I have existed on this earth for nearly half a century now, and for as long as I can remember, news reports, commentary, and political discussions have used the terms “right” and “left” as if they describe something real, recognizable, and tangible. Something that is so self-evident, their meaning doesn’t need to be explored, explained, or argued. I’ve always found this confusing.
I understand that these terms – left vs right – sometimes used as nouns, sometimes adjectives – are political. I’ve been vaguely aware that the “left” is associated with everything from the American Democratic party to Communism and that the “right” is associated with everything from the American Republican party to Fascism, but the idea that all of our political ideals can somehow fit onto a right-left slider has always been disturbing and at times abhorrent to me. When political candidates or their ideas don’t fit neatly into this left/right spectrum, they are either made invisible, or forced unrealistically or unholistically into the pre-cut pattern.
Sources say that the origin of the left/right terminology (in this sense) comes from seating arrangements in revolution-era (circa 1789) French parliament when supporters of the monarchy sat towards the right, and supporters of the revolution on the left.1 This was full six years after the end of the American Revolutionary War, and also after the U.S. Constitution had been hashed out. Why was the left/right terminology was then applied to political movements in the U.S. and around the world, and why it has persisted? My guess is that it is part of a longstanding habit of English and American fetishization of French thought and culture.
The Wikipedia entry on “left wing politics” as it stands today claims that “left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy and social inequality” (this statement is supported by four references) while the entry on “right wing politics” claims that “Right-wing politics hold that certain social orders and hierarchies are inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable, typically defending this position on the basis of natural law, economics or tradition” (this statement is supported by nine references). In other words, the core difference between left and right wing is not so much linear (that was just how seating was arranged in 18th century French parliament) but geometric. The left believes in striving for social equality (more like a circle) while the right believes in maintaining a strict social hierarchy in which the masses are ruled by a select group of elites (more like a triangle).
The triangle system is closer to the old model of European monarchy and colonialism in which a small number of elite are both supported by, and rule over, those who labor. This tends to encourage exploitation or enslavement of humans, animals, and the environment. Capitalism also fits into the triangle model, and over the years the the distance between the top and bottom of the triangle has grown steeper as Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out in her “Democrats are capitalists” response to a young man’s question about how democrats should approach economic issues. The triangle may be a stable system, but without guaranteed income, universal health care, enforced diversity, and strong environmental protections, it only really only works for those at or near the top. They reap the most benefits while facing the least hardship. The steeper the difference between the elite and the masses, the more unstable the system becomes.
In contrast to the triangle, the circle would seem to be a movement in a newer, more egalitarian direction, at least for Europeans and hyphenated Europeans who colonized various continents around the globe. This explains the synonyms “progressive” referring to the circle (those who seek equality), and “conservative” referring to the triangle (the preservation of a traditional hierarchy). It’s not that conservatives want to conserve money or the environment – what they seek to “conserve” is an old hierarchical way of seeing the world, the way which is modeled on the (now virtually extinct) monarchies of Europe. Progressives, in contrast, wish to continue moving toward a more egalitarian society.
The “left/right” and “conservative/progressive” terminology falls apart when you decolonize. I’m no expert in any of this but I figure that “decolonizing” means, in part, to shed, as much as possible, preconceptions and prejudices based on European colonial thought patterns. Wikipedia has literally hundreds of articles on various schools of political thought, some of them very deeply researched, but virtually nothing at all on “decolonization” in the sense that I am using it here. There is a Wikipedia entry on “decolonization” but it is a much more literal version, in which colonial forces are forced to pull out of a nation entirely. Wikipedia is only as good as its editors, and most of its editors favor Eurocentric thought. In addition, Google’s etymology graph shows that use of the word “decolonization” was virtually non-existent before 2010.
