Rude lefties

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.

70 thoughts on “Rude lefties

  1. On the subject of violence, I am inclined to think some of my left-leaning friends might ask you whether left-wingers launch illegal wars in Iraq Andrew… 😉

    But I see your point. Maybe it is related to the fact that many people who held even moderately left-wing views are idealistic and black-and-white in their view of the world, while right-wingers (at least, outside very extreme positions) are more pragmatic.

    If you are the purest of pure good, fighting for justice, fairness and liberty, then people opposed to you must surely be evil, and not just a bit but totally so.


  2. There may be something in the idea that lefties are more likely to dislike Howard strongly because they’re more involved in their politics.

    But aside from that, Andrew, I think there are a few straw lefties in this post.

    First, I think Latham is sui generis. I think he’s “a few sandwiches short of a picnic”….

    I’ve met Liberal pollies and staffers who are thoroughly nasty pieces of work but I’ve also met Labor pollies and staffers who are equally nasty. It might more be about the personality structures of some people who are attracted to politics rather than any partisan difference.

    There’ve been some Liberals I’ve enjoyed being on polling booths with, and others I haven’t. Similarly I’ve had some friends who are active in conservative politics, and there are others I wouldn’t contemplate socialising with.

    You can certainly find enough RWDB commenters around the blogosphere who are hardly polite and exemplars of civility. Likewise for some LWDB ones.


  3. I meant to add as well that having been involved in the frustrating business of organising protests many years ago, there are always more people advocating non-violence than loons who want to “confront capitalism by taking on the coppers” or whatever.


  4. “On the subject of violence, I am inclined to think some of my left-leaning friends might ask you whether left-wingers launch illegal wars in Iraq Andrew”

    Fair point – though Blair is from a left-of-centre party. And as the ‘illegal’ aspect of your comment reminds me, a lot of the contemporary left is obsessed with process and would not commit even the mildest act of physical punishment without half a dozen hearings and appeals first.


  5. Well after the thread where children were spoken of as not having positive externalities I thought it was clear that the right had no normal emotions at all, anger or any others!

    This is interesting: “people who hold contrary views are immoral and unworthy of respect”. Yes I think many on the left would say that their views come from feelings about justice, compassion, charity, community. And that the views of the right are based on greed, ego, power (well, all the same thing really). So, it’s not like just barracking for different teams, or a different taste in music. It IS morality – I guess we just have to remember to condemn the sin and not the sinner.

    As for politicians being rude – we have the patrician Saint Gough, and you have … Wilson Tuckey.


  6. Another qualifier might be to note that American right-wingers have done some pretty awful things in recent decades – abortion clinic staff in the USA could tell you about it (personally, I am far from comfortable with abortion on demand, but the point stands).

    Agreed re obsessing over process issues. The ‘illegal’ thing was what some friends might say. I would say ‘unwise’ or ‘ill thought through’, and I might add the lovely old Aussie term Richie Benaud often uses: ‘shemozzle’. 😉


  7. Russell,

    I don’t have any difficulty believing that Mr Norton favours individual freedom and personal responsibility on an ethical basis. Nor that he believes the policies he advocates will make peoples lives better.

    Where is the ‘greed, ego and power’ in his views?


  8. I remain convinced that left-right are largely meaningless in modern politics – especially as the two major parties are social democrats with not much difference between them – and they are held up as the main example of left-right.

    I think once behavioural aspects are attributed to a monolithic left-right it is a setup for strawmen.


  9. “Another qualifier might be to note that American right-wingers have done some pretty awful things in recent decades – abortion clinic staff in the USA could tell you about it ”

    This is because the US Right has a strong religious element, something that does go to personal identity and high confidence that one’s views are absolutely correct. Strongly nationalist right-wingers are also prone to the bad behaviour associated with identity politics. My post was a local one. Here the political right is secular, pragmatic and democratic; little influenced by pre-modern passions.

    “You can certainly find enough RWDB commenters around the blogosphere who are hardly polite and exemplars of civility. Likewise for some LWDB ones. ”

    This is an important point about the context of bad behaviour. Lots of people are poorly socialised, and so when they get into contexts where the enforcement of social norms is weakened (such as the blogosphere) or where group dynamics can take over (eg protests) they regress to animal violence – albeit verbal only on blogs.


