Leftism, Practice, Theory

Populism, Politeness, and the Moral Majority

Many have forgotten that the Left is supposed to be populist. Lenin knew this; he was a pragmatist. He understood Hegel’s famous aphorism “the real is rational and the rational is real.” This does not mean that what already exists is rational and requires nothing to be changed. It simply means that if we want to accomplish anything, our theory must be effective—it must grasp the mass of people and move them to direct action in order to be actualised. This is why abstract moral theories that one might think are rational are not actually rational. We should not just talk about what should be without any notion of how the objectives can be attained. We must accept that not everything that is pleasant will fall into place in the real world. After all, we want to be rational realists.

The state of politics in the United States is becoming more chaotic with each passing day. In one corner, the politically correct neoliberals desire a society where everyone is safe from offense and viewpoints which they oppose, yet they also, presumably, want to live in a free democracy. Obviously, the two ideas are mutually exclusive. On the other side of the aisle, we have the pro-Trump backlash to those who claim to need safe-spaces from micro-aggressions. We are living in an age where the Right is having a crisis of faith in its established dogmas: the moral is at odds with the material as Christian values have been sidelined, or perhaps even compromised, in favour of excessive ‘free speech¹,’ which they mistakenly view as the freedom to say whatever one wants in public without repercussion. These appropriately-designated ‘Trumpets’ abuse the first amendment with vulgar language—often unapologetically hateful, racist, and misogynistic—for the express purpose of offending their sensitive adversaries.

This is not to say that everything written in an Internet comment section is a mirror which displays the thoughts and opinions of the true inner self. However, neither can these radical opinions simply be disregarded as the vituperations of agitators and trolls, for multitudes of people on both ends of the spectrum have publicly voiced their opinions in such a way as to be indicative of the great need for a politically-educated public. Relative anonymity provides the freedom to be oneself regardless of perceived intention, and yet many people speak with the same voice in public and private. I dislike this lack of tact and etiquette because it is a mark of moving further away from a better society that is entirely possible.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on a platform which promised a return to the morality and family values that were widespread in the 1950s. As we all know, he won the election, but the effects of his policies did not match his moral rhetoric, for they were some of the worst imaginable for many working families. Where are these values today? Well, they have practically disappeared. It is my hope that the Left should espouse similar principles because we want to be attractive to the average person; we represent their interests, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed volonté générale [general will]. We should present ourselves not only in a reasonable manner, but also a polite one. We should not simply disregard them, yell at them, or declare that they are petit bourgeois puppets of the establishment. We should foster genuine discussion, answer questions, and explain why our struggle is their struggle. Leftists desire a world where the result of our tribal nature—international fraternity—can be realised. Though the realisation of such an ideal seems a long way off, being an affable individual and acting as the model ethical citizen should is already doable. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

What I propose is both radical and moderate. We have all heard the familiar synecdoche “Do unto others”that so-called ‘golden rule’and how it is akin to the first maxim² of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. For Kant, the only unconditionally good thing is a good will, not because of what it wills (empirically, contingently, and particularly), but because of how it wills in its universable form. Immorality is to engage in contradiction. When one is immoral, they will to make themselves the exception to the rule by placing particularity over universality. Egoism, i.e. self-interestedly making ourselves different from everyone else by excepting ourselves, is parasitism on the good will of others. Every action we do is legislative; to do an action is a fortiori to claim that the action is the universal right thing to dothat is to say, it is the right thing for everyone to do. I submit that everyone should act in accordance with the famous Internet axiom known as Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick.” If there truly is a common sense line of reasoning that should be extended into the real world, it is this.

Of course, I am not suggesting that language or behaviour should be policed. I only propose functional civility. As a matter of fact, people are going to be assholes, and there is no way around this. Comrade Kanye poignantly expressed in chapter ten of his manifesto Late Registration that “There’ll always be haters; that’s the way it is.” Not everyone who encounters you is going to like you, and you are not going to like everyone you meet. Neither should you feel like you have to, but there is a social need to be functionally affable; this is the essence of civility. The social game is strange, but it is a vital component of a society, and that includes being nice to people we do not really like. An example from the Žižekian playbook: I am out in the city and see a person I socially dislike for one reason or another—perhaps he is annoying to me. Suddenly, he notices me and begins to approach. In my head, I am thinking “If only I saw this prick a few seconds earlier and could have avoided this situation altogether…” Despite this, I say hello, I ask how he is doing even though I do not care, I am generally cordial, and then I tell him I have to return some videotapes and slip away before he realises what year it is. Treating others, even those we dislike, with basic kindness is good manners and the first step towards a just society.


1. Free speech is applicable a) only in the political sphere, such as before a court, and b) only when one is attempting to pursue the truth. It is meant to protect the right of citizens to express the truth. Saying whatever you want in public, among friends, et cetera does not fall under the jurisdiction of ‘free speech’ as a right, and it certainly is not under the threat of removal by some shady, politically correct authority.

2. Maxims are subjective principles of action, or simple rules for how individuals should conduct themselves.


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