Nonetheless, I have been trying to decolonize my thinking for about thirty years now – since well before “decolonizing” was a thing that people talked about. I became interested in decolonizing my thinking because after leaving high school and starting college, I began to see more and more problems with colonial attitudes in terms of spreading violence, creating oppressive and exploitive systems, harming the environment, and the obliterating of significant but disturbing events from official historical accounts. I also became troubled by the tremendous lack of representation by women and people of color in fields like politics and publishing. I began to see that indigenous cultures offered interesting and usually more inclusive alternatives to colonial thinking.
I know that as the descendant of settlers, I have to be mindful of what I say, and what I write, and how I present the things I learn. I have to be mindful that colonialism by its very nature, does not respect the notion of “consent,” especially when something is being taken by someone with greater might (in the form of weapons and machines) from someone without such power. To “settle” a nation is to take homes, land, resources, and ultimately, voices, away from one group of human beings and bestow them upon another.
I know that when I speak out, especially if I am trying to present an alternative point of view, I’m always walking that edge of talking about what I don’t fully understand, or taking what doesn’t belong to me. Different cultures have different ideas about appropriation and intellectual theft. I can sing a Beatles song in the privacy of my home, or to a friend, and no one is likely to be offended. This isn’t true of all songs. I know this. But I want to move toward decolonization because I think that colonization is an unsustainable model of living and that decolonization is essential to the long term survival of the human species. When you remove something, like a colonial mindset, it needs to be replaced with something else. Indigenous ways were sustainable for over 10,000 years on the North American continent; it would be crazy, even suicidal, not to consider knowledge with such a significant provenance, when it is offered, as it has been at places like the DAPL resistance camps in North Dakota.
I don’t know if anyone can say how many distinct groups existed in the Americas before colonization. Most “tribal” maps are inaccurate (not detailed enough). In northwest California alone, there was tremendous diversity of language and identity. Some groups were large, others small. Some Indigenous groups had established social hierarchies, others did not. However, there were, and are, a lot of similarities between American Indigenous groups as well. What tribe didn’t use abalone in regalia? What tribe didn’t tell coyote stories?
Western thought has a long history of seeing “man” and “nature” as being opposing forces, with the ultimate goal of Nature being conquered and/or harnessed into a state of production. In this worldview, women and non-whites are usually connected with the idea of “nature” and treated similarly – as entities to be conquered and/or harnessed for production. Indigenous thought tends toward the opposite: humans being part of nature, living in relation to each other, and to land, animals, plants, and spiritual beings. Similarly, it has often seemed to me that western scientists try to learn about things by poking, prodding, experimenting, and taking things apart, while Indigenous science focuses on observation, tradition, and a sense of relationship to everything on the planet. This is a generalization based on what I have observed.
The significance (and sacredness) of the circle seems close to a universal idea in indigenous worldview as anything. This comes from the relationship with nature. Most traditional Indigenous homes are circular, and ceremonies are usually performed in circles. Seasons come in cycles, and even time circles back, for example, during ceremony, when ancestors walk the earth again.
So when you decolonize your views, the “circle” as a social model is both conservative (traditional) and progressive (decolonized).
And the truth is, when you take your typical left wing and right wing thinking styles to their logical extremes: Stalinism, Leninism (on the so-called left) and Fascism (on the so-called right) you end up in the same place: totalitarian hell, and ultimately, destruction. Human beings, and human systems are part of nature, and nature is a circle. To deny that is to deny nature. The denial of nature is the denial of reality, the denial of self. This denial is a danger to all life on earth.
I suspect that the “right/left” metaphor is maintained, in part, to support the idea of political parties as opposing “teams” within a single system. The dialectic. The pendulum swings back and forth, gradually moving, but never threatening, the established system. The democrat and republican parties may adhere to this model, more or less, though over time the difference between one side and the other seems less clear, especially when both espouse “capitalism” as a foundational value. When you add other groups into the mix, things get murky. American Libertarians often take views associated with both the “radical” left (decriminalization of drugs) and the “radical” right (dissolution of government programs). Other issues of personal liberty which defy traditional left-right categorization include religious freedom issues, for example, religion and modesty expressed through dress and the use of head coverings, or religious traditions around hair length and style.