  10. One thing I come across more often than abuse, but nonetheless find rude, is when people I don’t know well start opining on the evil of John Howard, George Bush or the new IR laws. It’s as if the fact that I have brown skin, a law degree and live in St Kilda means I’m going to agree with them. I then have to either express tacit agreement by mumbling something tangential or decide if I could be bothered saying something. Of course, it’s worse when people know you disagree with them, but carry on regardless, particularly at events like weddings or Christmas lunch. Are you reading this, dad?!


  11. One spontaneous thought – since the right has been in power for 10+ years they are more likely to use lawful violence (police etc) to impose their will, while those on the other side feel increasingly powerless and therefore more inclined to resort to violent protest. The same principles apply to the employment relationship. It’s easy for those with legitimate power to appear polite and responsible if they have sufficient influence over rule making and enforcement.

    Paul Keating attracted just as much personal vitriol as John Howard, though I agree that this was less likely to be expressed in physical confrontation or demonstrations. Once again, however, I suspect that people on the right tend to use the less overt tools that money can buy whereas the left has few options beyond making a loud public noise.

    Lots of generalisations and over-simplifications in any short discussion of the issues of course (and I’m using the ‘left/right’ typology for convenience even though I agree with cam that it’s outlived its usefulness).


  12. “It is hard to imagine a Liberal coming up with the rhetoric of hate that came from Mark Latham”

    I think Tony Abott might get pretty close, at least for crassness (the Brogden comments are a good example).


  13. Andrew, I sometimes wonder if you ever worked in Canberra at all.

    John Howard was a bigger hater than Paul Keating indeed he got even with people who hadn’t even done anything to him.
    Costello is big on the hate thing too.

    And what about the Liberla Part president who spread rumours about Keating ( well after leaving office) having simultaneous affairs with Janet Holmes’acourt and a young male violinist ( very funny to anyone who has ever heard Keating speak about homosexuality).

    There are good people in both sides and bad people on both sides.

    Wake up


  14. Leopold – you’re right, these things are spread across a spectrum and Mr Norton’s ego appears to be very civilly repressed. How about Dicken’s Scrooge as an example of the right wing character?

    But on the subject of hate … I do recall a nasty post about shunning ex-communists, which seemed a bit extreme. (Hopefully Mr Norton has read the recommended autobiography of Dorothy Hewett, and would therefore think differently now – there’s hope for all). I can remember some Liberal Premiers who seemed like pretty good haters – Charlie Court, Henry Bolte (Wikipedia has “As a rural Liberal, Bolte hated the Country Party nearly as much as he hated the Labor Party …”)

    “The point is that most of the lefties that Andrew is describing don


  15. What Ken and Homer said.

    But also, I’m curious as to whether you think that dislike/hatred is worse than a patronising attitude of “they just don’t know any better”? At least the person doing the hating has enough respect for the person to assume that they have thought through their position. Not to mention the issue of using an accusation of mental illness as an insult


  16. What an interesting collection of comments!

    This topic would make an interesting study for a political sociology PhD. There seems to be enough data around in the AES to test the hypothesis, and I’m sure political-type people would be happy to take part in surveys.


  17. “At least the person doing the hating has enough respect for the person to assume that they have thought through their position” – so Anna, if this thread were on LP and claiming that right-wingers were haters, would you have said the same of them ?


  18. Civility is as civility does. Bannerman, for example, takes issue with the idiots of this existence simply because they act and respond like idiots. Andrew N, for example, makes some valid points, but he also writes some absolute tripe. This post as an example. Civility is neither left nor right in ideology. Civility is down to manners and presentation. Act like a prat, get treated like one. QED.


  19. Bannerman – I disagree, it’s interesting to consider whether the left more passionately expresses its opposition to right wing ideology because it holds its views as more morally correct. Wouldn’t you agree that many more writers and artists are fired by ‘left’ views than ‘right’? That’s partly why I mentioned Dickens earlier, rather than say Kerry Packer – what is it that drove writers like Dickens to be so passionate about their causes?


  20. Brett – here’s a moral question, I think: if your competitors were making boots cheaper overseas because they used glues etc that were banned in Australia and other western countries as being detrimental to health, would you move your production overseas to a country where you could employ wokers to use the cheaper and more dangerous chemicals?


