The Real Damage Caused By The Regressive Left

I’ve written before on this blog about problems associated with a body of opinion that has become known as the Regressive Left. I’ve also talked on the podcast here about how I was originally apprehensive about using that term. However, as I’ve observed the ongoing contributions to the discussion from these perspectives, I’ve come to accept that ‘regressive’, is an entirely apt description of such positions.

Within any discourse, bickering over different opinions about news and events is to be expected and in fact, I think that this is a healthy thing. It’s good to challenge the different approaches to various problems in the world. Certainly, the number of issues on which I have changed my mind over the years, has been sufficiently large to provide me with certainty that I’m currently wrong in my thinking about other contemporary issues. I don’t want to be wrong. I’d like to change my mind where I need to, but how can I tell which issues I’m wrong about at present, unless I listen to other people who disagree with me?

Where Regressive Left positions tend to deviate from this approach though, is in a failure to recognise that two reasonable people can have quite different views on the same topic. Rather, there is a hair-trigger in operation, whereby the tiniest difference in emphasis or tone, will result in the most outrageously overblown attacks. No allowance is made for the possibility that there may be more than one correct (or even permissible) answer to any given question. A counterpart who disagrees can no longer just be another reasonable person with a different opinion but must instead be denounced as some description of ‘-ist’ or ‘-phobe’.

Such bombast immediately extinguishes the usefulness of any particular discourse, but my concern relates more to how it debilitates the actual work that is being done towards progressive, liberal and secular goals. For example, I am a member of the National Committee at Atheist Ireland and also Secretary of the Board at Atheist Alliance International. I would challenge anyone to describe how the output of those organisations and the work that they do, could be described as anything other than progressive, liberal and secular.

Of course, different people will variously like or dislike the tone of one article or another. Different people will also interpret the same comment as meaning various things. In fact, I’m also confident that these differences in emphasis will continue to exist, because I know that they exist even within the groups that author the content. No sizeable group will agree fully on the precise language to use within every sentence that they print, especially when some of the issues are so complex. However, rather than appreciate such nuance where it exists, the comments that I have seen about these organisations include the following examples:

  • “fuck off racist atheist pricks”
  • “anti-Muslim bigoted nonsense”
  • “fucking fascist bastards”

There is no doubt that this is a part of a trend. These comments have come from people who consider themselves to be secularists on the left of the political spectrum and are directed at other liberal atheists. I don’t think it is unfair to position these views within the Regressive Left and such perspectives have also been widely observed elsewhere. However, rather than address again why these comments are so misguided (even if they are erroneously intended as a defence of minorities) I think it is useful to highlight some of the very real damage that they cause.

Within both Atheist Alliance International and Atheist Ireland, my volunteer colleagues spend no small amount of time seeking to help people fleeing from Islamists. Asylum processes are typically complex and cumbersome and there is a constant stream of difficult new cases, all struggling to be heard. Anyone who has observed the treatment of secular bloggers in Bangladesh or the treatment of those accused of blasphemy in some other Muslim-majority countries, also knows that the stakes are high. Even the most minor ‘transgressions’, can quickly become life or death issues.

Some of those seeking help still consider themselves to be pious Muslims, but their doubts about the more extreme parts of the doctrine, cause them to be labelled as apostates. Others have lost their faith entirely. Of course, our asylum projects don’t seek to differentiate based on race or creed but simply to help those in real fear of Islamist persecution. I can offer a couple of examples that have landed in my Inbox just over the last few weeks. There are many more people like AA.

Email from AA
Email from AA

As he has described here, like many others in such difficult circumstances, AA managed to find help just by searching the web for atheist and non-religious organisations. When people like AA who are under threat from theocrats, look for help from secular organisations on the web, what are they to think when they see allegations of “racism, fascism and bigotry”? How can they know that such allegations are in fact entirely bogus and specious? Throwing such terms around for totally spurious reasons, actually diminishes the opportunity to help people in real danger.

Furthermore, separate cases like that of NA and the many others in similar circumstances, cannot be publicised for obvious reasons. My colleagues work to help people like NA on a volunteer basis, in the full knowledge that there can never be any recognition of what they are doing.

Email from NA
Email from NA

Of course it is true that my colleagues are not alone in doing this kind of work. Of course it is also true than many others from various backgrounds volunteer to do such work too. In fact, in many cases we work closely with other organisations, such as Amnesty International and Movements.

However, while this work is going on, the consistent demeanour of the Regressive Left involves heroic efforts to search for fabricated instances of racism and bigotry among other liberals, which nobody else has discovered before. Screaming “fascist!” at any imagined quantum-scale deviation from their own opinion, seems to earn a dopamine release for some people. In contrast, my colleagues are seeking to help those who are fleeing from real fascists. This work is only hindered by those on the Regressive Left, who seem to have a singular focus on policing the language of other liberals, to ensure it is in precise conformity with their own.

Where people find themselves in disagreement with Atheist Ireland or Atheist Alliance International (or any other secular organisation) I would urge them to highlight where their problem is. Such criticism may be accepted or it may not be. In fact, where the issue is contentious or it is the subject of public controversy, it is likely that there were already some differing internal views within any such organisation, before they published anything. However, I would also urge people to consider that any ongoing disagreement does not immediately imply that others are guilty of blind hubris with respect to any criticism, let alone guilty of bigotry. Other reasonable people may simply disagree. It happens. The world would be a very boring place if it didn’t.

Most importantly though, our discourse around such disagreements really must move away from reflexive allegations of fascism, racism and bigotry. These are powerful words and their import is rapidly diminished when they are used to describe every difference between the emphasis intended by an author and the tone perceived by a reader. Accusations of fascism must be reserved for actual fascists and not used simply to end an argument. Such behaviour just makes it harder to help those fleeing from the real fascists.

I have such admiration for my colleagues, who give their time and considerable expertise to help those under threat of persecution from theocrats. I think that so-called liberals who scream “racist!” at my friends while they continue this work, should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Regressive Left
Regressive Left

John Hamill

National Committee, Atheist Ireland

Secretary, Atheist Alliance International

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