Jon Stovell’s Notebook


Against the notion of “left” and “right” in social and theological discourse

If I could, I would eradicate the entire “left–right” conceptual structure from public discourse (and theological discourse!). It is ridiculously reductionistic. Ridiculously. Stupidly. Crazily. Horrifyingly. It is my belief that the “left–right” metaphor is itself one of the worst causes of problems in Western social and theological discourse—a deeper problem than any “threat” posed by the ideas of “the other guys” (whomever that may be). This is because the left–right conceptual structure reduces all the diversity and complexity of human thought down to “positions.”

The worst form occurs when “left” and “right” are understood as two camps into which all human beings must be categorized. In this conceptualization, it is typically assumed that camp allegiance will determine one’s views on everything. It is as though every question were reducible to “Which is your favourite colour, red or blue?!”

When people want to take a more nuanced approach, they will switch to the metaphor of a spectrum, with “left” and “right” defining poles one can range between. The spectrum metaphor is something of an improvement over the camp metaphor, but still not actually very good. It lets us add the idea of moderate or centrist positions, but it still assumes that one’s views on everything will more or less coincide at one position along this spectrum.

Occasionally one will encounter someone wanting to get really sophisticated by laying out a two-dimensional grid, where each axis is a left–right spectrum of its own. Maybe one is on the right regarding social mores but on the left regarding economic policy, for example. Again, this is a marginal improvement, but still inadequate. It is just thinking wrongly in higher resolution. We could continue to multiply the number of axes until we reached an n-dimensional grid to map everyone onto, where n is the number of possible questions people could take differing views on. This might seem like it would solve the problem, since the complexity would begin to approximate reality, but it actually wouldn’t. Aside from the fact that the heuristic value would decrease as the number of axes increased, this would not really address the fundamental problem inherent in the spectrum metaphor: people’s thoughts on anything can virtually never be accurately described as “positions” which could be arranged in a line.

People think in dynamic, ongoing, complex, patterned processes involving multi-faceted interactions with a plethora of internal and external influences, related ideas, circumstances, and needs. Our ideas on any one question are organically linked to ideas we have about other things. This means tendencies can and do emerge, but it also means that our ideas are always on the move, always growing and changing, forever forming new connections and, when necessary, letting old, unhelpful connections die. Our ideas are contextual and environmentally conditioned. If we want to generalize from individual people’s ideas to larger trends in a population, the diverse, contextualized, complex ways we think are far more important than the “position” we happen to have at a given moment. It is the patterns and trajectories, in all their glorious diversity, that get to the heart of things, so we need to speak in terms of patterns and trajectories, not “positions.”

Moreover, by defining people in terms of “positions” (i.e. their current answers to whatever question we are using as our criterion for categorizing them), we create labelled groups who can then, inevitably, be set over against each other as “Us vs. Them.” At that point, no one listens any more. We cut ourselves off from hearing how others think—that is, from learning about their way—because we are trained to believe that the answer they currently happen to hold regarding The Great Defining Question makes them anathema.

So sure, ideological purists need to stop screaming that their end of the left–right dyad is the One Right Position. But merely setting up a centre position as a third contestant for the title of being the One Right Position won’t really do anything. Eliminate the dyad itself, and replace it with something more complex, more dynamic, and more interactive. Instead of camps, or spectrums, or multi-axis graphs, I suggest that we would do better to use another metaphor: the concept of a way.

Different people follow different patterns of thought that carry them along certain trajectories. For one person, some thought-paths will be well-worn, some lightly travelled, some will be paved, some will be superhighways, and some will be unknown and uncrossed. For another, that unknown path will a well-travelled one, and that superhighway will be a trackless bog. Given these differences, when these two people set out to find answers to the same initial question, they are likely to use different ways of thinking to do so. They will follow different paths of reasoning, taking different turns based on different presuppositions and different notions of what a “good” answer should even be. Even in the case where they reach a mutually agreeable provisional answer (after all, all our answers are always provisional), they will have reached that answer for different reasons. On another question, the same patterns of reasoning may very well end up leading them to two very different answers.

If we ever really want to understand one another, learn from one another, perhaps find ways to live even a modicum more peacefully and collaboratively with one another, we should stop trying to reduce one another’s thoughts down to “positions” that can be pegged as “left” or “right” or even “centrist.” Instead, we should start asking one another how we each think about the questions at hand and why we each draw the connections we do. That’s the path to understanding and wisdom.