  21. This describes my own attitudes quite well. I think a lot of the left are either plain stupid or wilfully ignorant. I don’t really think of them as evil. We are all wicked so wickedness is actually forgiveable. Being willfully ignorant isn’t.


  22. Er… Russell… I think this question is a bit of a furphy. As stated here(asbestos being used as an example), things which are made with banned materials are not capable of being legally imported.

    Therefore, whether you use cheaper labour or not, you’re not going to be able to sell the product here 😛


  23. No Russell, bannerman wouldn’t, because as Bannerman stated “Civility is neither left nor right in ideology.” This is the grave mistake that people of any ideology make when attempting to assign blame for simple bad manners


  24. “so Anna, if this thread were on LP and claiming that right-wingers were haters, would you have said the same of them ?”

    I was simply asking why Andrew thinks that calling someone stupid or mentally ill is more polite than calling someone evil, or saying you hate them. I don’t share his view, so the question doesn’t apply.

    Even if the distinction were anywhere near as clear as Andrew thinks, surely it’s just a matter of what the “hater” thinks will be more offensive to the person they’re offending.



    In Russell’s first post on this thread, he said: “Well after the thread where children were spoken of as not having positive externalities I thought it was clear that the right had no normal emotions at all, anger or any others!”

    As one who has argued widely in the media (and on this blog) against the current parental subsidies, let me clarify my views on this matter.

    I do not doubt that children generate externalities, although whether they are a net positive or, given population pressures (among other things), a net negative is another question. However, assuming that they are net positive, this does not of itself justify the current subsidies. Among other things, one would need to compare the benefits of the externalities captured against the dead-weight costs of raising the taxation to fund the subsidies. Further, one would need to compare the net benefits of domestic reproduction subsidies against the net benfits of alternatives, such as increasing immigration of young adults a couple of decades down the track. SO, arguing against the current subsidies does not necessarily mean that one does not accept that children generate positive externalities.

    As for Russell’s point about “normal” emotions, I would claim to experience the same emotions as Russell and most other people in relation to children. The difference is that, when it comes to the issue of whether parents should be subsidised, I apply critical thinking too.


  26. I have to disagree with those who think ‘left’ and ‘right’ aren’t useful. If you use them in a silly way, as many do, then of course they aren’t useful.

    As long as you use right and left in a clear-cut way, and make it clear what you mean, then theres no problem. I typically use ‘right’ to indicate libertarian or liberal thinking re the economy and equality, though occasionally I slip as above and refer to Christian fundamentalist politics with the term. The consequence of this is I regard Howard as only moderately ‘centre-right’ rather than ‘right-wing’. If you define Howard as firmly ‘right-wing’ or Labor as ‘left-wing’ and go from there then of course you will end up confused.

    Although major party policies may be similar, there are still deep value differences between the large sections of the electorate who are rusted on to each side. Those differences are still well described by the left/right prism.


  27. Anna, in this post it’s the left that are being accused of being haters. You objected with the statement “At least the person doing the hating has enough respect for the person to assume that they have thought through their position” which is obviously not necessarily so. There are plenty of hateful bigots on all sides who haven’t thought through anyone else’s position. I do think there are people on the left (yes, those elites) who like to imagine that they ‘respect’ others, so that if those others’ views are dismissed, well, it’s not because they haven’t been considered, is it?

    Brett – I only threw up the question, after reading your boots article, to see if people would respond with a moral argument, or answer in a way that avoided that kind of discussion. C’mon, surely you think it’s moral to give the poor beggars jobs – life’s cheap there anyway, isn’t it?

    Tom N – don’t you think AN was being just a little provocative with this post? I was just sort of retaliating. On that other thread I never got as far as justifying the subsidy, which I think should be means tested, because something about the way that having children was discussed seemed unreal and useless. You do it too with your suggestion that we “compare the net benefits of domestic reproduction subsidies against the net benfits of alternatives, such as increasing immigration of young adults”, as if, gee, it might be better to import children rather than have them ourselves. But that’s another topic.


  28. Russell, you’re completely misunderstanding the question I was asking, which was addressed to Andrew, not a general comment.

    I’m simply trying to examine the attitude that it’s hateful to dislike someone and everything they stand for, but it’s polite to accuse them of being stupid, or of not knowing any better. Would you find it polite were I to write off your opinions as the ramblings of an incoherent mind? Would you be less or more offended if I just called you an arsehole?


