Most of my life, I have been oblivious to politics. If you asked me what I think about social benefits, the current state of human rights or the economic system, I would at best answer: it depends.
But over the past few months, something has obviously been changing. I have been called a few labels that I never expected myself to wear — like, an “eco-freak” or a “feminist.” Recently I was also called out on something I posted on Facebook as being a “great example of communist rhetoric.”
I am starting to realize that people around me see me as a leftist. But am I one? And what does that even mean?
The nonsense of labels
I decided not to do any research for this post, purposefully. I want to expose all my ignorance of politics, because I think this will give you a more complete picture of where I am coming from and how much I don’t know. It is only fair to make sure you understand that.
However, the fact that I am not fluent in political or sociological vocabulary and concepts doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own observations about the world. And I think that these observations are still valid, even if they lack completeness. In the end — can you show me one person who “knows it all”? Somebody who is able to take all the variables into consideration before speaking out their opinions?
We all rely on more or less arbitrary and selective information when formulating our statements. We operate with beliefs to fill the gaps in our knowledge. It is only natural that I do the same. However, for a long time, this was precisely what prevented me from speaking out my mind altogether.
Today, I can’t afford to care whether somebody will think I am wrong. I may be. But if I am, the only possible way to realize it is to speak out my mind and confront it with the world. Only this allows me to expose my beliefs to critique and, if that critique has merit, I can upgrade my views from there.
So I am beginning to practise this, as I speak out my mind more and more often. The mere thought of my core beliefs being challenged scares me as fuck — but I understand that there’s no other way to grow. So I do it.
The feedback I am mostly getting so far is that people see me as a leftist — or even “communist,” whatever that means to the ones who say it. These labels are often intended as a critique, as they come from people who’d rather call themselves “liberal.” So, what can they possibly mean when they tell me I’m a leftist?
Let me try to capture what I think this means in everyday language — without getting into the political science of it.
A leftist is someone who demands equality of rights and chances for everybody. She (let’s use a more feminising narrative here, shall we?) supports the existence of social aid wherever it’s needed. She usually recognizes her own privilege rather than focusing on the ways in which she is inferior in society. Hence, she sees lifting up the disadvantaged groups as a priority — even if it was at the expense of the privileged.
Oh, wait. This is maybe my understanding of “leftist,” rather than the common ground for how our society usually means it. When I think of the more collectively embraced meaning, what comes to my mind are not even sentences. They are more like tags — or labels:
These are all boxes in which we are trying to put people. And when we start using boxes as primary means to talk politics (which we do all the time), we go into absurd. I can’t think of a better example of ridiculous left-wing labelling than the words of the Polish (former) Minister of Foreign Affairs from a few years ago:
“The previous government implemented a left-wing concept, as if the world had to move using a Marxist model in only one direction: towards a mixture of cultures and races, a world of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy sources and combat all forms of religion. This has nothing in common with traditional Polish values.” — Witold Waszczykowski
We can go on and on about the “cyclists,” “vegetarians,” “LGBTs,” “feminists” and a whole lot of other “leftist” labels. We may speak of communism, oppressors, a threat to individualism, year 1984, dictatorship and so on. But I think that in calling each other names we are losing merits of what we actually stand for.
Hence, I prefer to talk about personal philosophy instead of politics.
Personal philosophy is primary to political views
One of the most astonishing accusations I heard of the leftist thinking is that it is a philosophy of entitlement. Although I always thought that this was precisely what the leftists opposed, I took the time to put myself in that person’s shoes.
From the perspective of a liberal, who worked hard all their life to get where they are, many points coming from the left sound like claims. Claims that people in certain social groups should be granted this and that kind of support. The support that the liberal thinks she never received.
But didn’t she? Aren’t our lives hugely determined by our environment and social context we happened to be placed in? If a person succeeds through their “own hard work” — are they really the only ones to take credit for it?
My question is: How come you were able to work so hard in the first place?!
See — my default go-to is this kind of aggressive rhetoric. Trying to show the person accusing the left-wing of encouraging a culture of entitlement, that they are entitled and privileged in the first place. And honestly, I think that this kind of rhetoric leads us nowhere — because it virtually always invites conflict.
We place ourselves on two opposite sides of a barricade — and we want to remain there. We want to prove to the other side that we are right, while they are wrong (or left). We concentrate our efforts on explaining how we think things should be — rather than on identifying problems in real time and doing what it takes to resolve them.
That’s why I don’t like the framework in which we label ourselves as “left,” “right,” “centrist” or whatever. We create camps and tribes we want to belong to. Sometimes it’s somebody else who assigns us to one of the camps, even against our will — which I see happening in my case.
But I don’t care about how you call me. I care about finding solutions to the problems I see.
And what do I see when I make an effort to spark empathy and step outside of my bubble? A world that is dramatically divided by inequality.
I see myself at 9 o’clock in the morning, sitting at my desk, drinking coffee and typing this text — and calling it “work.” At the same time, I know that there are more people in this world than I can imagine who stay on their feet, working their asses off from dawn to dusk. All they can ever afford to think of is to feed their family, go to bed and repeat the same formula tomorrow.
Similarly, when I just stop for a minute and take note of my environment, I can’t help but see the issues. I feel the quality of air decreasing and temperature rising even during my own short lifetime. I see wastelands growing and forests being erased. At the same time, I don’t see any sign that the policy-makers care a dime about that. Scientific consensus aside, my common sense tells me that, as humanity, we are taking a seriously wrong turn. And future generations will have to pay for it.
I have empathy and so I can imagine — at least to a certain extent — being bullied for being gay at school. Or having to give birth to a child conceived through rape, because your country’s law doesn’t allow abortion. Or being raised in an environment that doesn’t encourage education and critical thinking. Or being a single mom who can only rely on herself. Or having mental health problems because of religious brain-washing as a child. Or somebody stealing to make a living, because no-one ever showed them that there could be another way.
Oh my. If being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes must be called “leftist,” then so be it. But honestly, rather than focusing on sticking such labels to each other’s back, we could all just make an effort to understand that not everyone on this planet lives their life like us.
It is challenging and uncomfortable — I know. But this is the only way to identify real problems of real people, rather than pursuing “politics” as if the world consisted of you, multiplied by 7.7 billion.