This week, New York Magazine published a piece titled “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” by Jonathan Chait. It was in equal parts insightful and frustrating, like much of Chait’s work. In the piece, he explores the growth of politically correct culture beyond academia and laments the stifling effect it has on public discourse.
While reading the article, I was struck by a particular point he made in the middle of the essay. He bemoans how the American right has successfully implanted the idea “that liberals and ‘the left’ stand for the same thing.” To Chait, these are actually two distinct intellectual traditions, with liberals drawing from the Enlightenment tradition that prioritizes individual rights and freedom of expression, while leftists are more influenced by the Marxist tradition that prioritizes class solidarity above abstract “universal” principles.
Chait makes the point that while both of these traditions may want broadly similar things in the modern political system — a “society more economically and socially egalitarian” — they actually have deeply divergent philosophies underlying them, philosophies that are necessarily in conflict. As a result, while the ends may be the same, the means diverge drastically.
This column is not the forum for a debate between these two viewpoints, although I do not think anyone will be surprised to learn I lean more to the liberal side than the leftist. But I think it is interesting that I so rarely hear this distinction articulated in campus political discourse.
For that matter, I rarely hear any distinctions made between the various progressive philosophies held on this campus. Liberalism is not monolithic, but too often on campus it is treated as one-dimensional.
Instead, liberalism contains many different movements that often do not overlap. At Yale, rather than acknowledging the fundamental differences between distinct liberal philosophies, a single metric is used to evaluate all people on the left: Those with more radical views are “more liberal,” and the liberalism of those with more mainstream opinions is called into question. The problem, I think, has its roots in the intense partisanship of the American political scene. Because we live in such divided times, we are hypersensitive to deviations from the party line. Differences in opinion tend to get buried in service of maintaining unity against the greater threat, in this case conservatism and the Right. But while this may be a necessary tactic on the national stage, in an overwhelmingly progressive environment like Yale, this tribalism simply leads to apathy.
I am obviously generalizing, but many times commentators in these pages have bemoaned the disengaged attitude of the average Yalie towards political questions. I suspect that a substantial cause of this indifference comes from the mistaken assumption that the left is ideologically settled. In reality, there is a massive debate to be had, amongst progressives of different persuasions, as to what the ideal society looks like and how to institute it in our world. If I were to guess, I would say that most Yalies hold views roughly similar to the ones ascribed to liberals by Chait. But there is also a vocal population that more or less ascribe to a leftist point of view. Even if the campus is overwhelmingly liberal, that means very different things to different people. Here there is a ripe opportunity for intellectual engagement and argument.
Of course, these discussions do happen, to various degrees, around campus. But, if my experience is any indication, the participants rarely realize the depth of their disagreement. We are so focused on the fact that we are not conservative that we forget to ask each other how we individually define liberal.
The reason this is so unfortunate is that it leaves us with nothing to talk about, and no way to grow. Most of us are not policy experts. Most of us will vote the Democratic ticket in 2016. And in reality, these particulars of the moment will not be overly useful to us over the course of our lives. College has traditionally been a time for defining one’s political beliefs. But that can only be done if you have something to define your beliefs against. Right now we graduate hundreds of students who are vaguely liberal, but do not have a rigorous sense of what that means.
Well, let’s define it for each other. Right now, I would say I am a progressive liberal in the Enlightenment tradition. I am open to that changing, but it will only happen if people disagree with me. So let’s find a time to meet and talk it out. If this discussion happens all over campus, everyone will walk away more passionate about their politics and firmer in their convictions.
Isa Qasim is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.