Jan 30, 2020 Society
Our columnist on the pitfalls of the online left, and how to live our political values.
For many years I have identified as a leftist, but in recent years I have become overwhelmed by approaches of lefty groups. I do still support their kaupapa but no longer feel connected to the causes. I no longer feel connected to the conversations. Some of which is obvious, for example, I wouldn’t contribute to a korero about abortion as it is not my place.
I don’t want to dismiss perspectives, stances, or opinions that people hold so dear to them, but at the same time, I am not connecting with the movements. Am I being overly dramatic and selfish, or is there a way that I can still be part of this community?
A relatively cliched perspective on leftist politics, particularly as they play out online, is that it’s a nasty place full of keyboard warriors revelling in cancelling anyone they possibly can for every minor slip of the tongue. While I think this is over-egged (usually by bad faith actors on the right trying to stoke up controversy, or by liberal centrists who have conflated someone being rude to them on Twitter with abuse), there is some truth to the old adage that the right looks for converts, the left looks for traitors.
The key is to find people to engage on these topics with who aren’t playing that game – and there are plenty of them out there, despite what every hand-wringing column by a legacy journalist upset by how uncivil everyone’s being online might suggest.
When your politics are centred around radically changing the world, but how to best achieve that is (rightly) up for debate, it makes sense that talking about deeply important (and often deeply personal) political issues can be fraught and even sometimes unpleasant, as you rub up against people who you may mainly agree with but who you’re certain are wrong about this one particular thing and oh-my-god-why-won’t-they-just-shut-up-and-agree-with-me.
The way you’ve phrased your question makes me suspect you are mainly engaging with leftist politics via the internet. Partly this is because of your emphasis on conversations. To feel disconnected because you don’t think it’s your place to add to a conversation only makes sense if talking is all you’re doing, and conversations usually only happen in a silo online. To use the example of abortion you mentioned, no pro-choice rally organiser would prefer for someone who didn’t feel it was ‘their’ fight to stay home rather than show up to support the cause on the day.
You are right to think that not every conversation needs your voice, but your voice is not all you have to offer. Why do you care about leftist causes in the first place? Presumably because you see things happening in your community which injure your soul or your heart, and you believe progressive politics will help. You can live those values in many ways, some of them more overtly political than others.
Building a community around you full of like-minded people you admire who both challenge and nurture you is not only politically enriching, it’s also a great way to foster a feeling of connectedness. Have conversations about issues you care about in private and in person with people you like and trust, and you’ll be amazed at how much less alienated you feel.
Meanwhile, spend less time reading or participating in those conversations on Facebook or Twitter or Reddit. There’s a place and a time for a bit of Facebook grandstanding or a well-timed Twitter barb, and there are many very smart people with interesting things to say about politics doing so online, but social media is pretty limited in its usefulness, because of the way polarising, absolutist statements are rewarded, and nuance or simply changing your mind are not (what I’m trying to say is: everyone is problematic and gets stuff wrong sometimes, but that’s not the end of the world).
I don’t think you’re being necessarily selfish, but perhaps you need to live and let live a little yourself – do you need for others to hold exactly the same views as you, if the end goal you have is broadly the same? Does everything need to be approached the way you think it should for you to keep caring about issues you admit you believe have value? Could you pick your battles and instead decide to put energy into fostering meaningful relationships with those who inspire you and who you (crucially) enjoy spending time with?
You can have the world’s ‘best’ leftist politics, but that doesn’t really mean anything if you can’t get along with others to do the work to apply them in the real world. Find people who know how to be kind while getting stuff done, and take their lead.
Got a problem? Send your woes to: firstname.lastname@example.org.