December 27, 2016

The Authoritarian Left

Australia road sign W6-202Based on the traffic it generated, it seems that my post on the regressive left was reasonably well received. It did prompt one reaction that I wanted to address in a follow-up post because I think it is a particularly important one. I heard from a few people saying that they preferred to describe this group as "authoritarian" rather than "regressive." For the record, I agree. I far prefer "authoritarian" over "regressive" too. And yet, "regressive left" caught on so quickly that we are probably stuck with it. And that may be okay.

What I'm thinking is that it might make sense to use "regressive left" to refer to the narrower definition of how some on the left approach Islam (i.e., the original definition provided by Maajid Nawaz) and "authoritarian left" to refer to the much broader phenomenon where some on the left use authoritarian tactics to suppress criticism and exert control over dialogue in many other areas that have little to do with Islam. Perhaps using both terms to refer to what appear to be different phenomena would be preferable to expanding "regressive" well beyond its original meaning.

Why I Prefer Authoritarian Left

When describing what some on the left are doing outside of the narrow subject of Islam, I find authoritarian left to be more descriptive, more accurate, and believe that it comes a bit closer to capturing the central problem (i.e., the manner in which these people are trying to accomplish their goals not only runs contrary to classical liberalism and harms the very things about which they claim to care but it involves attempts to control others through authoritarian means). This is certainly a big part of why I prefer this term.

More than that, I think that "regressive" is going to engender so much resistance among those who almost always seem to define themselves as "progressive" that it may prevent them from hearing the criticism. And this particular criticism (i.e., embracing authoritarian tactics runs counter to liberal democracy, freethought, and many other values you claim to hold) is too important for them not to hear. They are so used to equating "regressive" with their conservative opponents that I'd guess many will hastily dismiss this term without any reflective thought. By being a bit more descriptive and referring to the central problem, "authoritarian" seems to be advantageous.

Authoritarian vs. Regressive: Distinct or Overlapping?

I acknowledge that I have not thought through this much yet, but I also wonder how much overlap the "regressive" and "authoritarian" groups have. Is every person who is part of the regressive left also an authoritarian, or are there some members of the regressive left who are not at all authoritarian? I'm inclined to think that it is possible for someone to be regressive but not authoritarian, but I am not sure. Can someone be authoritarian but not regressive? I think this would be possible, as long as we are using the narrower definition of regressive. Someone could, for example, embrace the criticism of Islam while having an authoritarian ideology in other matters.

Depending on how we answer these questions, it might become clear that there really aren't meaningful distinctions between these terms. But if we decide that one can be one of these things without having to be the other, then having access to both labels would seem to be useful. Again, I think this would make more sense that trying to stretch "regressive" well beyond its original meaning.

I suppose I should also mention that I have seen a few people on social media who appear to have started using "regressive" to refer to anyone who holds views with which they disagree. I think this is a mistake that tells us far more about the person applying the label than it does about the person to whom the label is being applied. Given that we have criticized those who label everyone with opinions contrary to their own as "neckbeards," "dudebros," or some equally absurd label, I'd hate to see us do the same thing.

What I Plan To Do

Until such issues are resolved, I'm inclined to use regressive left narrowly to refer to the position held by some on the political left that criticism of Islam is unacceptable and authoritarian left more broadly to refer to the position held by some on the political left that criticism of many of their cherished ideas (e.g., intersectional feminism) should be off limits, that authoritarian social engineering should be used in service to political correctness, and that dissenters should be punished. I cannot control how others choose to use these labels, but I can try to make sure that I am using them in a clear and consistent manner.