The Regressive Left

Maajid Nawaz speaking at LibDem campaign event
Maajid Nawaz
We need terms to group and classify people. This is an important function of language. Without such terms, communication quickly becomes unwieldy. Imagine if we lacked words such as skeptic or freethinker. Every time you or I wanted to refer to some as a skeptic or a freethinker, we would have to list all the attributes encompassed by the relevant label. Indeed, most of us can relate to the frustrating experience of attempting to communicate something for which we lack applicable terms. While there is a downside to some of the words we use to communicate about the characteristics of others, the pros of having words available to us generally outweigh the cons.

If you follow some of the prominent figures in the atheist and/or skeptical communities (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian) or those who describe themselves as cultural libertarians (e.g., Allum Bokhari, Dave Rubin, Lauren Southern), you have probably heard them use the term regressive left to describe a group of people. It has become quite popular over the past few months. I believe Maajid Nawaz has been credited with coining it.

In this post, I'll take a look at what the term originally meant, what it has to do with Islam, and how its meaning has expanded through recent usage.

What is the Regressive Left?

What does "regressive left" mean? It seems to have been used initially to describe a group of people on the political left who believe that the criticism of Islam, including Islamism, is unacceptable in the name of political correctness. Because they associate Islam with other cultures, they withhold criticism for fear of appearing intolerant and culturally biased. Many of them take the additional step of accusing anyone who criticizes Islam of "Islamophobia" and/or racism.

This is described as "regressive" and widely considered hypocritical because it leads to a double standard in that the regressive left refuses to speak out against the same sort of bigotry and mistreatment of others they usually condemn when Muslims are involved. It is hypocritical because members of the regressive left routinely condemn anti-LGBT bigotry, religious extremism, misogyny, anti-science attitudes, and the like on the part of Christians but look the other way when these same things - or worse - are observed among Muslims.

Worse? What could be worse? Female genital mutilation (FGM), the murder of gay persons, honor killings, gang rape, and so on. It is almost as if these things are serious human rights violations worthy of condemnation when committed by non-Muslims but dare not be mentioned when committed by Muslims. Although many on the regressive left appear to see this misguided sort of political correctness as a desirable form of tolerance, critics argue that it undermines much of what they claim to value.

We find ourselves in a bizarre situation today where some middle-class White feminists living in the United States obsess about the evils of manspreading while simultaneously accusing anyone who speaks out against FGM, honor killings of women, the oppressive nature of the hijab, or the need to support those seeking to reform Islam as contemptible bigots. And herein lies the danger. The regressive left is not content simply to ignore the atrocities committed by Muslims; they wish to prevent you from discussing them. And so, the criticism of Islam is characterized as intolerant, racist, and Islamophobic. Those who criticize Islam are bigots. The result is that the people who are most imperiled by radical Islam (i.e., liberal and moderate Muslims) are left to fend for themselves.

"Regressive Left" Evolves

From what I can tell, the meaning of "regressive left" has expanded a bit. While some still use it primarily to describe the manner in which some liberals attempt to suppress criticism of Islam in the name of tolerance, I am also seeing it applied more broadly to describe those on the left who attempt to suppress criticism of other favored ideologies (e.g., intersectional feminism) or political opinions through "safe spaces," trigger warnings, shouting down speakers on campus, public shaming, boycotts, etc. In this way, it has come to refer to persons on the political left who oppose many of the ideals of classical liberalism. While some speak of an "illiberal left," others refer to this same group as a "regressive left."

Not surprisingly, I have also seen the term used to describe those who are commonly referred to as social justice warriors. There does appear to be some overlap, but the two terms strike me as being  distinct. To my mind, a "social justice warrior" is someone who engages in a particular set of behaviors. "Regressive left" is broader than this. A member of the regressive left might engage in behaviors characteristic of social justice warriorism but does not necessarily do so. Someone on the regressive left might support such actions by others or distance himself or herself from some of these behaviors while clinging to a regressive, authoritarian ideology that is antithetical to freethought. Thus, I see "social justice warrior" as a narrower behavioral description and "regressive left" as somewhat broader and more ideological one. A social justice warrior behaves in characteristic ways regardless of ideology; a member of the regressive left has a particular ideology regardless of how he or she behaves.

There may be some advantages to maintaining the original narrow definition of regressive left as pertaining to Islam and not expanding it to include other areas. It might be handy to have a term that refers only to a refusal to acknowledge the danger of Islamic extremism out of a misguided commitment to political correctness. Maintaining a narrow definition could help us to avoid some of the more sweeping misapplications of the term. At the same time, language evolves and this particular genie may have already escaped the bottle. It may be too late to keep the term anchored to Islam.

Not All Liberals

To understand the meaning of "regressive left," it is vital to come to terms with the fact that those using the term come from all over the political spectrum. This is not a slur with which conservatives are painting liberals. I have yet to see someone attempting to characterize all liberals as being regressive, and many of those most concerned about the regressive left are themselves liberals. This is important enough that it warrants repeating: many of the most vocal critics of the regressive left are liberals.

I mention this because I think it would be a mistake for those of us on the left to think that we are all being called "regressive." We are not. The term, even in some of its broader applications, is referring to a form of dangerous hypocrisy where some on the left refuse to criticize the same sorts of things they would normally jump all over just because persons from other cultures are involved.

If you are active on social media, especially Twitter, you have likely seen people expressing some variation of the following sentiment:
Islam is a religion, not a race. Criticizing a religion - any religion - is not a form of racism or bigotry. We must all be free to criticize bad ideas. Anti-Muslim bigotry is a problem, but bigotry toward Muslims is very different from the criticism of Islam.
When you see these things being expressed, those expressing them are often liberals (like me). The expression of such sentiment is typically aimed at stimulating some thought among the regressive left and demonstrating support for those they have been unfairly attempting to demonize.