something matters and you consider someone's opinion wrong, how can you refrain from a view that, objectively, they are bad? I suppose that is the paradox of relative/absolute truth.

But back to the paragraphs I first mentioned.

Fourth-last - where does "selfish" come from?

Third- and second- - lots of loaded terms there and also some straw men [sic - no actual person intended], or so it seems to me.

I'm sure it's not just the "left" that can be intolerant. Since you've mentioned Israel, what's the tolerance in Australian public life (ie: elected politicians as they are dealt with in/by the mainstream press) for criticism of Israel?

Matthew da Silva said...

Diversity is objectively good. We live (you and I; I assume you are Australian) in a pluralist democracy where each individual is free to lead their life pretty much the way they want, as long as they obey the law. The laws are made by the representatives of the people, and the people can get rid of a government that prevents them from living their lives the way they want. I won't go into too much detail about multiculturalism, but it has to be agreed that it is one of the crowning glories of this country.

Diversity is also at the root of Huamnism, the cultural project that led, eventually, to everything that we value (from jet engines to antibiotics, from representative government to a disinterested civil service). At the end of the 13th century there was the beginning of a popular movement to recognise the importance of the nation. This led to the embrace of vernacular literatures and, along with the invention of moveable type, resulted in the Renaissance and, after that, the Enlightenment. So, for this reason, diversity is a very good thing. You didn't have this dynamic, for example, in China, and you can see what resulted there.

marcellous said...

Yes, but...

(and yes, I am Australian)

Not sure you can write off China or offer it as a negative example quite so readily.

I too am an heir of the Whig interpretation of history you summarise in your reply, but we both surely know it has its limits.

For example, the capacity in a democracy to be rid of a government you don't like is highly dependent on the contingencies of how a state and its democracy is constituted. Not much use to, eg, Kurds or other permanent minorities within any particular polity.

We're often being told of the limits of toleration (akin, as an ideal, to diversity) - but how to be tolerant of those who are themselves intolerant? Popular example in recent years within western societies has been Islamic fundamentalism; for me but the current debate in NSW over Reproductive Health Care Bill provides another.

What I see as intolerance (the desire to retain obstacles to abortion and vestigial criminal sanctions which will be largely symbolic but may well bear down harshly in arbitrary or unfair ways) is the opponents' principle.

This debate also exposes some difficulties in "democracy" where the views of a majority (as polls tell us) come up against the the more vehement opposition of a well-organized and influential minority.

Matthew da Silva said...

I find it a bit ironic that an Australian can voice opposition to pluralism and then, without missing a beat, congratulate China on its rise. A rise that was entirely due to the misplaced goodwill of developed nations and their leaders. China is a cesspool of corruption and suffering and dysfunction the likes of which, if it were revealed more broadly, would put the most enterprising crime writer to shame. The depths of depravity that are commonplace in China today are beyond the imagining of a sane individual in a country like Australia. We are shielded from this fascist kleptocracy by the US military, thank God.