In the age of socially hyperaware teens, constantly exposed to every way in which the world suffers conflict, it’s only natural for young people to feel the need to navigate onto the political spectrum. It seems, for lack of better words, that teens labeling themselves with a political ideology is a sort of rite of passage or coming of age while they develop and identify their own beliefs.
But the problem arises, especially for young leftists, when political literacy and political theory become, at large, separated from demanding real-world issues.
Leftism & The Media
Political literacy is an ongoing process for everyone, which media consumption has drastically affected. And while the ability to share accessible forms of education on social issues is certainly an asset, social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Twitter carry further implications, of which the effects are far from negligible.
A fundamental downfall of engaging in internet discourse that has recently transpired is a lack of nuance and the failure to practice critical consumption. We see, for instance, when a content creator provides commentary on a social issue, their audience won’t engage with their opinion with nuance in mind. This is to say that many will disregard the historical or contemporary context of the topic. Such a way of thinking shifts the focus away from understanding the complexities and possible solutions of the issue and towards the minute semantics of an individual’s opinion.
This is not to say, however, that the language that we use to talk about social issues doesn’t have widespread consequences for certain groups, for instance microaggressions, but rather that most extraneous rhetoric provides no substantial benefits to oppressed or marginalized groups.
It is also important to note that that a person making racist or Islamophobic remarks, for example, should obviously not be excused of their behavuoir by the leftist community in the name of “considering the nuance” of their opinion; people must be held accountable for their words and actions.
Further, it seems that we often focus more on criticizing performative activism of prominent media figures than on tangible ways we can personally mobilize our activism for the particular issue. Most forms of media and even most forms of activism can be considered performative in some way. But the dynamic created by the bastardization of the term “performative activism” is one that has ultimately produced a more toxic and unwelcoming space for new leftists and radicals. Many are young people who can contribute no more than social media posts to spread awareness or amplifying others’ voices when it comes to global crises.
Eventually, through social media, many critiques and discussions compound to become highly irrelevant and theoretical. The overarching issue is accurately described in Paulo Freire’s 1996 political disquisition Pedagogy of Freedom, explaining, “Thinking critically about practice, of today or yesterday, makes possible the improvement of tomorrow’s practice. Even theoretical discourse itself, necessary as it is to critical reflection, must be concrete enough to be clearly identifiable with practice.” (Freire, 2000). In other words, as leftists, it is not in our interests to spend time conjuring up theories of topics so separated from contemporary social issues that our discourse is no longer relevant or productive to aiding those in need.
Debate Culture Versus Activism
It is reasonable to assume that a significant goal for leftist individuals, and the community as a whole, is to spread information with the hopes of radicalizing others. Young leftists, as a means of achieving this, often now turn to debate. In reality, this has an adverse effect on the promotion of egalitarian values.
Debate is not a tool of liberation; it is a tool of dominance. And yet, debate culture is centred heavily in online leftist spaces. It serves as a way for many self-proclaimed leftists to assert intellectual superiority in an ineffective and confrontational way.
Notable authors of critical philosophy have been emphasizing this sort of educational hindrance for some time; in Freire’s earlier and infamous Pedagogy of the Oppressed he asserts, “They forget that their fundamental objective is to fight alongside the people for the recovery of [their] stolen humanity, not to “win the people over” to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor.” (Freire, 2017). Essentially, a person’s ego and their internal desire to win or uphold their intellectual status is frequently where the desire to engage in debate originates. Likewise, this desire is the difference between debate and dialogue; the difference between dominance focused and liberation focused discourse.
So instead, it is far more valuable to turn a focus to dialogue oriented communication, while simultaneously engaging in praxis (activism according to theory), personal reflection, education, and acting in empathy and solidarity.
Academia & The Left
The extensive role that academia plays in modern leftist culture is one that must be considered. Education is a prerequisite for modern radical action, but besides the apparent classism of many post-secondary institutions, academia’s involvement in leftism raises an interestingly contradictory issue: The hierarchical power structures that leftism serves to dismantle are being perpetuated through higher education itself. This is because of the institutional socioeconomic benefits that those with the privilege of receiving higher education acquire. For example, America’s countercultural education reform movements of the 1970’s drew attention to the economic and social power disadvantages that women and racial minorities were subject to because of higher education’s opposition to pluralistic values. (Lichtenstein, 1985).
From scientific consensus, we know that there is a negative correlation between empathy and power; the more social, political, or other hierarchical powers someone holds, the harder it becomes for them to empathize with others. (Bombardi et al., 2013). This is why we see leftists in academia using highly advanced and theoretical language to discuss social issues and not viewing the issue through the affected group’s point of view. They become less concerned about practical solutions and more concerned with finding ways to maintain their position of power. Therefore, leftism must walk a fine line of not relying on academia in such totality that it remains inaccessible, while also avoiding delivering information in a more coherent way that then oversimplifies and misrepresents the theory or issue in question.
Essentially, solely relying on theory and academia as a leftist is problematic by virtue of its inability to truly empathize with the oppressed. The source of leftist politics and activism shouldn’t be motivated by the desire to hold intellectual power over or “one-up” others. Consider, for example, that those who learn about racism and classism in an academic setting are not able to have the same understanding as someone who has experienced racism and classism firsthand. This is why it is so crucial to uplift and listen to marginalized voices, including BIPOC, people with disabilities, and queer communities.
We have to remember that many of the instruments of society that leftists so adamantly debate over on the internet aren’t purely topics of conversation or invented anecdotes. Rather, they are people’s real material conditions and lives, and this is what our conversations must centre around. As leftists, we must think critically and with nuance about what is portrayed in the popular media, from other leftists, and our own natural progression of thought that has developed from external influences. At the foundation of any genuine leftsist’s beliefs lies a profound and radical love for the oppressed, and a firmly held interest in their liberation.
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Freire, P. (2017). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin Classics.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Rowman &
Lichtenstein, P. (1985). Radical Liberalism and Radical Education: A Synthesis and Critical Evaluation of
Illich, Freire, and Dewey. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 44(1), 39-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3486498