From my point of view, most people’s views and experiences don’t fit neatly into a left-right dichotomy. My father’s mother was a head nurse at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital. She liked to drink cocktails and crack jokes. I don’t know what her political views were. My dad’s father was conservative, soft spoken, republican, smoked a pipe, loved football, loved reading about American history, and spent 40 years as counselor at one of Seattle’s most diverse high schools. They were Lutheran, but didn’t go to church. My other grandfather was born in Kansas, lived in Minnesota, had a high school education, worked his way from the mail room to become an executive-level accountant for Cargill, clipped coupons, was active in the Methodist church, and donated to charity. Capitalism was good to him. The republican party’s views were his views. He was a widower when he married my grandmother. She had been a Rosie Riveter and after being abandoned by her husband, a post-war single working mother, her family’s sole breadwinner, paid 1/3 the wage of her male counterparts. After marrying my grandfather in the 1960s, she became a housewife and toed the republican line, but forever spoke out for women’s rights in general, and the E.R.A. specifically. I do strongly suspect that my grandmother’s last presidential vote was cast for Obama, and when Fukushima happened I remember her saying solemnly (and accurately), “this could affect the whole world.”
My father in law was Yurok. He was born in a smokehouse deep in Indian country. At a young age he was literally kidnapped by the U.S. government and sent to “Indian Boarding School” where, he told me, “I was brainwashed.” In high school he became a top athlete. He was a welder in the Navy during the war. After the war, he became a lumberjack until nearly being killed by a falling redwood branch. Then his wife was killed, and he became a single father to their eight children. He read the newspaper every morning, was a devout evangelical Christian, and in later years, travelled around teaching the Yurok language. He was proud when his grandchildren succeeded academically, and in sports, yet he knew he had to be careful of the law, court, and school systems.
Both grandfathers and my father in law were World War II veterans. When I think back on all of them, maybe you could have called my white grandfathers’ ideology “right,” because they followed traditional conservative republican belief, but it might also have had something to do with them being white and male. I wouldn’t personally think of them that way, however. I thought of them as “conservative,” because they believed in traditional family values and were fiscally conscientious. But my grandmothers’ and my father-in-law’s worldviews don’t fit into the traditional left/right dichotomy in any way, shape, or form.
Maybe the left/right dichotomy mainly serves those who move government policy and big chunks of money. Or maybe “left vs right” is simply an illusion to keep us all eternally divided. Described as a circle versus a triangle, it becomes a question of how society should look: should liberty and equality be primary concerns, or should we try to maintain a traditional hierarchy with elites (who are usually wealthy white males) holding the reins (and purse strings). Or, should we be somehow trying to have both at once? Is it possible that once you start referring to political views as “left” or “right” – terms based in 18th century pre-revolutionary French parliament – you have in effect already chosen a position on the issue? And isn’t it interesting how those who’s views and experience don’t fit neatly into the dichotomy – usually non-white and/or non-male – are either forced to fit into it, or simply made invisible?
If invisibility is the price of not fitting into this model, what is the price of invisibility? What does it mean when the country, even the world, is being governed by elites who bear almost no resemblance to those they govern?
Maybe we should ask the 18th century French aristocracy.
At a time of increasing social and environmental crisis, the left/right metaphor seems limited to the point of being fallacious, fallacious to the point of being dangerous. To unhitch one’s mind of left/right dichotomy could allow us to see people as full human beings with complex views and experiences, and create space for creative solutions to modern problems including a more decolonized and, in my opinion, more natural and more sustainable, way of thinking.
- 1. Gauchet, Marcel. “Right and Left”. In Pierre Nora, Lawrence D. Kritzman (Eds.), Realms of memory: conflicts and divisions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997