As he reports on his blog, Andrew Leigh went to Sydney recently to appear on a pilot of a possible new ABC political chat show, Difference of Opinion. But it seems the studio audience didn’t want as much different opinion as he was offering:
For me, the most interesting moment was to see the negative reaction of the audience when I suggested that we should trial merit pay to see whether it can work (several audience members hissed)…
Now obviously not all lefties are so rude in the face of contrary views. Many are civility personified. Andrew himself, a man of the centre-left I think it is fair to say, is so nice that when I had a go at his Dialogue article he thanked me for my ‘most thoughtful post’. But I think there is a nasty edge to leftist culture. It is hard to imagine a Liberal coming up with the rhetoric of hate that came from Mark Latham:
“I’m a hater,” he told The Bulletin in 2002. “Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness.”
He also said, on radio 2GB: “Everyone’s got hate in their lives … it’s just part of life. I hope my little boy hates a Liberal prime minister who sells out our national interests. I grew up in a family that used to hate Bob Menzies.”
It is hard to imagine right-wingers organising protests that everyone knows will turn violent, despite the ritual claims by organisers that they want to protest peacefully.
At a much less concerning level, you can see this attitude towards the political ‘other’ (to use one of the left’s terms) on display when you hand out how-to-vote cards at inner-city polling booths. Most people politely take material from all the parties. But Green voters, especially, ostentatiously take only the Green card, as if all the others are beneath consideration (at least it makes it easy to score a verified answer in the ‘guess who they are going to vote for’ game as voters approach the booths).
The stronger feeling on the left can be picked up in the Australian Election Study, which asks respondents to rate themselves on a 0 (left) to 10 (right) scale. 58% of those classing themselves as 0 or 1 on the left-right scale chose the strongest possible dislike option for the Liberal Party and 59% chose the strongest possible dislike of John Howard. By contrast, 30% of those at the right-end of the spectrum strongly disliked Labor and 25% strongly disliked Latham.
One reason, I think, is that lefties feel more strongly about politics than those on the right and are more involved in political activities. In the AES measures of activism, those on the far-right end of the spectrum were 40% less like than those at the far-left end to have contacted an official in the last 5 years to express their views, 50% less likely to have worked with like others to express their views, and 75% less likely to have attended a protest or march.
For some people, leftism isn’t just a political ideology; it is a lifestyle and identity as well. And the closer something goes to the core of your being, the easier it is to believe that that people who hold contrary views are immoral and unworthy of respect. That’s why lefties try to violently stop meetings they disagree with. That’s why the Greens would rather lose elections than do deals with the Liberals. That’s why lefties hiss at people they disagree with, even though this will reflect far more poorly on them than their target.
The right can say and do nasty things as well, of course. But the right-wing stereotypes of lefties show a different way of looking at their opponents. How often have I heard moderate leftists described as ‘well-meaning but misguided’, ie a good person with the wrong ideas? How many lefties think John Howard is well-meaning but misguided? Even when right-wingers are being really nasty about lefties, they tend to say that they are ‘lunatics’ or some variation on the mental illness theme. Again, it’s not that they are of intrinsically bad character, but that they are a few sandwiches short of a picnic. I was amazed a few years ago when, while complaining about the worst leftist I have come across in my time at Melbourne University, a member of the Liberal Club defended him, saying that he had been a nice guy until the drugs he took started messing with his brain. More on the right seem able to detach the person from the politics.
I thought it was rather ironic when a leftist who was well-known for being obnoxious, Eva Cox, started lecturing the rest of us on the need for civility. And indeed, she could not maintain the pose even long enough to finish her lecture. On the same page that she talks about the need for ‘mutual respect and manners’ she talks about the ‘boring myriads of powerful people who promote their own biases and stupid views’. She may be a hypocrite, but she’s not wrong about everything – mutual respect and manners will get anyone who uses them much further than hisses.