The Political Left and Right and Why it Might Be Time to Get Over It
Psychological Dualism and Free Hugs
We all know the drill. The left-wing is characterized by an emphasis on ideas such as equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism while the right-wing is characterized by an emphasis on notions such as individual value, individual capacity, duty, order, tradition and nationalism.
In the US, the left-wing is embodied by the Democratic Party while the right-wind find representation in the Republican Party. The two sides are supposed to fight eternally according to the ebb and flow of history and the changes in public opinion. The idea, noble in its nature, although still a bet, is that the national tug of war will always to be won by the party standing on the good side of the current ideological tide.
Although such an architecture has the interesting feature of keeping the game dynamic (the more a political party remains in power the higher are the chances of the public opinion swapping sides), it contains also an important bug.
It’s not hard to see that a bipartisan division of the political arena makes it impossible for the existence of an agreement between the parties themselves. They are not supposed to agree, and would not be capable of if ever there was such an intention. This fact follows directly from the very definition of what each site stands for.
Keeping that in mind, I would like to go a little deeper on the psychological significance of the left- and right-wing inclinations of the human mind.
Legacy Psychological Inclinations
This classic paper on personality traits concludes that “party identification has consistently shown that openness, agreeableness and neuroticism are associated with support for left-wing parties, while conscientiousness and extraversion are associated with identification with right-wing parties”.
Also, major figures like Jonathan Haidt, Iain McGilchrist, Jordan Peterson and Carl Jung have long argued for the existence of a dual nature of the human personality, some of those guys emphasizing on its neurological origins, while others on its phenomenological effects, but all agreeing that the dualism that is found at the very core of human existence is not a fruit of chance, but the result of consistent environmental motives pushing forward the evolutionary game.
To show an example of one essential biological feature that, because so fundamental, can change the very way we see life, Iain McGilchrist presents in his book The Master and His Emissary the different kinds of attention that evolved in birds as a result of the nature of their environment.
“There is a need to focus attention narrowly and with precision, as a bird, for example, needs to focus on a grain of corn that it must eat, in order to pick it out from, say, the pieces of grit on which it lies. At the same time there is a need for open attention, as wide as possible, to guard against a possible predator. That requires some doing. It’s like a particularly bad case of trying to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time — only worse, because it’s an impossibility. Not only are these two different exercises that need to be carried on simultaneously, they are two quite different kinds of exercise, requiring not just that attention should be divided, but that it should be of two distinct types at once.”
My point is to say that whatever left- and right-wing means fundamentally at the neuropsychological level, its historical and psychological patterned recurrences allows safely to assume that they are both necessary for the continuation of life as we perceive it.
On the possibility of agreement
What if we could all agree on that? What if we could all see that equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism are just as necessary as notions of value, individual capacity, duty, order, tradition and nationalism? What if the right approach would be one of analysis case-by-case instead of through the lens of partisanship?
We’ve got accustomed to treating human beings as if they were biased by nature towards one of the political orientations, as if they couldn’t judge things for their experiences of them alone. Everyone is too much embroiled in the effort of fitting a role that is oftentimes too much of an impoverished simplification of our political opinions (Am I a liberal or am I a conservative?).
We complain that the parties don’t make the effort of bridging the gap for consensus. Isn’t that precisely because the parties were designed to work in mutual denial?
I’m going to give an uncommon example so you can pick the answer that best fits your character. Try also to see if you think that the contrary view has any appeal.
The example is “Free Hugs”. I bet you never thought about it in a political way — that is even better. So, do you think that it is ok to give free hugs on the streets?
Leftys, or liberals, would tend to say that there is no problem offering unknown people a free hug. Conservatives, on the contrary, would tend to see problems in it. So let’s try to delve more closely into the real reasons behind each side’s choice.
The conservative argument goes like: a hug has only value to the degree that it is earned and selective. If someone gets a hug for no other reason than asking for it, that person won’t feel the love and friendliness that we normally associate to that gesture of affection, precisely because the hug was directed to any passer-by, instead of a person individually.
The liberal would think differently. For him, the person receiving the hug is indeed loved, not because of their individuality but because of their humanity. We all deserve recognition and affection, not because of who we are individually, but because we are all alive and conscious. That is what makes us special and worth a hug from a random person on the street.
If we read these arguments with an open mind, we’ll see that both of them hold water. Their line of argumentation operates at two different and orthogonal axis. They don’t contradict each other. They can both be true simultaneously.
What if, instead of seeking to identify with a clan and spending time trying to contradict our opponent’s claims, we actually made the effort of seeing the truth on both sides with the purpose of finding the solution that better suits the principles held by both human psychological tendencies?
Reconsidering the free hugs case, if we are sensitive to the truth in both arguments, we could propose a third solution, non-partisan this time, proposing that free hugs are ok, but acknowledging the conservative take. Let’s see.
We could say that free hugs don’t represent a risk to the individual quest for self-value because they are not imposed on anyone. Everyone knows the difference between a free hug and a hug you get from someone you know. Nobody is going to stop trying to be good and friendly because they can get free hugs on the street.
The example may be a bit weird, but you get the point, which is that we don’t need to take sides before knowing what the disagreement is about. An analysis case-by-case from someone mature enough to recognize the validity of the principles subjacent to each political orientation would be of much more value for everybody.
I am glad to say that there is already some concrete effort going in the direction of recognizing the legitimacy intrinsic to left- and right-wing principles.
Bret Weistein’s Unity2020 proposal contains the seed of change and historical depth we need to get past the immaturity inherent in the present state of affairs that find its best description in the Democratic and Republican parties’ war on each other.