  29. “Bannerman” still hasn’t learnt his lesson from last time he tried to mix with normal, non-retarded people.

    Here’s a hint, Niall: Talking about yourself in third person just makes you look like a tool. You don’t look any less idiotic than you ever have.


  30. I don’t know about who is more civil… but I think Jason is correct when he notes that the left more often think “I am moral, they disagree with me, ergo they are immoral” while the right more often think “I have thought this through, they disagree with me, ergo they haven’t thought this through”.

    Regarding civility… I think it makes sense that you would get more upset about your opponent if you politics made up a big part of your identity. This would explain why environmentalists, nationalists & religious people might tend towards stronger feelings towards their opponents.


  31. Yeah, a bunch of hippies would have murdered Pauline Hanson in the street.

    There are lots of things said in this post that are silly, I’m just focussing on one of them: the idea that assuming someone is just stupid or thoughtless isn’t rude.

    There’s the much bigger point that violence and hatred isn’t limited to any particular “wing”, but that’s such an obvious point that I didn’t think it was worth making.

    Take out the violence, and what’s left? Some people hissing and saying mean things. So, I ask again, would you be more offended if someone called you stupid, or said you were an arsehole? Even if Andrew’s right that there’s that obvious a difference between left and right, even his own post doesn’t demonstrate that right-wingers are therefore not rude.


  32. “Yeah, a bunch of hippies would have murdered Pauline Hanson in the street.”

    You obviously have a poor memory Anna. If they were angry enough to physically assault senior citizens who merely turned up to hear her speak, what do you think they would have done to their antichrist if they could have got to her?

    And they weren’t “hippies”. They were angry young leftists.


  33. On my motives for writing this post: I knew it would stir people, but it is also on a topic that has genuinely puzzled me for a long time, and on which I have written many posts (mostly at Catallaxy). The paradox to me has been this: many left-wingers appear to be passionately political, but also strangely unpolitical, in that their strategies do not (to me) seem coherently designed to achieve their goals. I can partly understand this for intellectuals, who have other objectives – truth, understanding, creativity etc. But for activists? This is why I have looked to the psychology and culture of the left for answers to this puzzle. As my original post said, but seems to have been lost in the comments, I do *not* say that all lefties are like this, or that the same characteristics are entirely absent from the right. But I do think they are more prevalent on the left and it is reasonable to ask why (eg most men are not criminals, but most criminals are men – so people have asked why).

    On Anna’s question, partly answered by others, I think there are important differences between the way the two groups I described. If I think someone has misguided political views but is a good person I’m unlikely to treat them badly; indeed I have been close friends with such people – which I would not be if I thought they were evil. I have no motive for the uncivil behaviour that I think worth minimising in itself, and also (in the political context) is more likely to lose rather than gain support.

    Calling someone a nutter does go more to the core of who they are, but again it is not an excuse for phsyical violence against them.


  34. Slate’s Richard Rushfield did a neat experiment along these lines in 2004:

    “As a political and journalistic experiment, I decided to see how people who live in primarily one-party areas would react when faced with a living, breathing member of the opposition. I appointed myself an ambassador to bridge the Red-Blue divide and ventured into each side’s territory dressed in the T-shirt, campaign button, and tote bag of the other.”


  35. Andrew – That’s a good read, and an experiment that should be replicated. As I have to live in Carlton-Fitzroy I won’t do it myself, but perhaps I will pay someone else to do it.



    Russell said: “…something about the way that having children was discussed seemed unreal and useless. You do it too with your suggestion that we


  37. It seems what you’re mostly saying then is that lefties are less clever about politics, which is possibly true.

    But I don’t think your post has actually demonstrated that lefties are more rude. Aside from the fact that you’ve ignored the abortion clinic bombers and more commonly the people who try to prevent women from entering clinics, the Graeme Birds of the world, and countless other examples, I think you’ve really only demonstrated that left and right-wingers are rude in different ways.

    The “excuse for violence” point is a bit of a distraction – I think we can all agree that violent nutters exist on both sides – but take away the violence and I think both attitudes, if genuinely held, would have a huge impact on someone’s ability to respect a person.

    I think the mistake you’re making is comparing your fairly reasonable feelings with the extreme of the other side. To be fair you should compare your view that someone is misguided with someone like me who has Liberal-voting friends: I think they’re selfish and shallow politically, but I too am able to separate that from the person I like. If you’re going to compare the person who genuinely thinks RWDB are the devil then you need to compare it to right-wingers who genuinely believe that lefties are dribbling morons. When you do, I think it’s clear that neither is very conducive to respect and friendship, and both are incredibly insulting and unpleasant opinions.

    The question of which side has more of these “rude” people is another question, of course, and I don’t have any evidence to support or reject your claims there. But again, comparing like with like would require you comparing the left’s dislike of Howard now, with the right’s dislike of Keating then. Because surely the tactics and behaviour are influenced by current power relationships.


  38. “Nor would reducing or removing the current subsidies preclude people from continuing to have children (although some might then choose to have fewer).”

    Nor would reducing the disability pension preclude people from shopping though they may then choose to buy second-hand clothes.

    Tom N, I can only be provoked on one topic at a time, let’s leave it.


  39. Andrew, I always respect what you say even when I disagree with you because you use reason and moderate language to make your arguments. But your latest post is extraordinarily emotive and naive. I have found hate and intellectual intolerance to be as common among right wingers as among Lefties. And I am speaking from fifty years experience in business, academia, the public service and more recently blogging. And just read John Quiggin’s weblog from time to time to see what he has to cop.


  40. Andrew, re the Slate article. I am willing to lay bets that anyone walking up Brunswick St, Smith St or parts of Sydney Rd in a John Howard/ Liberal Party T-shirt would cop direct verbal abuse if not worse. I think Lygon St wouldn’t be too bad because apart from Carlton being more genteel, college kids are fairly politically apathetic or even conservative. Based on my visits to the US, Americans are way to polite to behave as badly.


  41. “many left-wingers appear to be passionately political, but also strangely unpolitical, in that their strategies do not (to me) seem coherently designed to achieve their goals.”

    Again, Iraq. If I remember correctly, the left was more practical in that regard.

    And anyone heard of the KKK?


  42. Andrew comes close to saying it in his initial post, but no one has explicitly mentioned the quasi religious aspects of the culture of the Left. Labor Day parades, with their banners of heroes past, have always reminded me of the Catholic public processions of old (Corpus Christi, wasn’t it?) which still go on in Catholic Europe on saint’s feast days, etc. Stories of what the founding figures of the Labor movement did are the equivalent of the inspirational stories of the lives of the saints and martyrs. (And one suspects they have gone through a not dissimilar process of embellishment in the retelling.)

    The fact that it is a religion substitute for many people (in that it gives meaning to their lives) accounts for the depth of feeling that they take into political argument.

    As I said in another comment once, the result for some on the Left is to stop even considering any other voices, however moderate, which argue against them. They find them too irritating to even consider, because of the “obvious” moral deficiency of the position being promoted. (For example, recently several commenters, and Tim Dunlop himself, at Blogocracy indicated they could not even tolerate reading Gerard Henderson anymore.)

    What also irks me about many on the Left is a readiness to always imput the worst possible motive to a right wing politician’s actions or statements.
    They may have their religion substitute in their politics, but they certainly don’t often display the virtue of charity!

    OK, one final comparison with religion: I reckon the preparedness to see conspiracy and plotting behind events rather than accident and occasional co-incidence is (in Australia at least) worse on the Left side. It’s almost a gnostic sect’s secret knowledge that they have. (Maybe I am starting to stretch the analogy too far?..:)


  43. Again, Iraq. If I remember correctly, the left was more practical in that regard.

    I am open to correction here, but I’m under the impression that the Ba’ath party in Iraq roughly translates into ‘Labor’ party – so no wonder the left were ‘more practical’, they were standing up for their soul mate. In lefty circles its called solidarity.


  44. I agree with Fred Argy that this was an unusual post for Andrew Norton. But hey, look at the length of the comments thread! Commentators make their shilling by being nasty about the opposition — generating reactive outrage. So we should allow Andrew to play that game.

    The vitriol on right-leaning blogs easily matches that on the left. So one can only conclude from that fact, and from this thread, that we only see nastiness (and wilful ignorance, for that matter) in our opposition, and forgive or overlook it in those from our own “side”.


  45. Hans, I don’t think Andrew would waste his time playing that game. I think it’s a good post and I agree with Andrew that those on the politically involved left seem more passionate and emotional about their politics. The question is, why?


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